Carnegie Mellon University

Students, organizers and advisors at the Speak Up event

July 28, 2017

MCS Students Learn to “Speak Up” about Research

Jenny Gao, a senior chemistry major, took third place with her novel approach to bone regeneration.

By Emily Payne

Organized by Carnegie Mellon University’s Undergraduate Research Office, the 2nd annual Speak Up! seminar series challenged students to sum up weeks of research in a three-minute, three-slide presentation.

Conceived as a cross-disciplinary communication skills seminar for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program, Speak Up! coaches and supports students as they learn how to effectively communicate the importance of their ideas and work to a variety of audiences.

“Speak Up! is a collaborative effort between the Undergraduate Research Office and our colleagues in engineering, English, the Global Communications Center and the Career and Professional Development Center,” said Stephanie Wallach, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. “Throughout June, we organize four 90-minute lunchtime seminar sessions that focus on oral presentations, research sound bites, personal statements and resumes, culminating in the final session—the three-minute presentation challenge.”

"The Speak Up! seminar series taught me how to communicate clearly about my research, especially when speaking to people who are outside my field.”

In all, 75 students participated in the seminars and the final challenge on July 12 — which included students from SURF, the Dietrich College Honors Fellowship program, the Summer Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship program, the College of Engineering’s Jennings Fund for Summer Undergraduate Research Experience and the math department’s Jennings Family Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships.

In rooms scattered across the Cohon University Center, students delivered their concise presentations to their peers and a pair of judges.  Seven finalists were selected, including three students from the Mellon College of Science.

Two MCS students finished in the top three.

Finalist Sharon Wu, a chemistry student, spoke about the prevalence and lack of a cure for Huntington’s disease (HD), a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor ability and cognition. Wu works in the lab of Professor of Chemistry Danith Ly where they are developing a novel set of 16 nucleic acid recognition codes, called Janus bases that can be synthesized to form ligands. The ligands, which Wu analyzes, are expected to act as therapeutic agents for HD.

In third place, senior Jenny Gao described her research on degradable bone implants with Stefanie Sydlik, assistant professor of chemistry and biomedical engineering. When traumatic bone injuries are too large for the bone to self-regenerate, doctors surgically apply grafts taken from cadavers, which increases the risk of infection, allergic reaction or an immune rejection response. Gao assists Sydlik in creating a synthetic material for grafts that uses graphene oxide and bone-enhancing peptides. The new material could provide a better treatment option because it is auto-degradable, inexpensive, safe and has tunable properties to match a patient’s bone structure.

Biological sciences and psychology student Meredith Schmehl took second place with her presentation, “What Parts of the Brain Change When You Learn?” Working in the lab of Sandra Kuhlman, assistant professor of biological sciences, Schmehl studies how a mouse’s neurons respond when they detect visual changes on a computer screen. From this data, she can draw conclusions about where certain sensory abilities are processed in the brain, which might have further implications into understanding the sensory systems that humans use to perceive the world on a daily basis.

"The Speak Up! seminar series taught me how to communicate clearly about my research, especially when speaking to people who are outside my field,” said Schmehl. “I learned how to emphasize the significance and contributions of my work, and I feel more confident in my ability to use these communication skills in future presentations and projects."