"Be clear on what's important about what you do"

Three minutes go by in the blink of an eye, so research pitches should focus on the most important aspect of the research, believes Skolar Award alumnus Ivana Trapani. Even the complex research topic of genetic engineering can be understood if it’s narrowed down to its key elements.

Ivana_Trapani_Skolar_Award

Terrified. That’s how Ivana Trapani felt when she found out she was one of the finalists of Skolar Award 2017.

“I’m used to speaking in public at scientific meetings, but this time I didn’t know what to expect”, Trapani explains.

Trapani found Skolar Award through a colleague from her home research institution, the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine in Pozzuoli, Italy. Trapani had just finished writing two long grant applications, so filling in the simple Skolar Award application form felt like a no-brainer to her.

“I was so glad I didn’t have to spend yet another two weeks writing an application. It all went really smoothly”, she says.

Genetics in three minutes

Trapani’s research at the Telethon Institute involves studying an inherited retinal disease called Stargardt disease. It affects the macula of the human eye, which is responsible for daylight and colour vision. People who suffer from Stargardt disease can’t live an independent life because of vision loss that will eventually lead to legal blindness.

“What I’m interested in is generating a therapeutic approach to Stargardt. I want to edit the gene that causes the disease”, Trapani says.

It’s hardly surprising that she was feeling somewhat nervous. Speaking to a general audience about genetics and genetic engineering is no easy task.

“At a scientific conference you have maybe ten, fifteen minutes to present your research. If you say something wrong or stop because you don’t know how to proceed, you have time to recover. In a pitch, everything has to be straightforward.”

Put yourself in a curious listerner’s shoes

Since the time on stage is limited, it’s impossible to cover everything about your research. That’s why Trapani recommends that future Skolar Award finalists focus on one key aspect.

“You really have to be clear on what’s important about what you do, because that’s what people will understand and remember”, she says.

Trapani’s advice for future Skolar Award finalists is to put themselves in the shoes of someone who is curious to learn, but is hearing about something for the first time. What difference would your research make to them?

“What people want to know is how will you be changing society with your idea. How are you really going to make a change? It’s the only thing you have to work on.”

Show your presentation to others

In theory, it may seem easy to focus on the most important aspect of your research but it’s easier said than done. How do you actually narrow down your research subject to the core?

Involve your circle of acquaintances, says Trapani. She first showed her presentation to people working in her own field. Then she presented it to her husband, “an engineer unfamiliar with any biological stuff”, as Trapani puts it, and later on to her family and friends.

“Everyone I showed the presentation to helped me identify the key images and concepts I needed to use. They lent me a hand with cutting out all the unuseful things.”

Trapani learnt to trust other people’s opinions about her pitch. With each helper, the number of images on the slides as well as the amount of slides went down.

“If one person doesn’t understand something, it’s likely that others won’t either. Just believe the comments you get”, she says.

Trapani wouldn’t hesitate to do it all again. Standing in front of huge audiences no longer feels like an unbeatable obstacle to her. “Getting on stage was amazing! And I can replay the moment whenever I want, because it’s on YouTube”, she laughs.

Are you a postdoc eager to get on stage? Apply now for Skolar Award.