From PhD to TEDx Science Talk BTS

I have always loved TED talks. Anything from personal management, inspiration, discoveries, arts, psychology…… the contents from speakers from all walks of life has been fuelling my soul ever since the platform to share ideas since 2016 ( read more on the History of TED here https://www.ted.com/about/our-organization/history-of-ted ).

I attended my first TEDx talk (x = independently organised events) in Adelaide back in 2015 ( https://www.ted.com/tedx/events/16562), since then I have been wondering if I was given one chance to do a TEDX talk, what would I be sharing ?

My very first TEDx event attendee name tag from 2015. This event was held at the South Australian Museum, titled TEDx Adelaide Salon.

I had no answers back then.

The last thing I thought I would do in my PhD, is to talk about my field of research in a TEDx talk.

It has been a month now since the event has ended, I still find it unbelievable. The fact is, I struggled with imposter syndrome throughout my MPhil and PhD. The imposter syndrome had never been more prominent than ever the moment I was told I was shortlisted as one of the six main speakers of many who are extremely talented with “Ideas worth sharing”.

Having to share my research via TEDx is definitely uncommon. Hence I have decided to document this amazing, once-in-a life time experience as a blog post. This is because besides the experience as a speaker itself, it takes more than just the 17 minutes on stage to be ready for a TEDx talk. Hence, the title of the post – Behind the scenes (BTS) of a TEDx Science Talk.

“Congratulations, you have been shortlisted for an interview.”

A new email notification came up on my computer screen, it was a university newsletter. I often skim read what are the latest updates or happenings in our university via our bi-weekly newsletter. There was an advertisement for student speakers for an upcoming TEDX UniAdelaide event. I applied without hesitation.

About two weeks after, I received an email from the TEDx UniAdelaide organisers with the above header. On the day of the interview itself, my heart pounded as if I was standing at the edge of the cliff.

My life turning point came when I officially met the team. They are a group of very talented international students who were here pursuing their postgraduate studies under the Australian Endeavours Awards sponsorship. They asked me questions about what are my ideas worth sharing, and how would my topic address the theme “Limitless Change” inspired by how the world is coping with the challenges imposed by the pandemic.

“The pandemic is a reminder that the future is limitless, and so are the changes. I noticed during the pandemic we have become more isolated, more self-focused. Of course, those topics are important to be addressed in the upcoming TEDx talk. ” I said, from my vivid memory of our first meeting. “”But, changes doesn’t happen with us humans only, but also our environment and all living beings that we interact with. Plants, are often the ones we neglect, as they are so “quiet” and sessile. Do you know they talk and whisper? and why are there scientists out there studying about these whispers that also exist in all other organisms? I wanted to challenge the public’s understanding of science, to raise awareness about the importance of basic/foundation research.”

I remember they asked me why should I be chosen.

”You will never find someone who combines philosophy, perspective, literature, language, personality, passion, and science all in one person. I think this gives me the power to relate and connect people to ideas worth sharing.”

I walked out of the interview room feeling contented to have met such inspirational team behind this event.

One week later, I am back in the same meeting room again – as a confirmed speaker for the upcoming TEDx event.

The training journey as a Jedi begins

The event was initially scheduled to be on the 21st of November 2020. Before the event, I drafted my script titled “ Are your plants talking behind you?” With the idea of a “hook” to introduce to our TEDx audience to the world of plant RNA modifications, which I often refer to it as “punctuations” on sentences, which in cells, are known as Ribonucleic acids (RNAs). Like punctuations, these RNA modifications can define the context of the RNAs – from stability, translatability, to functionality.

Example of types of RNA modifications “punctuations” on messenger RNA (mRNA) “messages”. Image from Hu et al. (2019) BMC Molecular Cancer

We had two rehearsals with the organising team before we met our training coach for the upcoming TEDx talk, Mr David Rawlings. As a team, we did an analysis of features of successful TEDx talks – from structure, signatures, strengths, weaknesses, techniques, engagement, and communication. It was a short one hour coaching session where we reflect on our presentation styles, and learn to analyse our own strengths and weaknesses as a TEDx speaker. We worked through our materials ie. scripts and slides with David. He gave some good suggestions on how to improve on my content delivery, but also challenged me something that has always been my greatest hurdle in public speaking – to deliver as if you do not have a slide to guide you. “This is different to memorising a script”, he said. “ It’s bringing your audience with you on a journey. As you speak, the images, ideas should slowly paint themselves in the minds of the audiences. Your slides then shall only be visual assistance, but you are the spotlight.”

