Thursday, May 28, 2009

top women speakers? Carolyn Bertozzi

I've spent much of my career working with scientists and training them to translate their work from the technical to the approachable for public audiences. So when reader Beth Schachter suggested this video of a lecture by chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, a University of California-Berkeley professor and director of its molecular foundry, I was especially pleased. With the appealing title "Sugars are actually good for you," the talk doesn't shy away from technical terms or diagrams on slides, but they're always explained in clear and simple terms. Along the way, Bertozzi manages to describe how scientists actually work, how they see the structures they're studying, and why you should care. When she explains lactose, for example, she asks how many people are lactose intolerant--then adds, "So am I." (She also notes that she's included some chemical structures in her slides for those in the audience who understand them and might appreciate them--a nice nod to a situation many scientists face, with experts and non-experts in their audiences, and a warm way of including them in her talk without letting the technical dominate her remarks.)

All that use of approachable language helps bridge the gap between the technical expert and the non-technical audience, a gap that proves insurmountable for many scientists attempting to communicate with public audiences. At the same time, Bertozzi won me over at the start by moving to one side of the lectern so her audience could see her. She uses the lectern in one of the many ways I recommend you do, simply as something to rest her elbow or hand on. It's a relaxed stance, and a relaxed delivery as a result--but it also subtly removes a barrier between scientist and audience, as if to say, "Really, we can just talk about this--it's not too technical to understand." When explaining the minute differences in cell surface sugars that determine your blood type, she notes that the differences "are insignificant to a chemist," but have dramatic effects on your immune system. She peppers the talk with analogies, a great tool for translating the technical: enzymes are like scissors, a virus comes down onto a cell like a lunar landing module. Gestures underscore those images--she's not relying on her slides to carry the day.

Related posts: Lecterns: Use 'em or lose 'em

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.