Carnegie Mellon University
July 19, 2019

Students Find Voices Through Communication Workshops

Now in its fifth year, Speak Up! has become a marquee program for the Undergraduate Research Office

By Yana Ilieva

Julianne Mattera
  • Marketing and Communications
  • 412-268-2902

Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate students have been working on summer research projects and  learning how to explain their work to others.

Students who received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship honed their communications and presentation skills through the Undergraduate Research Office’s Speak Up! workshop series.

More than 100 students participated in the program that culminated in a competition in which each student was limited to three minutes and three slides to explain a snapshot of their research. Finalists presented their work on July 17.

Jamie Slomka, a rising senior in policy and management and decision science, shared her work on the psychology of internet searches and was awarded first place.

“I came in thinking [the series] was primarily for students with little experience giving presentations, but I did learn a lot, especially from the session on presentation and delivery,” Slomka said. “I’m much more aware of the way my voice sounds and resonates when presenting.”

Miguel Martinez, a rising sophomore in mechanical and biomedical engineering, presented his work on developing joints and realistic skin for an artificial hand to allow surgeons to practice hand surgeries. He won both second place and the People’s Choice Award.

image of presentation winners
Jamie Slomka (center) was awarded first place, Miguel Martinez placed second and won the People's Choice Award and Vivienne Pham (left) placed third in the competition. 

“The program was vital to me for learning how to communicate to a non-expert audience,” Martinez said.

Speak Up! is an integral part of the SURF program, borne out of feedback from administrators, professors and students. The participating students work in labs, libraries, studios and classrooms across Carnegie Mellon, but they all come together for the same training.

“It enables them to practice the communication skills that will be so necessary for them in the future no matter what academic or career path they pursue,” said Stephanie Wallach, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education and director of the Fellowships and Scholarship Office and the Undergraduate Research Office.

“It gives students a set of resources and tools to draw upon in their undergraduate years and well after graduation,” Wallach added. “Some things we learn may hold a momentary interest and seem to loom large in real time, but it is the resources that students can reach back to again and again that often impact them most.”

Nisha Shanmugaraj, a Ph.D. student in the Department of English, and former associate director of the Global Communications Center, has worked with students to help them communicate more effectively through tutoring, workshops and more. For SURF students, she presented on the importance of communicating the novelty of research succinctly.

“Departments get siloed, and programs like this increase the cross-discipline communication that enriches the students and the campus.” — Nisha Shanmugaraj

“Research soundbites are like a dialogue — there’s an audience ready to ask questions,” Shanmugaraj said. “It’s an opportunity to engage with others about your research.”

Shanmugaraj has been with the Speak Up! program since its inception five years ago and has watched students transform their presentation skills. Through four workshops, the students cover a range of topics from first impressions, to delivering the novelty of research to non-experts, to awareness of how one’s voice can shape oral presentations, and to learning how to narrate a story focused on research and to engage different audiences.

Shanmugaraj said the students learn vital skills as they enter into the world of academic research.

“Departments get siloed, and programs like this increase the cross-discipline communication that enriches the students and the campus,” Shanmugaraj said. 

Vivienne Pham, a rising junior studying chemical and biomedical engineering, said she was delighted with the program and sees herself going back through the workshop slides to prepare for future class and research presentations.

“It surprised me that I would enjoy making a story out of something so simple as my normal day-to-day tasks in the lab,” said Pham, who took third place for her presentation on DNA hybridization techniques for using cells to create heart tissue. “But Speak Up! has shown me how to communicate more effectively and that even small work can really matter.”