Speaking of Science: Communications program helps PME students connect lab work to industry

Seven Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering graduate students and postdocs had made their pitches, presented their research, outlined their designs for new products, life-saving techniques and future innovations.

Now came the hard part: waiting.

“It’s like I’m in court,” joked Cheng Ji, a PhD candidate researching quantum platform technology in the Guha Lab. “I’m just sitting there waiting for the judges.”

“I felt a little stressed before the presentation, but it’s good practice for us,” added Lifeng Chen, a fellow PME PhD candidate researching materials in the Rowan Group.

Ji and Chen were two of the seven PME graduate students and postdocs who presented research pitches to a panel of industry professionals as part of the Communication Skills for Industry Program (CSIP) capstone event on Wednesday, Dec. 13, in ERC 161. Now in its third year, CSIP is an opportunity for program participants to sharpen their communication skills for the real-world interactions they’ll face in their careers, such as job interviews, conferences, collaborations and investor pitches.

In addition to interactive workshops where participants learn about effective communication strategies, the highly practice-based program pairs graduate students and postdocs with mentors currently working in industry, all in unique roles at distinct companies. This year, mentors represented companies including Google, Abbott, Clorox, UL Research Institutes and Intel.

“These mentoring conversations allow for program participants to simultaneously practice the skills we hone during the workshops as well as build connections and gain perspective,” said PME Director of Career Development Briana Konnick.

The program culminates in a final pitch in front of a panel of industry judges, seeing how well they can take the lessons of the lab to the private sector. Years of research and months of honing their presentation came down to one three-minute talk. No notes, no slides.

Postdoc to MEng

The program participants were a cross-section of PME, representing the immunoengineering, quantum and materials themes and ranging from postdocs to master’s students.

Alex Taslakjian opted to take CSIP while pursuing the Masters of Engineering program at PME to start bolstering his communication skills early on so he can incorporate them throughout his career.

“It's very important to learn to communicate with different types of individuals,” Taslakjian said. “The things that I learned right now have been very important for the interviews that I've done and will be very important at some point in the future when I decide to work in industry.”

CSIP isn’t just about presentation skills. Esser-Kahn Lab PhD candidate Riley Knight already had those from her background in theater. The value for her was getting practice-based training on how to connect high-level science from the lab to the private sector.

"Speaking and talking to people is something that I've always enjoyed doing, but learning how to target what I'm saying, specifically about what my research is and how to represent it to different industry audiences, is really important,” she said.

The verdict

When the judges came back into ERC 161, Taslakjian ended up coming in first in the contest. Knight took second and third place went to Nealey Group postdoc Regina Sánchez Leija.

Like the mentors who gave the students the benefit of their experience during the program, the judges all currently work in industry. They provide their feedback in written form for the students to review, study and improve upon far after CSIP ends.

“Bringing my experience back to an academic environment is part of what I'm trying to do,” said one of the judges, Walgreen Boots Alliance Global Program Manager Carlos Romero. “I've been out in industry 20+ years so I've gotten exposed to quite a bit of different companies and industry.”

CSIP is part of a suite of science communications trainings for graduate students and postdocs that also include the PME Science Communications Program. It is taught annually by three PME staff – Director of Corporate Engagement Felix Lu, Assistant Dean of Education and Outreach Laura Rico-Beck, and Briana Konnick – uniquely combining expertise in their respective functions.

CSIP student Anna Slezak, a PhD candidate in the Hubbell Lab, is also one of two 2023-2024 PME Science Communications Fellows. She previously participated in that program and had an even tougher final audience: local middle-school students.

“In a way middle schoolers are harder,” Slezak said, laughing. “You have to be really intentional about what you say and what you do and what they'll pay attention to and what they won't.”

Learn more about the PME Science Communications Program