This Saturday, March 3rd, several LSU researchers will take the stage at TEDxLSU to tell stories about their work and lives as scientists. One of these scientists is Julie Butler, a graduate student in LSU's Department of Biological Sciences who is studying fish neuroscience, or how fish brains light up in response to various signals including noise pollution and interactions with other fish.
In anticipation of a fantastic weekend of science talks, we interviewed Julie Butler and Prosanta Chakrabarty, curator of fishes at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and veteran TEDxLSU and big TED speaker. Prosanta was recently honored as a TED Senior Fellow, and we've asked him to offer his advice for other TED speakers below!
Q&A with TEDxLSU Speaker Julie Butler
LSU College of Science: What are you most looking forward to in giving a talk about your work on the TEDxLSU stage?
Julie: I’m really excited to share more information about the fish I study, Astatotilapia burtoni. They’re such a great little fish, and I’m excited for the opportunity to talk about how awesome they are. This talk style is different from what I’m used to in scientific conference presentations, so I’m looking forward to telling a story about the fish and my research.
LSU College of Science: How are you preparing for your TEDxLSU talk? What have you learned so far from the coaching experience with the LSU Communication across the Curriculum program?
Julie: The first step was just figuring out what I was going to say. From there, Becky Carmichael (the science coordinator for CxC) helped me pick out the most important and relevant information to include. Because I’m used to scientific presentations, it was a little difficult to think about and talk about my work in a different way. Now I’m at the point of just practicing a lot. I can give the talk flawlessly to my cats… but people are a different story!
LSU College of Science: What would you most like to ask or know from an experienced TED speaker, as you prepare for your first TED experience?
Julie: How do you get over the nerves of speaking in front of that many people? Were you worried that you would just blank in the middle of the talk? If so, what did you do try to mitigate this fear? What was the best and worst part about the day of the presentation?
LSU College of Science: What led you to apply for a spot on the TEDxLSU stage?
Julie: I’ve done a few smaller talks (for the 2017 regional Three-Minute thesis competition and Sea Grant’s Coastal Connection Competition). Based on my presentations in those programs, I was encouraged by multiple people to apply for a TEDxLSU talk. I was hesitant at first… I think Becky had to remind me at least three times to get my application in… But this is such a great opportunity to share my excitement about my research with other people.
LSU College of Science: What most inspires you or what do you most enjoy about communicating your science?
Julie: My research doesn’t really mean anything if it’s not communicated with people. I also really enjoy art and creative writing, but spend so much of my time doing science. This is a great way to get back to my more creative side and incorporate it with my science. I get really excited talking to people about fish and my research because most people have no idea that fish are so cool!
LSU College of Science: What does being a TEDxLSU speaker mean to you? Do you think you might apply for a spot on the big TED stage some day?
Julie: It’s such an honor to get to share the stage with so many great people and speakers (both current and former!) I’m really excited and thankful for this opportunity. I’m not sure… maybe someday. Right now the thought of just the TEDxLSU talk is terrifying.
LSU College of Science: When TEDxLSU is over, what do you want the audience to remember about your talk?
Julie: Most importantly: Fish are awesome. I hope that people learn a little bit about fish, have fun listening to the story of Burt and Toni, and have a better understanding of why it’s important to study fish and protect their environments.
Q&A with TED Senior Fellow Prosanta Chakrabarty
LSU College of Science: What does it mean to be a TED Senior Fellow? What does this title mean to / for you personally?
Prosanta: Their are very selfish reasons why being a Senior Fellow means so much to me. First I get to go to the the best conference in the world, TED. There is a reason that TED Talks get millions of views. The conference is like some dream wonderland full of celebrities and interesting people from diverse backgrounds giving the talks of their lives. The TED Fellows team is an amazing group of people and I am so lucky to even know some of them. There are people who are defending women’s rights and getting transformative bills about sexual assault into law, there are innovative singers and dancers, and tech people helping to keep our cyber-world safe. Then there is me. I don’t know how an ichthyologist like me fits in, but I am so lucky and happy to be part of the club representing LSU and natural history science. TED is a great platform to share the things that matter to us.
LSU College of Science: What are 1-3 of the major things you’ve taken away from being a TED speaker? What did the experience of speaking on the TED stage teach you?
