Sci Comm Tips From An iGEM Judge

Formal judgment in any context is nerve-racking. Scientists, familiar with being judged, rely on others to evaluate (and hopefully accept) everything from a PhD thesis defense to grant proposals and peer-reviewed journal article submissions. The frustrating part is not knowing exactly what the judges are looking for. Sure there are requirements and guidelines to follow—but how are the judges going to interpret them? It would be a whole lot easier if we could just peek into their minds. Unfortunately for most, that fantasy isn’t likely to turn into reality.

But if you are part of an iGEM team, today is your lucky day! Our own Preeta Guptan volunteers as a judge for the iGEM competition, and in today’s article, you will get her insider’s perspective about what iGEM judges look for. You will also get some tips to help you excel in the iGEM competition—and effectively communicate about science in general.

Preeta is an External Innovation Manager at Promega, which means she seeks out and investigates technology that might be valuable for Promega to license or acquire. The opportunity to scout up-and-coming synthetic biology advances was one reason she wanted to be an iGEM judge, but curiosity was at the core of her decision. Preeta and the other judges bring their unique perspectives and experiences to each iGEM project and team they evaluate. Here are some suggestions from Preeta:

When there is a checklist for a competition, focus your time and energy on those items.

Teams are judged against criteria to qualify for bronze, silver or gold medal placement, as well as compared with other teams for category and grand prizes. The first thing the judges do is determine if a team has met bronze medal criteria, which is basically a checklist of activities. One thing that really stuck out to Preeta at last year’s Jamboree was how many teams failed to earn a Bronze Medal. She believes that every team should be able to earn a bronze medal because all it requires is putting in the time and doing the work—not brilliant experimental design, careful lab technique or advanced coding knowledge.

Once medal criteria have been evaluated, the judges discuss some of the more subjective parts of each project. These conversations center around issues and concerns judges raised about teams and their projects. Does the team really understand the science? Were the claims/conclusions made by the team convincing? Did the team rely too much on an expert—is the success of the project attributed to them rather than the team? What did the team actually do for their human practices and what did they learn?

Present information in an organized way so it is easy for the judges to find what they are looking for.

Providing relevant supporting evidence that addresses these questions during the presentation eliminates the need for judges to find that information on their own—either by having enough time to ask during a poster session or find on the team’s wiki page. Preeta stressed that it is really important that content in a presentation mirrors what is included in the wiki—it’s a problem if judges are seeing something for the first time in a presentation because it was not included on the wiki.

It’s also a problem if the judges can’t find what they are looking for. Wikis provide a more holistic view of the project and an opportunity to examine more detailed information to judge if projects have met the competition criteria. A good wiki displays a ton of information, but is also simple and organized enough that you can navigate it quickly. According to Preeta, how you structure your wiki is very important because the judges only have so much time and need to be able to find things very easily and systematically. For one team Preeta judged, the data was located in a hidden format on the wiki that was difficult to find.

Don’t spend too much time talking about one element of your project at the cost of others that are equally important.

According to Preeta, presenting an iGEM project is not like “a typical science presentation where you’re wowing people with data and telling them all the intricacies of it.” Data doesn’t need to be front and center during the presentation since it is only one component of the project. If you want to win a gold medal and be in the running for a grand prize, you’ve got to feature all aspects of your iGEM project (modeling, wet lab, human practices, measurement, biobricks, etc.) in your presentation.

You don’t need to include every detail since judges will revisit your wiki after you present to fill in the details. For example, you don’t need to include a photo of every gel but you do want to include crucial data that support your conclusions at each step. You want the presentation to be well-balanced and provide a summary of all the details contained on your wiki. Preeta noted that teams usually spend too much time explaining the background information about their project when they don’t have compelling information about the other aspects—you’re not going to fool the judges.

KNOW what you’re talking about and when to admit you don’t know something.

It is very evident when presenters don’t have a solid knowledge of the topic they are speaking about. Take the time to truly understand what you’re presenting and practice in front of an audience ad nauseum. Even if you didn’t accomplish everything you had planned for your project, you want to be able to clearly demonstrate what you did do and what the next steps would be. It is more important to communicate less information more clearly than try to pack a bunch of data into your presentation that you can’t take the time to explain carefully.

The more you understand your project, the easier it will be to connect with the audience and keep them engaged during the presentation. Preeta says “there is a level of showmanship” that can bring an audience in, even when other barriers exist, such as complex science or English fluency. Images can also help and should be included in place of text whenever possible.

Judges will give you a chance to show your understanding by asking questions after your presentation or at your poster session. If you don’t know the answer to their question, it’s better to say you don’t know than to make something up. It may also be possible that you don’t understand what the judge is asking because of their phrasing or because English isn’t your native language. Don’t hesitate to ask the judge to rephrase or clarify the question. This strategy will give you a few extra seconds to gather your thoughts and help you narrow your answer more precisely to what the judge is looking for.

Ultimately the judges want teams to do well and feel positive about their experience at the Jamboree. “We want to make them realize they’ve done amazing work to get there, regardless of how their project ended up,” Preeta explained. Usually, after conferences or events like this, Preeta feels exhausted, but she found the work the iGEM teams did was so incredible that she left the Giant Jamboree feeling completely energized. Preeta is excited to return as a judge to the 2019 iGEM Giant Jamboree and wishes the best of luck to all of the teams competing!

Click here to learn more about our resources and support for iGEM teams.

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Darcia Schweitzer
Darcia is a Content Lead at Promega. She earned her BS in Secondary Education at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, with minors in Biology and Spanish, and her MS in Biotechnology at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She is passionate about sharing scientific knowledge with all audiences, including her family and friends—whether they have solicited the lesson or not! In her free time, Darcia enjoys reading, playing volleyball, eating delicious food and cheering for the Chicago Cubs.

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