Speak to the World: Communicate your work to others at Princeton Research Day

The audience for your research is the world.
The audience for your research is, quite literally, the world.

By now, you’ve probably received one of the numerous campus-wide emails promoting Princeton Research Day, a new initiative by the University to celebrate student research right here in the Orange Bubble. I must admit that even though I spend a large amount of time talking about my own research for the PCUR blog, I was initially hesitant to apply. It’s odd to think that I feel more pressure having to present my work in layman’s terms to the larger university community compared to presenting to the professors in my department for a grade!

Still, when I stepped back and considered the number of times I’ve talked about my thesis in regular conversation, I felt reassured that I’d be prepared for Princeton Research Day. As a senior, I’ve noticed the standard ice-breaker among my classmates has become “So what are you doing for your thesis?” Even though my thesis is certainly something that’s constantly on my mind, I still have to think about the best way to describe my work in 10 seconds to make it interesting enough for a conversation. It’s hard to get into all the details and nuances of a continuously evolving project (that I’ll spend the entire academic year working on!) while highlighting what’s important and relevant about it.

I think that’s really why Princeton Research Day is appealing to me. This is what research is all about  conveying your work to peers and fellow researchers, who often might not have a good idea of why you’re doing what you are.

These people are less likely to be interested in all the nitty-gritty parts of scholarly inquiry they want to know why they should care about what you’re doing, and how your research can impact their lives and even humanity as a whole. In the end, research is as much about communication as it is about the research itself, whether it’s science, economics, or English. And it’s up to you to present your research quickly and succinctly in a way that captures public interest.

The easiest way to learn to do that is to have the right type of audience. Because I’ve been involved in research since my freshman summer, I’ve had a good number of chances to present my research, and my presentation skills have thus improved manyfold but what I haven’t had much of a chance to do is talk to people outside of my department. My presentations have mostly been semester-end projects to professors in Electrical Engineering, or summer colloquiums where my peers are doing similar work as me and everyone has already heard 50 times why we need to monitor methane emissions. That means I’ve been able to take a lot of shortcuts by skimming past my motivations or using fancy but complex jargon to save time.

On the other hand, the one experience I had presenting to a different audience (albeit not related to my senior thesis) taught me how to focus my descriptions on what’s really relevant. About two years ago, my cousin, who runs a clothing startup in Taiwan, asked me to describe my research to him. I initially found it hard to focus my main idea, but he was patient and asked a lot of questions that helped lead my explanation. Having that feedback was particularly valuable in helping me understand how I should explain my research to a wider audience, and not get caught up in a lot of small technical details.

Of course, finding the right type of audience often requires a venue to present your work, and that’s not as easy to conjure as snapping your fingers. I think Princeton Research Day fills that void, and it’s pretty exciting. As for me, the continuous exercise of quickly explaining my thesis, combined with the required poster in January and the oral defense for Electrical Engineering mere days before Princeton Research Day, means that I actually don’t have to do much extra work regardless of the medium of presentation I might choose. So I’m definitely applying to present at Princeton Research Day  and also hoping to be in the audience for a few talks. I know it’ll be an awesome chance to learn about all the great research being conducted at Princeton!

-Stacey Huang, Engineering Correspondent