It is 5:45 p.m. I am with a group of PhD students. We are jumping up and down and forcing laughter through distorted faces by way of warm up and part of me is enjoying it. Part of me is looking for the fork I need to stab myself in the eye.
June 4 finally saw the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night come around. 18 PhD students given 150 seconds to pitch their projects to a room of mostly business types for fame, fortune and fun. There’s more on the set up for this back here. Anyway, as a quick refresher, as part of the Amplify Festival (put on by AMP), they’ve put on a spectacular competition for those undertaking a PhD. Engagement with fresh ideas, in a licensed venue (The Basement for this edition) as a way of bringing researchers into contact with the business world and media experts. Complete with media training and performance coaching (from James Valentine and the excellent Daniel Keogh (aka @ProfessorFunk)) and a brief to make it work without Powerpoint, it’s an impressive commitment from AMP, driven by Annalie Killian (@maverickwoman on Twitter) and delivered by the team at Wildwon (check out the work of Sally Hill and Yvonne Lee already have an impressive CV only 8 months into their existence).
As a researcher, any chance to work on science communication skills is now vital. As I said in that previous post, it’s fairly evident for researchers now that being able to communicate the idea you love will be vital to the future health of your research. Communication is not an optional extra any more, it’s part of the standard equipment list.
So it is that the last few weeks have seen me playing with lighting techniques, working on words, making jelly in brain moulds and searching for brain balloons in an attempt to present a 2 and a half minute synopsis of the part-time PhD that will take me about 6 years. And then it’s the night and I’m trying to figure out whether hitting the nachos prior to hopping on stage is a strong strategic move or poor risk management.
The mood amongst the candidates is pretty relaxed. Well, there’s a degree of nervous excitement, but most people are enjoying the ride, the free food and drink (no one has enough showbiz experience to have experienced a rider or anything like it before) and admiring the collection of koalas, robots, posters, costumes and more flesh and blood props strewn around the green room. I’m first up, and actually pacing a little. This is partly nervous energy and partly that I already have the pins I need to pop my prop stuck in my pocket and I’m a little wary of the risks of sitting down.
It’s not too long though before the room is full and the actual professional talent is working the crowd with Jared Jekyll (beatbox and sound vault extraordinaire) providing the soundtrack and Dan Ilic taking on the MC role with aplomb (seriously, if you’d like to question the value of an Arts degree, I give you Dan Ilic in rebuttal). Given how important that opening is, it’s just as well these guys know how to get it going (although, as I note the good Mr Ilic has also recently done the Sydney Comedy Festival Nerd All-Star Comedy Gala, I can only gather he’s trying to corner the nerd market – the Billy Crystal of the geek performance landscape, if you will).
There’s only a few moments of staring at backstage posters, wall divots and anatomical reproductions before I’m out there delivering my bit, waiting for lighting cues to eventuate, pulling off illusions with the aid of my father-in-law and desecrating the brain balloon my wife worked so hard on. Then it’s done. In some ways being first up is a bit of a bugger, but I have the distinct advantage of getting to see the other guys strut their stuff. Given the breadth of projects and how much all these guys inspire me, it’s a pretty sweet gig.
Not only are they all great, but there’s some spectacularly good dramatic tricks deployed. Personal highlights for me were Kate McDonnell’s support dancers, the effort with the koala, the questionably edible sunflower who can help with Alzheimer’s, Alessandro’s magic outfit and Will Randall saving the poor teenagers, but they’re all pretty phenomenal. The intervening entertainment is likewise excellent (actually, Dan’s sharing stories about his Dad was the other peak for me). All in front of a crowd who were engaged, rowdy and supportive through all the rough bits. The reception for Kate when she is announced as the winner blows the roof off (and so it should, really).
So now we can reflect on things out the other end. The experience has been phenomenal. I remain convinced that there is not a research institution that shouldn’t be arranging media training for all those working with them. There’s not going to be any progress on ideas kept in the dark with the mushrooms. How fitting that the first thing I read after Mr 3 got me up at an hour that would make a kookaburra weep was this one, by the much more qualified Jai Ranganathan (and turning up on my Twitter feed via Scientific American), providing further context to the future needs for scientists to communicate.
I come out of it with a much better grasp of where I need to get to in terms of selling the project and distilling it to a few simple concepts. It’s been a most worthwhile experience on that front. If there’s any downer for me, it’s that I didn’t quite get there in terms of pulling that off this time. Not in terms of the prize on the night, but on the more important opportunity to generate interest and engagement for the project as a whole. At this stage there’s not much evidence I achieved that, which feels like a bit of a fail. Having said that, you’re not in research if you haven’t learnt to sort of embrace failures as a necessary but annoying evil to get you further down the track.
To make progress, it’s pretty clear I need to be able generate some buzz. The funny nature of this PhD, conducted at a charity but registered through a Uni, means that to date the project hasn’t been in a position to generate support directly from the University and there’s not the bigger institution to rely on (either for resources or track record) to put national competitive grants on the table. At the moment CareFlight is doing all the supporting so it’s a very distinct goal to start helping raise the funds we need. And with a project that offers the possibility of providing better care in brain injury so people aren’t left disabled, and an interim stage where we think we’ll get to redesign how we interact with patient monitors, it shouldn’t be a hard sell. Just have to do it better (and at least now I’m a massive step closer to having the skills to get that done). So lots of winning.
This was a fantastic night with a big ovation required (again) for AMP and Annalie Killian (plus sponsors Blackberry) for putting it out there (and a bit of excitement that Annalie has indicated she’s keen on setting up some crowdfunding to help support some of the other projects – that would be a spectacular outcome). If only more big companies were engaging on this level. It’s exciting just to know that there are people out there looking to support research and fresh ideas. There can’t have been a person there who wasn’t entertained and inspired by the range of projects.
I guess now all we need to do is generate a project involving the efficient harnessing of coal and solar power to energise the super programmed robot that will help construct the carbon nanotube space elevator to get us to the ergonomically designed space station on which future genetics and stem cell research can proceed to help cure diseases in humans and koalas, and we’ll be a dead certainty to engage the wider community.