Science and Storytelling Collide in PhD Plus Program

November 23, 2016

An overnight slumber party at a science museum. Participating in a piece of peer-reviewed research as a high-schooler. An enthusiastic teacher adorning the classroom wall with a memorable piece of animal anatomy.

Conducting research isn’t always a slog through daily routines. Most every scientist has had a transformational moment—either personally or professionally—that transcends measurements, field notes and experiments. Those are the moments that can transfix an audience and make science seem more vivid and tangible then they had ever imagined.

That was the message to a room full of Duke Engineering PhD students as Liz Neeley, executive director of the popular podcast Story Collider, taught them how to work narrative into their communications.

“I thought the event was very helpful in making us think of how we narrate our scientific work, especially with the suggestion of starting and ending a narrative with an action,” said Mercy Asiedu, a graduate student in biomedical engineering. “That really keeps the audience engaged from the start, instead of just going blandly into ‘my research is so and so.’ It made me more aware of what I lacked in narration and gave me really good pointers for future scientific presentations.”

If you’ve ever heard of The Moth, you have a pretty good idea of how Story Collider works. In both series, a number of people come to the stage to tell a personal story from their lives, often evoking laughter as well as deep introspection. The difference between the two is that Story Collider features narratives from scientists.

The storytelling seminar was the capstone event this semester for Duke Engineering’s PhD Plus program—a student-led initiative that conducts workshops and connects graduate students with internship and networking opportunities for those interested in careers outside of academia. This semester focused on communications, with previous workshops on improv and science communications.

The three-hour event featured a lecture and hands-on activities directed by Neely, a marine biologist who has spent the last decade helping scientists around the world tell more compelling stories about their work.

The lecture focused on the benefits of storytelling in science communications, complete with examples of how seemingly insignificant events can draw in the attention of an audience. The second part of the workshop saw graduate students using mind-mapping and pitching techniques to home in on and develop their own stories.

“I found the seminar to be very useful,” said Ugonna Ohiri, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering. “Liz did a great job teaching us how to frame our scientific experiences into personal stories. We did some really helpful interpersonal hands-on-exercises, where we were able to share our deep human scientific stories amongst our colleagues—it was a rewarding Friday night!”

Learn more about PhD Plus at phdplus.pratt.duke.edu.