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Science and the Spotlight

Joy Reeves Reflects on the Huang Fellows TED Talks

I can’t really express what it feels like to listen to a great TED Talk.

Is it a rush of adrenaline, watching the speaker command the stage undaunted by their audience?
Is it a secret sense of smugness, feeling ever-so-slightly smarter after being enlightened on a nuanced topic?
Or is it simply the empathy that comes with giving another human your undivided attention for five sacred minutes?

During our Huang Fellows mini-TED Talks session, I was blasted with some combination of these feelings as my peers took the stage (an empty classroom) one by one to shed a new light on their summer research.

Dead bugs. The complexity of decision-making. “The Perfect Pill.”

These are just a few of the diverse topics the Huang Fellows shared, all speaking with contagious passion and eagerness. And the list goes on. I remember hearing my friend interweave his research on HIV with a poignant screenplay by Tony Kushner called Angels in America to explore what de-stigmatization means. Another one of my friends discussed her research on detecting harmful, immortal “forever chemicals” in our environment…by wearing a wristband everywhere she went.

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The room sometimes erupted in laughter and sometimes sat in stunned silence, and each TED Talk seemed to take on its own personality as speakers responded differently to the prompt we were given. The prompt was open-ended and simple: discuss a big-picture aspect of your research in a time span of 5-6 minutes.

If you had five minutes, what would you talk about? It’s not an easy question. And anyone who has given a presentation is probably familiar with what I would call the Speaker’s Dilemma: balancing factuality – the obligation to bolster a presentation with facts and figures – with the need to feel interesting.

One of my friends opened his TED Talk with “Each and every one of you in this room… is lazy.” I think he’s right. Even as budding scientists, we are constrained by two factors that make us very human: dwindling attention spans and a love of imagery-fueled storytelling. Yet, I’ve learned that it is a nervous scientist’s instinct to retreat into technicalities; to vomit out five minutes of research jargon. Fighting this urge, we strive for the magical feeling of captivating our audience onstage, suspended somewhere between encyclopedia and entertainer.

What makes a great TED Talk – or any speed-pitch conversation, really – is achieving this elusive harmony between facts and narrative. I strove for this in the TED Talk of my own, which discussed the “Once Was” phenomenon: having to explain to our grandchildren the natural spaces that climate change took from them (specifically, the emergence of eerie “ghost forests” killed by saltwater on the coast of North Carolina). It was a great opportunity to practice feeling comfortable in the spotlight.

Our TED Talks were not perfect. We were all fairly new to TED Talks; our training consisted of two seminars, a few YouTube examples, and, just for fun, a cautionary BuzzFeed article “The 20 All-Time Worst TED Talks.” Yet, regardless of how many times we stuttered or nearly lost our place, the beauty of practicing a TED Talk was learning how to play mistakes off elegantly.

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Some people hate on TED Talks for being too formulaic. Pace back and forth. Shoot a rhetorical question to the audience. Intellectual pause. Clasp hands together climactically. But, as I see it, scientific posters are equally formulaic: Introduction. Propose hypothesis. Explain methods. Results, point to figures. Conclusion. While both are beautiful forms of communication, which would you rather listen to if you wanted to truly understand the quirks, worldviews, and idiosyncrasies of your classmates?

My favorite moment in my TED Talk was during the feedback stage (a period for comments immediately following each talk, which sometimes felt like a praise-filled press conference, and other times felt like a constructive, healthy group roast). I had begun my intro with “I want you to imagine you are old.” …And one of my supervisor’s only comments was “check!”

I will cherish our TED Talk session for being lighthearted; for feeling formal and casual at the same time. I will also cherish the skillset I gained from the experience, especially in science communication and learning to be concise. Most of all, I think we all will cherish the realization that time is precious. What is your 5-minute message to share? How will you use your time?

While it’s hard to express the surge of emotions I feel when watching a great TED Talk, I walked away after our presentations feeling an overwhelming sense of connectivity and unity among the Huang Fellows.

And that’s because, as I see it, listening to your peers talk about their passions will always be one of the most rewarding and valuable ways to spend 5 short minutes.


Joy Reeves, Huang Fellow ’22

Joy ReevesJoy is from Frederick, Maryland and is planning to major in Environmental Science & Policy.