Postdoctoral scholars at the fifth annual SBU Postdoc Spotlight competition on Thursday, Nov. 14 at the Charles B. Wang Center. Each postdoc presented a snapshot of their research and discoveries. FANNI FRANKL/THE STATESMAN

The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs hosted its fifth annual SBU Postdoc Spotlight competition on Thursday, Nov. 14 at the Charles B. Wang Center. 

The SBU Postdoc Spotlight presented a snapshot of the research and discovery conducted by Stony Brook’s postdoctoral scholars. Postdoctoral scholars, called postdocs, are individuals who have received their Ph.D. and are engaged in short-term, mentored research or scholarly training. The speakers worked with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which seeks to help scientists learn to communicate more effectively with the public.

About 65 people attended the event and 12 postdocs presented their research. The lectures, which had a five-minute limit, were meant to be understandable to specialists and non-specialists alike. 

“This is a chance for them to give a talk essentially to each other, to learn what each of them are doing and to talk across disciplines,” Dr. Kathleen Flint Ehm, director for graduate and postdoctoral professional development, said. “Our question was, how can we try to maximize the professional development that our postdocs are deriving from this event, if that’s the fundamental goal that they find from participating in something like this at Stony Brook?”

Paola Cépeda, Kevin Sackel and Hillary Schiff were awarded by a panel of judges on how well they could effectively communicate their research to audience members. The judges evaluated the speakers based on a rubric that considered the speaker’s content, engagement, clarity and their ability to explain their research without using jargon. 

Cépeda, a Postdoctoral Associate at the Graduate School and Department of Linguistics who won the $500 grand prize at the event, described the significance of her work as a linguist. Her research focuses on how understanding the contribution of words that express negation — like “not,” “never” or “nobody” — gives a better look into the brain and how that can bridge the gap between languages.

“We can offer good answers to questions such as ‘How do children acquire language so effortlessly?’ or ‘How can we create technology that can make Siri or Alexa process human language like humans do?’” Cépeda wrote in an email. “We can also get rid of the false idea that there are some languages that are better than others. No language is superior or inferior. All languages are perfect products of our brains and all speakers are the best examples of what our brains are capable of.”

Yingchao Su, a postdoctoral researcher of biomedical engineering and a presenter at the event, emphasized the effect an event like this has on postdoctoral researchers. His research focused on providing a new type of screw in surgery that would make going back to the hospital less likely since it does not degrade at the same rate as other screws because it is plated with ceramic.

“I feel like I learned a lot, like with speech skills, how to express yourself and how to understand these scientific difficult stuff,” he said. “When I first attended I felt nervous, but after training, I felt I improved a lot.”

Stalin Vilcarromero, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department for Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook, presented his research on the prevalence of Lyme disease in Hispanics who work in landscaping and gardening.

“I am working here for two years, but it is the first time that I can explain what I am doing. It is an opportunity for me,” Vilcarromero said. “Sometimes we forget the real community. We are working with minorities because we are saying that these people are suffering … All the community is important but also minorities which is what I am trying to say in my research.”

Flint Ehm emphasized how this postdoctoral event is relevant to Stony Brook and how it helps researchers better connect with the public and the university.

“If you can’t talk to people about what you learned during your research, then you’re not really doing research,” she said. “We have an obligation not only to support the researchers and the work that they do but also to help them to share it to the community so there should always be a dialogue when it comes to your research and giving back.”

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