Prosanta: I’ve become a much better public speaker because of TEDxLSU and TED. The TED stage is a very scary place. I haven’t been that nervous since my babies were born. Because I’ve given a talk on the TED stage, I’m pretty comfortable going up and speaking in any situation. What TED folks teach you is how to build a compelling narrative and deliver it in your own style.
Scientists often think they can speak to any audience in the same exact way, and that the value of their research will come to their audience naturally no matter how lofty. That is so wrong. You need to know your audience and understand that not everyone knows what you are talking about. It takes real skill to connect to your audience. TED is SciComm bootcamp, and you come out with muscles in places you didn’t know you needed them.
LSU College of Science: What is the most important thing to remember in 1) preparing for, and 2) giving a TED talk?
Prosanta: To give a good TED talk, you need to realize it is a performance and not a scientific presentation of your results. You train, you don’t practice. Scientific talks that are memorized or read sound fake to me. So you need to memorize your performance in a way that makes it sound natural, but as part of your automatic muscle memory. For my TED talk, I woke up every morning and walked my dogs around my neighborhood and muttered my talk to myself. Listening to recordings of your own talk helps a lot too.
TED talks are different from a scientific seminar. They are supposed to be entertaining (that’s what the E is in TED) and a TED talk is more of a performance than a talk. Scientists are used to the screen being the main point of what the audience is looking at. At TED, you are in front of the screen and you are the main point of focus. The words coming out of your mouth are all that matters. There shouldn’t be many words on the screen for a TED talk - or really any talk. The talking point prompts that most scientists are used to seeing in a talk are missing from TED talks. It makes for a better audience experience. Even when I teach now, there are fewer words on my slides and more images that deliver the point.
LSU College of Science: How have your TED experiences informed, enlightened, inspired or changed the way you do your research or science communication?
Prosanta: I’ve learned a new way to reach my audience. I really try to engage with them as I speak. I speak to them, not at them. I think about the audience more, not just in public talks, but in research seminars and when I teach. No more ‘Moses from the Mountaintop’ talks. It makes for a better experience as a speaker too, when you engage with the audience. It is more work, but it is worth it.
LSU College of Science: What advice would you give to Julie Butler or any other young scientist preparing for or going through their first local TEDx experience?
Prosanta: Julie Butler is already a great speaker and a fantastic scientist. She doesn’t need my help! Her advisor Karen Maruska is also one of the best speakers and researchers I know. The only thing I have to offer Julie is my ear if she needs someone to listen to her practice and give advice on the things that are sometimes hard to notice as the speaker. You often don’t realize the little tics that you might have, or the awkward movements you might be making. Julie has a great stage presence already, but I’m looking forward to being there for her. Practice is certainly the key to a good talk, and I always practice with a real audience. I’m a real burden on my lab, but that makes for a better talk. Junior people often are afraid to practice with a live audience, but it really is the best way to improve and to get the nerves out of your system.
LSU College of Science: What are you most looking forward to in being a TED Senior fellow?
Prosanta: I’m looking forward to seeing lots of great new talks in 2018. I get to go to four big TED events over the next few years as a Senior Fellow and I hope to prepare a talk for the next one. I already have a very rough script - which is my little secret for now.
LSU College of Science: What do you think you’ll focus on in any future TED talks you give?
Prosanta: I want to talk about evolution, and the teaching of evolution in the U.S. I think there are lots of misconceptions and I think the TED stage will be a good place to address those from. I don’t like TED talks that take themselves too seriously, so I want to inject enough humor to make it interesting without making it hoaky. It’s an important subject and I want people to understand, but I also want them to like the talk.
LSU College of Science: Why is TED important and why should more scientists consider using the TED platform to share their science experiences or their research?
Prosanta: I have more than 60 scientific publications, and I’ve given hundreds of scientific talks. But none of those, even combined, will ever reach an audience of a million people. My TED Talk video on Youtube, about cavefishes and natural history, has that many views, and people who would never know about that subject otherwise have been exposed to it. For my fellow scientists, I would say that TED is one of the best ways to get the word out about your work. It exposes you to a whole new world of people that normally don’t hear from scientists.
Most people in the U.S. can’t name a living scientist. We need to change that. Science can’t be this elitist, high brow, ivory tower thing - it is by everyone and for everyone.