Spark! Symposium participants pose for a photo with deans of the Graduate College.
Five doctoral students took the stage at the fall 2023 Spark! Symposium to tell the stories of their research to a diverse audience. Pictured from left to right are Lou Rossi, dean of UD’s Graduate College and vice provost of graduate and professional education; Brigette Romero Carpio, a doctoral candidate in medical sciences; Rene Hoover; Abigail Bower; Thabu Mugala; Cara Kelly; and Suprawee Tepsuporn, UD Graduate College senior assistant dean.

Grad student 'stories' make complex research accessible

October 09, 2023 Written by Lisa Walenceus and Eric Ruth | Evan Krape

Spark! Symposium develops speaking skills to reach diverse audiences

More people fear speaking in public than fear snakes, heights, spiders and even dying, according to the 2022 Chapman University Survey of American Fears. So, if the five people who took the stage at the University of Delaware Graduate College’s fall 2023 Spark! Symposium on Sept. 20 felt a little dread, who would blame them?

“I’m generally terrified about public speaking, but I know it’s such a huge part of academia,” said Abigail Bower, a doctoral student in interdisciplinary neuroscience, who was chosen as the Ignite Award winner by the panel of six Spark! judges. “I thought that when I got up there, my voice was going to be shaking — I was much less nervous than I expected because we had practiced so much, and we got a lot of great feedback we could incorporate.”

The biannual Spark! Symposium gives UD graduate students and postdocs the opportunity to present short-form talks on their research to a diverse audience. All presenters receive individual coaching from Suprawee Tepsuporn, the Graduate College’s senior assistant dean.

“I relish the one-to-one time with the Spark! presenters,” Tepsuporn said. “I love learning about the students’ cutting-edge research and discoveries and helping them articulate the impact of their work to broader communities.”

An important part of the preparation process is working with actor and director Steve Tague, interim chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance and producing director for UD’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP)

“It’s a crazy mix of science and art, but that’s at least half the reason that I like doing it,” he said. “The other half is the students themselves. I really believe that when a young person devotes hours and hours and hours — many of those hours incredibly tedious — to a specific discipline, there must be a strong vein of passion in there somewhere. Getting that out is my job, and I find it very moving, every time.”

The symposium’s artful approach to research talks is what appeals to members of the audience too, like Devashish Pande, also a doctoral student in neuroscience. 

“I find these talks inspiring because it requires some creativity from the speakers to take their science to a lay audience,” he said. “Research is a slow process that takes a lot of time and effort, and people can understand it better if it’s conveyed in the form of a story.”

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