Prosanta Chakrabarty, an associate professor in the LSU College of Science and curator of fishes at the LSU Museum of Natural Science (LSU MNS), gave a talk on the big TED stage last year. His talk, titled “Clues to prehistoric times, found in blind cavefish,” now has nearly 900,000 views! We asked Prosanta to tell us about his experience preparing and giving his talk. His responses are below.
This year, Prosanta is a visiting program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF), in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology (DEB). This Friday, Jan. 13 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Prosanta will be back at the LSU College of Science to offer information and insights into NSF funding and funding trends. All faculty, students and staff at LSU are invited to attend in our Science Conference Room in Hatcher Hall (1st Floor). Register here.
“TED talks are performances. I needed to come up with a compelling narrative and practice it thousands of times. It was like “Rocky” training for science communication.” - Prosanta Chakrabarty
College of Science: You spoke about your science at TED 2016. What was that experience like?
Prosanta: It was absolutely amazing.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I got the sense it was something big from the TED fellows team that picked the speakers. They would email us and have us Skype with fellows from previous years. They talked about meeting celebrities, gift bags and networking with other people. They discussed everything from how to prepare for our talks to the best way to pack (you get so much stuff you need an extra bag to bring home all the goodies).
As soon as I met the other TED fellows I realized this was a unique group of super smart, interesting and fun people. We were all best friends after 10 minutes. The group was also really diverse. There were people of all backgrounds, races and expertise. There were sculptors, dancers, singers, tech people working on solar panels, activists talking about government’s attempts at shutting down the press, and culinary experts discussing the origins of different foods. They were all absolutely amazing storytellers and just great people.
I was intimidated and humbled to be among them, but they were so fun to be around that I think it made all of us comfortable. It wasn’t a competitive environment at all, it was very supportive.
College of Science: What led you to be a TED speaker?
Prosanta: I originally had no interest in being a TED fellow. I didn’t know the process at all. Luckily for me, the TEDxLSU team had more faith in me than I did. Rebecca Burdette, Melissa Thompson and Becky Carmichael all pushed me to do it. I remember saying, “this sounds like more work – what are the benefits?” I don’t remember getting a real answer, but I decided to apply anyway.
I filled out an online questionnaire – and honestly didn’t put more than a half hour into it. So I’m sure they picked me because of what the TEDxLSU people told them about me. I’m forever grateful to them for that.
After a series of Skype interviews with the TED fellows team I was really getting excited – even though I still didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Once they said I was going to be a fellow I was super excited – but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone for more than a month!
The first thing the TED fellows team said when I talked to them in November was to start preparing my talk for the TED event in Vancouver in February. I nearly had a heart attack. I’ve given lots of talks. But TED talks are performances. I needed to come up with a compelling narrative and practice it thousands of times. It was like “Rocky” training for science communication.
“This would be the biggest talk of my life and I didn’t want to mess it up.”
College of Science: You told great story with your TED talk that brought together your research with your personal motivations and passions for what you do. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating that talk? How did you come up with the great "YOLO" theme?
Prosanta: It is a strange story. As I was prepping for a conversation with the Fellows team that was supposed to be a rough sketch of ideas, I came with a PowerPoint and a first draft about the need to collect specimens in natural history.
They didn’t like it, like, at all. They thought it was a downer. But one of the things they said they liked was my humor. I actually had said “Ichthyology is the only ology with YOLO in it” in one of the interviews, and they thought that was a good example of my dumb cheesy humor.
After they told me they didn’t like my sad talk, I decided to focus on cavefish and the species I had discovered. I wanted to talk about these poorly known animals and why they are important for studying geology and biology. They liked that.
I used the YOLO line because I thought it would be a good way to teach people a new word many have never heard. I actually use that YOLO line in the first day of class when I teach ichthyology. I probably can’t use it anymore – I played it out.
College of Science: What was your favorite thing about participating at TED 2016? What most inspired or moved you? Has your perspective toward science communication on stage changed since you participated?
Prosanta: My favorite thing was definitely giving the talk. It trumped meeting a bunch of celebrities I really admire and getting a bunch of awesome free stuff. I had never had an audience listen to me and be so supportive before.
