Museum talks give UChicago graduate students’ research a new audience

Unique experience allows them to share their unique work—ranging from Chinese textiles to the neuroscience of birdsong

When University of Chicago graduate student Mia Paletta recently delivered a gallery talk about her research at the Field Museum, she invited the audience to ponder: “What do birds dream about?”

A Ph.D. student studying computational neuroscience, Paletta is fascinated by the way that animal brains generate coordinated, complex movements like birdsong. Standing amid the Field’s eclectic collection of birds around the globe, Paletta explained that when songbirds are asleep, the neurons in their brains fire in the same patterns as those that are produced while the animal is awake and singing. She explained that songbirds may be mentally rehearsing and processing the complex motor actions required to sing their songs.  

Paletta’s presentation was part of the UChicagoGRAD’s new Research Speaks event series, which provides unique opportunities for graduate students to share their research with the University community and wider public. 

“As an early-career scientist that doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about my research in front of a public audience, it was encouraging and fun to see that people were excited about what I was doing,” Paletta said. “I especially love talking to kids about science, and I want everyone to feel encouraged that they have a place in it if they want it.” 

For the program’s inaugural event, 12 doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, and engineering were invited to guide visitors through exhibits and specimens at the Field Museum—from ancient Egyptian scrolls to skeletal models of early human ancestors.

Research Speaks is not only an exciting opportunity for graduate students’ professional development,” said Brooke Carrell, assistant provost and executive director of UChicagoGRAD Experience, “it’s a forum for them to engage with dynamic cultural institutions and practice sharing their ideas—maximizing the impact of their research with the broader public.”

UChicagoGRAD also provided opportunities for students to workshop their talks prior to the event, helping them leverage strategies to convey the impact of their research to the public.

“It really gave us an opportunity to think about what audience we’re trying to reach,” said Sam Marsden, a Ph.D. student at the Pritzker School for Molecular Engineering. “How do we effectively communicate our ideas in a way that's engaging, straight to the point and is fun on some level?”

Marsden’s presentation caught the attention of visitors by emphasizing the scale of a pressing problem. Stationed with a visual demonstration on polymers and plastics, Marsden noted that humanity has produced 11 billion metric tons of plastic in the last 75 years. He discussed a new process he is working on in the lab that may improve the way we recycle.

Instead of mechanically breaking down plastics, which includes degrading plastic chains and carrying additives through, the “chemical recycling” Marsden studies involves manipulating polymers at the molecular level—so they can be rebuilt again and again. In this way, certain plastics may be engineered to behave like a milk jug, with the ability to be recycled countless times.

Academic insights meet stunning artifacts

The afternoon presented an array of graduate research across disciplines, which also leveraged the Field’s collections on anthropology, history and culture. In the Cyrus Tang Hall of China, Yin Cai, a Ph.D. student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, was stationed near a dazzling imperial dragon robe from the Chinese Qing dynasty. Cai felt at home among the collections, having worked at the Field’s China gallery before beginning her doctorate program at UChicago.

“It was so exciting for me to find new connections between that exhibition and my current research after these last few years,” Cai said. Her presentation explored how people of the Qing Dynasty engaged with nature through textiles—from their use of natural materials to the rich vocabulary of nature-themed motifs in their clothing.

Two floors down, Caitlin Kropp, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, presented another wonder of the museum’s collections: ancient Egyptian magical scrolls. Kropp’s research offers the first large comparative analysis of the “master copies” which scholars believe were used as compendiums to produce spell texts. Ancient Egyptians placed these scrolls in their coffins before death, and the texts form a loose collection commonly referred to as the Book of the Dead.

“The idea of the Book of the Dead captures people’s imaginations. It’s a very visible symbol of Egypt, so to be able to explain it in more depth and have people connect with it felt really amazing,” said Kropp.

Laura Hunter, a Ph.D. student studying integrative biology, was stationed at collections which delve into humanity’s past—to the emergence and evolution of Homo sapiens and its ancestors. Evolving Planet, a 26,000-square-foot exhibition space, tells the story of evolution with interactive displays, fossils and models. 

Hunter’s presentation broke down “How the Hands Made Us Human”—discussing thumbs and wrists adapted for tool use, and other features which distinguish our early human ancestors in evolutionary history.

Hunter valued the opportunity to speak at a museum, as it brought her back to her own decision to become a scientist. “Any time I see an opportunity for museum outreach, I jump. I grew up in the New York area, and the American Museum of Natural History was hugely inspirational for me becoming a scientist—and specifically one who studies evolutionary biology.”

Amplifying the impact of graduate research

Though Research Speaks is a new event series, UChicagoGRAD has a history of providing graduate students opportunities to communicate about their research at cultural institutions around the city—including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smart Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American History. The program is part of UChicagoGRAD’s oral communication programming, which helps graduate students and postdocs hone public speaking skills, form new connections and increase the impact of their scholarship.

As the University’s comprehensive resource for graduate and postdoctoral students, UChicagoGRAD also offers one-on-one appointments, a job board, and other resources to help students navigate academic and professional life. Learn more on the UChicagoGRAD website.