How to Become a Unicorn Scientist

Unicorn scientist: A scientist with the unique ability to communicate their work to diverse audiences. A unicorn scientist uses public speaking and written works to get scientists and non-scientists alike excited about cutting-edge research and/or the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

This past week, my program help its annual Student Research Day, an opportunity for students to present their work to MD Anderson and UTHealth faculty, students, friends, family, and community members. Students have the opportunity to present their work through three mediums: a research poster, an oral presentation (10 minutes), or an elevator pitch (90 seconds). Each is a competition with judges scoring the student’s presentation, with the top two in each category winning a monetary prize. Finalists are selected for the oral or elevator pitch competitions after submission of a written application or video of their speech, respectively.

As a first-year student, this was my first opportunity to participate. Our graduate program offers an extra incentive for first-year student participation, in the form of additional monetary awards for their highest scoring presentations. I presented a poster (shown above) of my lab’s results studying the effects of fluid shear stress on breast cancer cell motility and the possible cell signals regulating this response. This is data I analyzed in the first couple after joining my lab. The project is less relevant to my PhD work, but the results were interesting and the data will be submitted in a manuscript for publication soon.

I did not have the courage to participate in either of the competitions requiring public speaking, so I was incredibly impressed by the quality of the finalists. Because our program incorporates hugely diverse science, competitor’s research included mechanisms of bacterial drug resistance,  creation of neural pathways during hunger/cravings, and novel immunotherapies to treat understudied cancers. The top competitors had many qualities of unicorn scientists, with two students in particular each winning at least $1200 in the day’s competitions.

The way I see it, a unicorn scientist exhibits the following qualities or skills:

  • Ability to understand the audience, knowing their background, education, perspective, etc.
  • Explain complicated concepts in simple terms without using jargon, while still enabling an accurate understanding of the topic
  • Ability to read the audience, paying attention to their reactions and figuring out what gets them excited
  • Understands how much physical appearance plays a role in people’s perception

A unicorn scientist must additionally have a solid understanding of the topic which they are attempting to communicate/present, as questions may be asked by those seeking additional knowledge. These scientists are typically truly excited about their work and want to confer that excitement to those they interact with, whether through a formal presentation or everyday conversation.

Unicorn scientists are rare, and their ability to effectively communicate their work can facilitate greater career success through procurement of grants, donation, and investment. In addition, these scientists are far more hireable, as companies see that they can work with and communicate with employees from every department. Unicorn scientists also exhibit strong leadership and motivational qualities, making them ideal candidates for managerial roles, facilitating even further career success.

Becoming a unicorn scientist is no easy feat. These are typically not skills people are born with, especially scientifically-minded people, though some natural ability offers an advantage. That which does not come naturally must be developed through practice, experience, and determination. The best thing I’ve found to develop the required skills is practice. Practice allows you to learn what works for you, whether it’s telling stories, making jokes, or figuring how to relate to your audience. Through experience, you determine how much energy you need to hold the audience’s attention and how much preparation you need to convey your intended message.

Personally, I’ve relied on practice to help me get over the nerves of public speaking, which I’m still working on. I still get anxious when deciding whether to stand still or move around and what to do with my hands. While I’ve worked extensively to develop my writing skills, public speaking still makes my heart beat out of my chest. Having a diverse support system to help you practice that which makes you most nervous is paramount, and I’m grateful to have such a system. I want to compete in either the oral or elevator pitch competitions at the Student Research Day next year. I hope by then I’ll be far closer to becoming a unicorn scientist than I feel now.



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