Present Your Ph.D.
The scientist, dressed in a lab coat and goggles, leads her audience through the basic steps of research — ask the question, make a guess, make a plan, check it out — and then she presents an experiment: She blows up a yellow balloon and releases it. The audience cheers as it jets around the room before falling to the floor as some correctly predicted.
“And that’s what research scientists do,” she says.
The audience is a group of kindergarteners at a Waco school, and the scientist is a member of Present Your Ph.D., a program created by Baylor graduate students that has taken their science to more than 4,500 students of all ages at 22 collaborating schools in the Waco area over the past four years.
The program was launched in 2017 when Keighley Reisenauer, a Ph.D. biology student, learned about a University of Texas program called “Present Your Ph.D. Thesis to a 12-Year-Old.” She got on Facebook and asked her friends, “Hey, is anyone else interested in this?”
Among them, Dani Crain, another Ph.D. biology student, had been commiserating with a colleague about feeling isolated and unable to share their science.
“We saw Keighley’s post and thought, ‘Oh wow, someone else is thinking about this too.’ So we got coffee at Common Grounds one day and decided to start this thing,” she said.
Later that fall, Reisenauer and Patrick Ortiz, also a Ph.D. biology student, went to a kindergarten class where Ortiz gave the first presentation: “What is a Scientist?”
“We just tried to make it really fun and accessible. We wanted them to try to see themselves as scientists,” said Ortiz.
Today, Present Your Ph.D. (PyPhD) takes science into classrooms throughout Waco with grade-appropriate presentations, while at the same time bringing middle school and high school groups to the Baylor Sciences Building for a PyPhD experience as part of a campus tour. The program also reaches out to the community with hands-on activities at the Waco Farmers Market and at Sic’Em Science Day at the Mayborn Museum. And they’ve joined Transformation Waco, an after-school program for at-risk schools.
Spreading the Word
PyPhD is propelled by a three-person executive board that makes sure members (Ph.D. students) are signed up and motivated to present, and collaborators (target schools and organizations) are ready to host presentations. A director of logistics oversees it all.
Membership is open to all STEM-related graduate students, with the majority working in the science part of STEM so far. The program is seeking more exposure campus wide as a Registered Student Organization through the Graduate Student Association, but an ongoing challenge is convincing Ph.D. students that PyPhD is time well spent.
“It’s an amalgamation of pressure from their advisors to be doing research and having research output, which they think probably translates to, ‘this is not a good use of my time,’” said Reisenauer, director of logistics in 2020. “But we’ve always had, since day one, high impact and low commitment as our model.”
Another hurdle is convincing graduate researchers that science communication is vital to their careers.
“Admittedly, this line of research attracts a group of people who don’t really like to go out very much, who don’t like to talk a whole lot, and who get very technical and siloed very quickly,” said Ortiz, director of presenters in 2020. “But at some point or another they’ll need to talk about what they do and convince someone that what they do is valuable.”
Ankan Choudhury, a Ph.D. biology student and the director of organizers working with collaborators in 2020, added that grant applications often have a “broader impact” statement asking for data about social impact.
“Our organization gives grad students a conduit, a way of having a broader impact; to say, ‘I learned this, I showed it to the kids, and they are enthusiastic about our research, and that’s an impact that I’m having with my research,’” he said.
At the heart of PyPhD is the classroom experience and delivering presentations that match a teacher’s curriculum.
“If we can reinforce ideas that are already presented in the Texas state standards, then they’re more likely to give up some of their valuable class time for us to come in and do that,” said Reisenauer.
Choudhury said some schools have been asking for presenters every semester.
“That’s a big achievement that they like us and they want us back. That’s a good testament to our success,” he said.
Among those repeat collaborators is Lisa R.W. Cobb, science department head at Harmony School of Innovation Waco.
“These experiences help my students make connections between the science that we are learning in class with real applications in society. This gives them context for their learning and provides motivation to keep pressing on in a difficult pathway,” she said.
Michaela McCown, biology/environmental science teacher at Vanguard College Preparatory School, said she has enjoyed working with the program these four years.
“It is professionally run, and the leaders are easy to communicate with, are open to feedback and genuinely desire to ensure the teacher and students have the best experience possible,” she said. “The time, effort and professionalism they devote to this program are remarkable considering they are also busy doing research and being full-time graduate students.”
As one might expect of researchers, PyPhD’s founders tested their methods and gathered data for a year before going to Baylor administrators for promotional and financial support.
“I was extremely impressed by the handful of students who took the initiative to engage in and promote this program,” said Dr. Ryan King, graduate program director and one of the founders’ first contacts. “Students are already very busy, so for them to take the time out of their schedules to reach out to the community through the PyPhD program was truly remarkable. I was quite proud of them.”
Initial support for supplies and travel came from External Affairs, while the Graduate School covered the cost of polo shirts bearing the PyPhD logo. Today, the three executive board members are paid for five hours of work per week.
“Now we have that money consistently, which helps when people have to leave our position and we need someone to step in,” said Reisenauer.
Dr. Beth Allison Barr, associate dean of the Graduate School and faculty advisor for PyPhD, said the program accomplishes two very important things for Baylor.
“First, it helps graduate students learn how to communicate their research interests and skills to a very non-specialized audience. The benefit of this for graduate students is immense, as it makes them better grant writers, better science communicators, and — ultimately — better teachers,” she said. “Second, PyPhD presents such a wonderful face to our community — for Baylor, for graduate education and for science. They epitomize what a Ph.D. is ultimately for — to improve our world, starting with our local communities.”
Looking forward, PyPhD appears built to last. In 2020, the directors received their first outside grant, were developing a workshop for presenters and were establishing a science communication certificate. Physically, the program has a closet in the Baylor Sciences Building (BSB) for supplies, while a website and an online drive has everything presenters, collaborators and future directors need.
“As long as we keep our relationships with the community and keep recruiting people and getting interest, it seems set to keep going,” said Ortiz.