UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — How do you condense years of scientific research into a two-minute elevator pitch? That’s what Andy Gustafson from the Smeal College of Business showed nearly 100 graduate students and a sprinkling of interested research staff at Penn State's Millennium Science Complex in June.
“Skilled scientists and engineers must be equipped with not only technical expertise, but also with communication skills that can get others interested in their areas of research," said Gustafson about his strategies to engage non-technical audiences on technical research topics.
"This could mean the difference between success or failure in launching a new business, gaining a grant or garnering support from the community at large regarding why your work matters,” he added.
The two-hour training session was in preparation for the inaugural Millennium Café Pitch Competition, which took place June 9 and featured 45 students from the colleges of Engineering, Agriculture, Medicine, Science and Earth and Mineral Sciences. Topics included clean water, earthquakes and hydrogen vehicles, and the winners received prizes provided by PPG Industries, a Pittsburgh-based multinational materials and coatings company that sponsors a Penn State graduate student as well as a group of Undergraduate Research Fellows.
The pitch competition was the brainchild of Josh Stapleton, director of the Materials Characterization Laboratory and the organizer of the Millennium Café, a weekly informal gathering that features lively discussions of current research topics across numerous disciplines, along with gourmet coffees and snacks. The Café is an opportunity to jumpstart collaborations across disciplines, in particular between materials scientists and engineers and researchers in the life sciences.
“It’s important for students to learn how to accurately and enthusiastically communicate why their research is important,” Stapleton remarked. “Students get a lot of experience presenting to peers, but a different approach is required when communicating with future employers, policymakers or trying to inspire the next generation of kids to pursue a career in science.”
The training and competition builds on President Eric Barron’s Invent Penn State initiative, which aims to develop student career success and turn Penn State ideas into entrepreneurial innovations. Among the winners of this inaugural competition were inventions such as a ceramic coating for waterless toilets that could bring unique hygiene benefits to tens of millions of at-risk children in water scarce regions of the globe and a low-cost zinc oxide chip-based sensor with one-part-per-trillion sensitivity for early cholera detection.
“I was impressed by the whole group of students,” remarked Mike Makowski of PPG, who acted as one of the four competition judges. “It was difficult to choose just a couple of winners out of so many bright and articulate young scientists. PPG is delighted to contribute to these students’ future success.”