“Chris Anderson, the ‘Head of TED,’ told me that the audience is as much part of the talk as the speaker. I didn’t know what he meant until after my talk.”
The TED fellows all were cheering each other on like crazy people – it was like watching a group Olympic event like gymnastics or swimming. Now we all stay in touch via WhatsApp and the cheering and teasing continues.
For me the biggest stress was whether the talk would actually go online. Most talks from TED actually don’t get released. Although I thought I did a good job I didn’t think my talk would be posted. There were so many good speakers with such great causes like rape prevention and lending practices for the poor. I thought, why would they pick my silly talk about cavefish?
I would have been terribly disappointed if it wasn’t posted. It was such a relief when it was. My TED talk video got half a million views in a few weeks! That’s a ton of people who didn’t know anything about cavefish that now might care about them and join me in trying to save them.
College of Science: Was the process of preparing and giving a TED talk different than you thought it would be?
Prosanta: Luckily I had given a TEDx talk and the Communication across the Curriculum folks prepared me for that. Before that experience I thought, “I’ve given 1,000 talks, why change my style?” But TED talks are different. It really is more of a performance, and you need to make your words compelling and informative.
I have to give Becky Carmichael props for teaching me about constructing a narrative for TEDx talks. I wanted my talk to be entertaining, but I also wanted it to be poignant because cavefishes really need the attention of the greater masses. I wanted people to know that ichthyology is the study of fishes, and that lots of new species are being discovered in caves. I wanted people to come away knowing that cavefish can tell us about the evolution of sight and help us understand our own vision and loss of vision, and that cavefish can help us understand geology because they’ve been in subterranean habitats isolated for millions of years.
It took me a long time to perfect the talk. I practiced it at least 100 times. My talk ended up being just shy of five minutes. I thought keeping it short with a joke or two in there would keep people’s attention. But I wanted the audience to turn back to the serious side when I talked about the likely extinct species on the last slide.
“I walked my dogs every morning at 6am and said my talk out loud while walking – I’m sure my neighbors thought I was crazy.”
College of Science: What has been the viewer response to your TED talk?
Prosanta: Since the talk came out I’ve received emails from strangers from all over the world. I was a little nervous the week after the talk came out because I had the annual conference for ichthyologists in New Orleans. We tend to be a cynical bunch, but I only heard nice things. I also used all my new TED powers at the conference and gave a very fun talk that got some great comments. TED definitely gave me a lot of confidence to speak to any crowd at any time about any topic.
College of Science: What advice would you give to students looking to participate in similar science talks?
Prosanta: Learning to communicate science is very hard. When communicating with your peers in science, you need to learn the concise language of your field. When communicating with the public, you need to know your audience. I am shocked – SHOCKED – by how often I see a scientist talk above their audience. I always think, are you trying purposefully to make a talk that no one enjoys? If you can enjoy a talk you actually listen and learn. I think everyone who saw my TED talk will remember there is a YOLO in ichthYOLOgy.
If you can read your audience, you can make them understand what you are trying to say. I’d like to teach a TEDed type of class at LSU to help undergraduates learn to communicate by writing and speaking.
I would tell undergraduates to go to seminars their professors and TAs give. How these folks speak to students in class versus how they speak to their peers is very different – but doesn’t really have to be. Both should be understandable. I have undergrads who do research with me go to elementary school outreach events so they get an idea of how to speak to kids about science. I think students learn most by teaching [“to teach is to learn twice”]. That’s a good start for being a better science communicator.
At LSU every student has the opportunity to do independent research and to communicate that work with others. Students have to be proactive and approach their professors to get those opportunities.
Learn more about getting practice science presentation opportunities at the LSU CxC Studio in Coates 151!
Also, mark your calendars for TEDxLSU 2017 on Saturday, March 11th in the LSU Union Theater. This year's speakers include a diverse group of thinkers from the Baton Rouge community including Cynthia Peterson, dean of the LSU College of Science; Gaby Gonzalez, astrophysicist and spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration; and Wayne Newhauser, director of LSU's medical physics program. You can view the full list of TEDxLSU speakers here.