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Why we have Discussion Groups

For the next seven weeks, you will meet in small groups to discuss your research. Scientists, engineers, and physicians are often criticized for not being able to explain scientific concepts to people without an advanced degree in their discipline. It's not just "the general public" who complains about this, you've probably done it yourself. Haven't you left some lectures muttering, "S/He just can't explain anything!" Notice that you don't blame yourself for not understanding, but you blame the instructor for not explaining it well enough.... Well, I think you're right about that. It is the instructor's responsibility to describe things clearly.

So here's your chance to be the instructor. You are responsible not only for knowing what you did and why, but also for being able to explain it in a way that will be understood by others. That means even by a freshman in the group who hasn't yet had an introductory biology course. This is much harder than you may imagine. You've been talking to your labmates all summer, and you have a good grasp of how to discuss the technical concepts with experts in the field. This is not the same, however, as discussing them with novices.

For example, you may assume that everyone working in a lab will understand what you're doing when you say, "I'm screening a cDNA library." But think for a minute what might be going through the mind of someone who hasn't studied molecular biology yet. "What does that mean to screen a library? Sure, Butler has a problem with insects flying through the open windows, but are SURF students really putting up screens?"

The ability to describe your work clearly is an important skill to develop for future interviews for jobs, graduate school, and even medical school. The discussion groups also give you a chance to hear about the kinds of research being done elsewhere in the university. You contribute to the presentations that others are giving when you ask questions that help clarify what the speaker is saying.

How to prepare your presentation

  1. It's best not to read a prepared speech, which tends to be too formal. Instead, write out an outline of what you want to say, and practice with this until you feel confident that you can give a clear and logical description of what you're doing and why.

  2. Practice this out loud with a friend, asking them to let you know if anything isn't clear. If you take the shuttle bus uptown, this is a perfect place to practice: Say to your seatmate, "Hey, wanna hear about my research?" and without waiting for a response, give your 5 minute spiel, and see if you can reach 168th Street without having their eyes glaze over.

  3. Prepare a 15 minute talk. When you actually discuss your work, you can do it as a more informal conversation, not as a prepared talk, and with interruptions and discussions it might take 20-30 minutes. But do prepare a 15 minute talk anyway, so that you know that you'll cover all the important points.