All-English science contest gives young researchers way to connect

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

When University of Tokyo student Mugiko Komatsuda appeared on stage at a science contest in Tokyo last week, she dazzled the crowd with her self-confidence, resonant voice and radiant smile.

Komatsuda, who rhapsodized about her latest research project — a rat experiment aimed at finding out whether exercise really makes people hungrier — won the all-English science contest, despite being the only Japanese contestant.

The biggest secret to her victory, though, seemed to lie in her close adherence to the very fundamental concept of this scientific contest: to make the presentation as easy to understand as possible.

“(As a scientist,) you have a tendency to let the science speak for itself,” said organizer Lee Woolgar, information officer of Euraxess Links Japan, a European Commission initiative to help researchers advance their careers.

“So you don’t really think about how you’re going to present it. You’d just think, ‘OK, my science is good enough. I have some nice data. I have nice results in my statistics. I could just show these.’ “

Originating in Europe, Science Slams such as this are talks that allow young researchers to present their work to a nonexpert audience in a “thrilling” and “engaging” fashion. The event last week was the first held in Japan, Woolgar said. Other events in this first edition of “Euraxess Science Slam 2013″ have taken place in Brazil, China, India and North America.

The four other contestants at the Tokyo event were foreign students studying at Japanese universities, whose topics ranged from nanofibers to the biological health of soil.

In order for scientists to truly engage the public, Woolgar said they need to step out of their own comfort zone. Indeed, all the presenters at the event, including Komatsuda, were careful to steer clear of technical jargon and gave lively presentations in the hopes of wowing the audience.

Komatsuda, who explained how the results of her recent experiment on rats could discredit the popular assumption that physical exercise makes people crave food, peppered her presentation with attractive graphics and personal anecdotes.

“Scientists today enjoy talking about their work only among a limited circle of their own. Nonexperts, however, tend to be denied access to knowing what’s being discussed behind closed doors. I hope events like this will change that,” the University of Tokyo student said.

But some scientists might sneer at the idea of reaching out to the public, according to Tom Hope, an associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, which co-hosted the event. Chances are, he suggested, they believe so blindly in the intellectual caliber of their research that they may feel reluctant to dumb it down.

“But I think you could say something about the amount of public investment on science and how the public is funding (their) research very often. So scientists really have some responsibility” to communicate with laypeople, he said.

Meanwhile, the two lamented that, while Japan is one of the best places to do scientific research in the world, it’s often difficult for young researchers to find jobs after finishing their doctorates.

According to a survey released in August by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, 40.1 percent of the 16,440 doctoral degree holders, or 6,599, have no job or only part-time or temporary employment.

To boost their employability, Woolgar suggested Japan more actively help doctoral scientists “broaden their skills,” including those in leadership and project management.

Great presentation skills, as shown by Komatsuda and others at the event, are also practical advantages, he said.

“These kinds of broader skills are being increasingly emphasized. Japan has started looking at these things, but they are still not quite as adopted as in other countries.”