“Like sushi? You’re going to love this.” That was the hook to an intriguing story about fertility and zebrafish research happening at Montclair State University. As told by the student researchers involved with the project, their style of scientific storytelling earned them the top prize in the University’s Mario M. Casabona Future Scientists Awards competition, which recognizes students for making research more understandable and accessible.
Being an effective science communicator is more important than ever in explaining the work science researchers do, why they do and why it matters, says Melissa Spigelman ’23, a first-year graduate student in Molecular Biology. She’s among the team that sees potential in their research with the zebrafish in advancing fertility and women’s health.
“I do really impactful research,” Spigelman says. “But I realize that no one’s going to use my discovery or care about my discovery if I can’t adequately explain my discovery.”
Mario M. Casabona, an entrepreneur and active angel investor, has fostered the training of well-told stories at Montclair. Through his involvement with – and support for – the College of Science and Mathematics, Casabona helps promote student experiential learning across a broad array of STEM fields and has provided the philanthropic investment needed to launch the communication competition, encouraging students to enhance the presentation skills that are essential for explaining ideas to non-science audiences.
“Communication skills, in particular the ability to effectively communicate complex scientific and technological information in layman’s terms, are crucial for every STEM professional, regardless of their discipline or career path,” Casabona says.
Nine student research teams competed in December, presenting posters and giving talks on the work they are conducting with their faculty mentors. Cash prizes were awarded for poster sessions and five-minute oral presentations on their research. Students interacted and connected with the audience in ways that made them laugh – and made them wonder, says College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings.
“It’s up to the students to fully understand the research, to dig down deep to figure out how to explain it,” says Spigelman, who partners with Wendy E. Islas, a junior in Molecular Biology, on the fertility research mentored by Biology Professor Carlos Molina.
“I cannot emphasize enough how great the Casabona competition is,” Molina says. “It truly offers a platform for our students to learn how to communicate complex scientific discoveries in layman’s terms.”
With their intriguing title – “Like sushi? You’re going to love this” – Islas says the play on words was intended to grab the audience’s attention and make the information digestible, no matter their science background. “We decided to take a lighthearted, easy-going turn with our title. We needed something that played off of the zebrafish. It started off as a joke, but Dr. Molina and Melissa loved it. So we ran with it.”
Once they had the memorable tag, the students were able to help listeners understand the essence of complex concepts using the zebrafish as a model organism in meaningful and personal ways.
“There are a lot of times where I’m explaining my research to my mom, I might not be going fully in depth with how I would with somebody I do research with, I might not talk about the exact methods we do, but I could talk about how it would impact her life,” Spigelman says. “I try to use different analogies.”
For the Casabona competition, in explaining how they increase a protein in zebrafish ovaries when breeding, the students had the audience imagine a car driving into the nucleus of a cell.
“You could think of what I’m doing with my injection process as a vehicle to help bring that piece of DNA into the zebrafish,” Spigelman says.
Both Islas and Spigelman met as part of the American Heart Association’s Hispanic Serving Institutions Scholars Program, which works with Hispanic-serving colleges and universities to develop a pipeline of Latino/Hispanic students in the science fields and in the health-care workforce. In addition, Spigelman was recently awarded the Café Bustelo® El Café Del Futuro Scholarship, one of only 25 students selected from across the country and the only student from New Jersey. This summer, she was selected to study in Japan through the IRES Summer Research Program to engage in scientific collaboration with biological researchers from the top institutes in Japan.
“I want to be a scientific communicator,” Spigelman says. “I don’t think I’m at a TED Talk level, but Montclair State gave me opportunities and support to become a scientific communicator. The Mario M. Casabono Future Scientist competition showed me how hard it was. It’s difficult but it’s needed and I’m so ready to take up that challenge.”
2023 Casabona winners:
First. Like sushi? You’re going to love this: Wendy E. Islas, BS in Molecular Biology, and Melissa Spigelman, MS in Molecular Biology, mentored by Professor Carlos Molina, Department of Biology
Second. Creating an Immersive and Interactive VR Game for Advancing Elementary Education: Anthony Condegni, BS in Computer Science, Jianna Loor, MS in Computer Science, mentored by Assistant Professor Rui Li, School of Computing
Third. A potential TB target: Uchenna Ezichi, MS in Chemistry, Citlaly Hernandez, BS in Biochemistry, Crystal Montero, MS in Pharmaceutical Biochemistry, mentored by Professor Nina Goodey, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by John J. LaRosa
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