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at the Improv
by Kendall Powell
Comedy helps when you have three minutes to explain your science.
As a graduate student presenting his research at a national science meeting, Ben Dubin-Thaler was a little nervous. After all, more than 300 people were spilling out the door and into the hallway to hear about his work on cell migration.
Dubin-Thaler had a brief three minutes to give his talk without slides or laser pointer. Instead, he had to rely on his wit and the power of spoken words:
You see, we take a balled up cell and then we drop the ball,
Onto a sticky lawn of matrix whatchamacall.
It could be fibronectin, or laminin,
Or it could be collagen, like the lips of Pam Anderson.
But the cells, you know, they aren't really that picky,
They start kissing those lips, integrin binding makes 'em sticky.
The crowd was amused and the 28-year-old won third place in the first-ever CellSlam event, a contest that drew eight scientist communicators and took place at the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting in San Diego, December 9-13, 2006.
The event gave scientists a chance to use humor, rhythm, song, or skit to communicate a scientific concept. University of California, San Diego (UCSD), geneticist Amy Kiger proposed the idea after she attended a similar contest in the United Kingdom called FameLab.
"We really need to be training the troops to think outward about how to communicate science to the public," says Kiger, a former HHMI predoctoral fellow who judged the contestants with colleagues including Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Zerhouni says he enjoyed CellSlam and thinks it should be held every year. "Never take yourself too seriously in science," he advises practitioners. "Humor, wit, and simplicity in explaining your work is a common attribute of the very best scientists."