When Shakespeare, Harry Potter, and Yoda explain science

Amanda Salzwedel. a pharmacology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, discusses her research on how lytic viruses kill cancer cells. She was participating in the annual Three Minute Thesis competition. Photo: Bob Collins/MPR

There’s a pretty important factor among the reasons why science research doesn’t often get the respect it deserves. Scientists often aren’t very good at explaining their research to people who aren’t scientists. And people who aren’t scientists are often the ones that hold the key to the funding to allow more research.

We learned as much last week in our roundtable discussion on MPR News with three of the country’s leading neuroscientists during the part of our discussion when we discussed why important science gets mocked and trivialized.

It falls to scientists to do a better job of explaining their work, Dr. Huda Zogbi, of Baylor, said.

The good news is that at least nine people about to get their Ph.D.s at the University of Minnesota will be better at this sort of thing.

They were the courageous volunteers who took part in the annual Three Minute Thesis competition on campus today. I was one of several judges; my role was to be the person who didn’t speak the language of science, a task for which I was expertly prepared in my youth.

You can do a lot worse when it comes to understanding how smart kids are today than by listening to them explain their research that may — someday soon — change the world.

We awarded our top prize to pharmacology Ph.D. candidate Dustin Chernick, who is researching whether “good cholesterol” might be an effective treatment in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

“Every 60 seconds, someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” he said in his presentation. “and we don’t have a single drug to stop it.”

His research tests the hypothesis whether “good cholesterol” — known as HDL — can act as a sponge, sopping up the plaque that is present in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Yoda inspired Soumya Mukherjee to explain the amount of force that is applied during cell division. It's one millionth of one millionth of a pound, he said. Photo: Bob Collins/MPR News.

Lisa Chesner, another pharmacology Ph.D. candidate, used Shakespeare — Hamlet, specifically — to frame her research on the internal monologue of drug-treated cancer cells. We gave her an honorable mention.

Shirdi Schmiel, a researcher in microbiology, immunology and cancer biology, used the analogy of an artillery observer and an artillery gunners, to explain the targeting of cells in the treatment of auto immune disorders. There’s a lot of pressure in these kinds of competitions; she held her Powerpoint pointer with two hands.

By the end of the competition, she was holding a trophy too.

Shannon Kordus used a Harry Potter theme to explain how she’s finding the “killing curse” for Mycobacterium tuburculosis. That earned her the top prize in a vote of the audience.

“At the University of Minnesota,” we practice a different kind of magic,” she said.

This was no “dumbing down” of science, mind you. It was merely effectively communicating great science by some pretty great kids.

You’re in good hands, earthlings.