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San Diego’s Charm School For Scientists

Local group teaches scientists to be better public speakers

Union College physics professor Chad Orzel speaks to a crowd at a TED Talk in...

Photo by Ryan Lash / TED@NYC

Above: Union College physics professor Chad Orzel speaks to a crowd at a TED Talk in New York City.

Science is not known as a career that attracts showboats, but scientists still need to be able to speak to a crowd. A local group helps them do that.

About 20 scientists are clustered in a cramped conference room, but they aren't there to pore over their latest research. Instead, they start the meeting with a joke.

"I think the freezer deserves a light as well," Greg Mrachko said. "You know, the refrigerator has a light, but the freezer doesn't."

He paused and got a few trickles of polite laughter.

"Ba dum bum!" he said, making the drum noise played after a comedian's joke. "I blame that one on Arsenio."

This is a meeting of Biotoasters, a Toastmasters public speaking group geared toward scientists.

Science is not known as a career that attracts showboats, but scientists still need to be able to speak to a crowd. Academics must give seminars, pharmaceutical researchers must present results and graduate students have to defend their work in front of their professors and peers.

In San Diego's science hub, several groups including Biotoasters, Scripps Outstanding Speakers and SmoothTalkers help scientists practice their public speaking.

"For a typical scientist, they will spend a lot of time at the bench, so they're doing a lot of calculations or lab work where they're not interacting directly from person to person," said lab equipment sales rep Zackary Prag, the president of Biotoasters.

Prag said the group helps members practice both public speaking and small talk.

"Maybe one of your coworkers comes up to you and they ask you about the game, a game that was on television and they want to hear your opinion on it," he said. "Well, it's important to be concise and learn how to structure your feedback to that question."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: BioSurplus

Biotoasters president Zackary Prag runs a booth for his day job as a BioSurplus sales rep.

Prag might still need a little practice in the chitchat department. At a recent meeting, two other Biotoasters were doing just that. New member Gina Salazar gave the presentation, "Meeting Girls and Guys: Pickup for Smart People."

Salazar practiced with Mrachko.

"You're adorable! You really look like Michael J. Fox," Salazar said as the room roared with laughter. "Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Michael J. Fox? Probably because of my new haircut," Mrachko joked back.

Practicing these social graces actually leads to better public speaking. And that's something Union College physics professor Chad Orzel said is important for a scientist's career.

"Part of the way you make a reputation within the field is by giving talks at meetings, and then people see you give the talk and say, 'oh that person gave a really good talk, they must be really smart,'" he said.

Orzel is a seasoned public speaker and gives regular talks on "How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog." He said part of a science professor's job interview at Union College is giving an hour-long seminar.

"In academia, we're hiring people who are going to be expected to teach classes as well, so it's absolutely critical that you be able to give a good talk," he said.

That's why Salazar, the Michael J. Fox fan, joined Biotoasters. She has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and worked for a while as a postdoc, but now is struggling to find another job.

"I failed a job interview and I called them and was like, 'oh why didn't I get the job even though I had the interview?' and they said, 'well you don't make eye contact, and you seemed nervous,'" Salazar said.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Gina Salazar Google+

Gina Salazar joined Biotoasters to practice for job interviews and to meet others in the science field.

Not long ago, Salazar had to give a far more important speech than any job interview — she delivered the eulogy at her mother's funeral.

At a Biotoasters meeting after the funeral, Salazar gave the speech about her mother's work as a nurse. She spoke with strength, looking much less shy than she did when she joined Biotoasters just a few months ago.

"She measured her success not by promotions or by salary, but by how much she contributed to saving peoples' lives and providing them with comfort," she said.

Salazar's newfound confidence and poise shows just what Biotoasters can do. While she's still looking for a job, Salazar has become a better speaking scientist.

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