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Dissertation showcase merges social sciences, stories

By Janet Nguyen

March 13, 2014 1:40 a.m.

Graduate students plan to merge storytelling with science at an inaugural dissertation showcase on Thursday.

Ten students will speak about their academic research at the first UCLA Dissertation Launchpad Showcase. The event is the culmination of a 10-week program during which graduate students studying in social science fields learned how to present their research to a non-academic audience.

After the speakers showcase their research Thursday night, audience members will vote for the best presentations. The three graduate students who win the most votes will each receive $5,000, funded by private donations and the Scott Waugh Endowed Dean’s Discretionary Fund for Social Sciences.

The showcase will be held in the California NanoSystems Institute at 6 p.m., and a live stream of the event will be available on the Division of Social Sciences website.

The Division of Social Sciences organized the event so graduate students could practice explaining several societal issues and their significance to the general public.

The program was created by Alessandro Duranti, dean of social sciences and an anthropology professor, and James Stigler, associate dean of social sciences and a psychology professor.

“It’s very important to explain to the rest of the world what (people in academia) do,” Duranti said.

Duranti added that he thinks research can include a lot of specialized language, which may not be understandable to people outside the field.

For some students, adapting academic research for an audience without a background in academia was challenging.

Daniella Perry, a graduate history student, said she plans to discuss the weaknesses in scientific studies that link violence with media exposure to comic books, television, movies and video games.

While writing her speech, Perry said she sometimes struggled with simplifying complex concepts and removing scientific jargon from her presentation.

“I (feel like) my dissertation has relevance to society,” Perry said. “I just wanted a little bit more help speaking to wider audiences.”

During a series of workshops, students condensed their research into eight-minute speeches in preparation for the event.

Barbara Giordano, a professional speechwriter and presentation coach, organized individual meetings with the participants and encouraged them to include personal stories about any emotional connections they have to their topics.

Giordano said she thinks creating a narrative out of a research project can increase the general audience’s engagement with a presentation.

“Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication,” Giordano said. “The minute you click into a story, you pay attention and want to know what’s coming next.”

Amanda Chown, a graduate political science student, plans to present research about post-civil war politics in Lebanon at the event.

Chown said she intends to share an experience she had several years ago in Lebanon with a taxi driver, who stiffened after crossing a former demarcation line set in place during the Lebanese Civil War.

“Just driving on the freeway conjured up all these images for him, 20 years after the war,” Chown said. “It helped me realize how deep the wounds left by the civil war are.”

Duranti said he helped create the event partly to teach students how to spur the general public into potentially providing new, alternative sources of funding.

Because university funding for specific research programs can fluctuate, Duranti said he thinks it’s important for students to learn how to find sources for other forms of funding outside of academia, such as private donors.

Stigler and Duranti said they plan to host more showcases in the future and possibly expand the event so graduate students from other academic departments at the university can participate.

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Janet Nguyen
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