Even as an undergraduate, Rob Streeter was aware of the communication gap between scientists and the general public.
“On one of the very first publications I submitted for review, I got back a comment that said, ‘You’re supposed to be an expert. Why don’t you write like one?’” said Streeter, now a PhD candidate in Distinguished Professor Zoya Popovic’s Microwave and RF Research Group. “And I thought, ‘Your feedback is irrelevant. I’m not trying to be exclusive. I’m intentionally trying to write in a way that more people can understand.’”
When he heard about the Three Minute Thesis contest, he knew he wanted to be a part of it. The annual competition challenges PhD students to describe their research in three minutes, with just one PowerPoint slide, to a general audience.
Streeter won the CU Boulder competition with his presentation, “A New Way to Measure Internal Body Temperature.” He also went on to earn an honorable mention at the Western Association of Graduate Schools Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Even with a commitment to clear communication, Streeter said it was still challenging to step back from his research project, in which they are trying to measure the temperature of an internal tissue layer — the brain, for instance — passively and non-invasively. His latest conference publication was titled “Near-field Thermal Radiation Reception Spatial Sensitivity Mapping at 1.4 GHz” — not exactly intended for the layperson.
“I had to think about, in essence, what are we creating?” he said. “Well, we’re creating a thermometer. Everyone knows what a thermometer is.”
From there, the competition’s workshops, trainings and improv sessions helped him hone why people should care about that better thermometer.
During his presentation, he talked about an emergency heart surgery in which doctors have to cool the body, making it important to monitor brain temperature. Currently, the gold standard for monitoring brain temperature involves inserting a catheter in the nose.
“So, obviously, that’s uncomfortable,” Streeter said. “Plus, it’s a separate surgery, it takes a while to converge on a stable temperature, and you’ve got a limited amount of time for the surgery. So you’ve got something that takes a long time, and you’ve got a narrow time window.”
Even once he got to that explanation, it still took a lot of back and forth with people outside his field to make the presentation as simple as possible.
“It's really fascinating to me what parts of what you choose to say people will get hung up on. I think I'm saying something that totally makes sense, and the judges ask about some word that I never even thought about,” Streeter said. “It's neat to learn how to be a better communicator in that way where every word you choose is important.”
After he graduates in May, Streeter is headed to central Greenland, where he’ll be the site supervisor on a research station. He looks forward to using some of the leadership experience he has gained at CU, in addition to skills he learned during a previous research deployment in Antarctica.
And he’s done his best to pass along the importance of science communication skills to others in his lab.
“An example that I've used for years with my two mentees is that you may have the best, irrefutable, mathematically proven solution to a problem,” Streeter said. “But if you can't communicate that solution to your supervisor, to the rest of your team, to your investors, to the people you're going to try to sell that idea or product to — if you can’t explain it and make it so crystal clear to them that it is the best solution, nobody cares.”