His words provoked some thought on my past conference presentation approach. I was used to heavily rely on eye-catching, animated visuals to guide my audience in navigating complicated research data. To do it as it there is no slide behind me, is this even possible?

This led to a major restructuring of my TEDx talk.

The Pandemic Lockdown

We had our rehearsal the week prior to the event in November 2021. I had my restructured talk ready, and the rehearsal went well with positive affirmations from the organising team. The bright red and white “TEDxUniAdelaide” signage came in. All of us were hyped up for 21st of November 2021.

The lockdown happened.

Due to the rising cases of community transmissions of COVID-19, South Australia went into an immediate statewide lockdown. Although the lockdown restrictions were lifted in three days, we had to cancel the live event due to this.

It was a difficult decision to come to, as we have had all ready to go. We all felt disappointed, but know that safety and health comes above anything else. We continued staying in touch, speakers and organisers, motivating each other to embrace the spirit of “Limitless Change”. We promised with our endurance, this event would come back stronger and better than originally planned.

It did.

March the Fifth – The Final Showdown

We had two rehearsals on the week of the event itself to get everyone back on track again. For me, the rehearsal was a rocky start for me to get back on my feet. I startled, blanked out a few times during the rehearsal, and that started concerning me. I was pacing back and forth, reading my script over and over again. Somehow, this does not help me recall the talk’s content when I am rehearsing. I was so worried that I was going to be a let-down.

Jyothi, one of our lead organisers, came and reassured me it was ok. He proposed setting up a laptop as my cues, to see if this would assist my flow of thoughts as I speak. I remembered the faces of Jerald, Alana, Rumit, Mehlani, Brian, Niranjala and the rest of the team was trying to give me the reassurance and encouragement to keep trying.

I gave it another shot. This time, it worked! It occurred to me then because I have been researching on this topic to for the past four years, restricting myself to a script is almost impossible. However, with the visual reminders, the thoughts flowed, and I feel more powerful than ever on a topic that I have been devoting my past four years to.

We did a post-mortem after. The team, from all works of lives and diverse experiences, shared their thoughts and insights on audience response, and some suggestions to further improve the talk. I enjoy both the honest compliments and critiques, as both helped to build my confidence and at the same time, to grow as a science communicator. When David showed up, it was definitely a confidence booster.

“Lights, camera, action!”

The event was successful, all the speakers did an amazing job in delivering their talks – powerful, inspirational, and engaging. I secretly enjoy having a speaker’s microphone on me – it totally feels like I am on a stage for a concert show!

The unforgettable moment was when the audiences came and took photos with me, and asked me questions on my research. When they told me they walked away from the event learning about RNA modifications, the importance of plant research in food security, and how science is not as much of a stranger to non-scientist that it seems.’ They made my day. I have learnt that the general public has always had an immense interest in science, and the current progression of it.

Science, when communicated effectively, is a universal language.

Sabrina Pei Qin Ng

And my talk now if officially LIVE on the TED portal and TEDx YouTube channel!

I could never be more thankful to be given an opportunity to share my research in such a meaningful way.

And this would not have been possible, without the amazing organising team and volunteers behind the scenes.

The “Dream Team” TEDxUniAdelaide organising team. From left Rumit (I call him the support power pack, he is super supportive through the ups and downs of making the event happening!), Alana, Jerald, Jyothi, and Mehlani.
Myself with the legendary TEDxUniAdelaide’s own “Gordan Ramsey” Jyothi. Thank you for your honest critiques are the ones I enjoyed the most during this whole journey. Don’t get me wrong, he is super x1000000 nice!
Myself with Jerald, the lead organiser of TEDxUniAdelaide.
Speakers( From left: Julia, Shrutika, myself), lead organisers (Jerald and Jyothi), and audience group photo post-event!
Students speakers with our coach Mr. David Rawlings, Director of Landmark Media. Image taken from David’s LinkedIn profile (which I have also hyperlinked under his name -do reach out to him on LinkedIn if you would like to improve on public speaking, highly recommended!)

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