Grad students hone communication skills at elevator pitch competition

    Students test their ability to present their research in three minutes to a 'general' audience.

    By Nicole Basaraba on June 24, 2014

    Edmonton–The Research Elevator Pitch Competition took place last week (June 18) as a precursor event to the Annual Graduate Research Symposium.

    The pitch competition involved a preliminary round with over 30 competitors in the morning, which resulted in six finalists who pitched to a panel of four judges in the afternoon.

    The judges for the final round were:

    • Mr. Mike Ekelund, Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Initiatives, Alberta Energy 
    • Dr. Heather Zwicker, Professor and Vice Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta 
    • Dr. Jim Kresta, Research Programs Advisor, Syncrude Research Centre
    • Mr. Sean Townsend, Editor/Writer, Marketing and Communications, University of Alberta  

    Students were given exactly three minutes to pitch their research without any visual aids (e.g. PowerPoint) or notes. Presenters were also asked one question from the judges and one from the audience. They were judged based on their clarity of thought and their ability to engage the audience. The judges’ votes accounted for 70% of their total score and the audience vote for 30%.

    The grand prize of $250 went to Katherine Evans (Biomedical Engineering) who presented her pitch on “Optimizing a Tactor System to Provide Sensory Feedback for Upper Limb Amputees.” Her research looks at improving sensory feedback in robotic arms so that person can feel that something is touching their artificial hand. Evans aims to develop these advanced robotic arms so that they can be affordable (e.g. approximately $200) for amputees rather than the current market prices of approximately $40,000. So what does it take to create a winning pitch?

    “First, I began by thinking about what got me interested in my research in the first place - the fact that we could get amputees to "feel" with their prostheses - and built my talk around that,” Evans said. “I opened with a scenario that put people in the shoes of a recent amputee, briefly explained the current state-of-the-art treatments, then closed with a brief summary of my contribution to the field.”

    “In the past I worked and volunteered with groups such as DiscoverE, WISEST, and Let's Talk Science, and the experiences I’ve gained by presenting to children with these groups really helped me to convey my enthusiasm at a level appropriate for a general audience,” Evans said.

    The second place prize, a $150 gift basket from West Edmonton Mall, went to Kory Mathewson (Biomedical Engineering) who presented his pitch titled “Exercise is the Best Medicine” where he explained a new MRI technique that allows researchers to look at what is happening inside human muscles while they are exercising. Currently MRI machines require patients to lie perfectly still in order to take photos. Mathewson’s research allows for the capture of images of isolated working muscles (e.g. quad muscle in the leg).

    The four other grad student finalists were:

    • Roman Agustin (Chemical and Materials Engineering) presenting on “Engineering Yeast as a Manufacturing Machine”
    • David Dinh (Chemical and Materials Engineering) presenting on “Coke Formation during Thermal Cracking”
    • Russel Fuhrer (Mechanical Engineering) presenting on “Using Dynamic Computer Simulations to Better Understand Orthodontic Procedures”
    • Maedeh Roodpeyma (Civil and Environmental Engineering) “Control of a Continuous Pilot-Scale Extraction Process for Treating Waste” 

    After the presentations, the judges each gave advice to graduate students for future pitches. Judges, Heather Zwicker (Arts) and Townsend (Communications) both warned against overdoing an analogy or letting a metaphor take over the pitch. Mike Ekelund (Assistant Deputy Minister) echoed this and said that he would have liked to hear more about what each student’s particular role was in relation to the research project.

    Jim Kresta (Syncrude) advised, “don’t give up your content in order to entertain. Ask yourself, what is your goal with the pitch? What is important to the audience? Enthusiasm for the audiences’ response or questions is important because you’re not only marketing your research, you’re also marketing yourself.” 

    The Research Elevator Pitch competition gave the audience a chance to learn about the variety of research being conducted across the Faculty of Engineering and a better idea of what makes a good presentation.

    “The Research Elevator Pitch was an exciting way to present my research and convey my enthusiasm for the field. It was great to see the interest of the audience, and very rewarding to hear some of their responses to my pitch. Winning the competition was an added bonus!” Evans said.