Student Spotlight: Patricia Montaño

Name: Patricia (Patty) Montaño
Major: Museology
Year in School: Second Year Masters
Ethnicity: Bolivian

Patricia (Patty) Montaño graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA with a Bachelor of Art in Biology in 2004. In Spring 2011 she completed a Master’s in Science in Biology from the University of Washington. Though a science nerd, Patty also studied dance, and the piano from a young age through her undergraduate years. Her work in education inspired her to pursue a career in museums where she could invite the public to consider the personal and cultural significances of science. Her past museum experiences have been as a docent and developer of bilingual materials at the University of Washington Botany Greenhouse, and co-creator of a summer camp at the Conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. Once she completes her M.A. in Museology in 2012,  she looks forward to bringing her multi-disciplinary interests together to produce exciting public programs for museum visitors of all ages and backgrounds. 

Patricia’s CV can be found here



Guest Blog: Communicating Science Effectively

Racing heart. Hot neck. Sweaty palms. Nervous ticks.

Do you often experience these symptoms? If you experience 2 or more of these symptoms, you may be suffering from a common condition referred to as Pre-Talk Anxiety.

Last fall, I decided to battle these nerve-racking symptoms. I would not be ruled by stress and anxiety before giving a talk. I have also had the distinct displeasure of being an audience member in various science talks that seemed like they would never end – the speaker was hidden behind the podium, spoke for 50 minutes in a monotone voice, and the slides were boring and hard to decipher. Besides a fitful and awkward nap, I took nothing substantial from these talks. They were a waste of my time. As a graduate student, I attend about 3-5 scientific talks a week with each talk ranging from 30 to 60 minutes – these include journal club, research talks by my peers, and invited speakers from other institutions. If at minimum I spend 3 hours a week listening to science talks, over the course of a school year, I listen to over 90 hours of talks a year. That’s a lot of time! While I’m sure there are many strategies to become an effective listener, a sure fire way to ensure that no one naps during your talk is to be an engaging speaker.

This is why, among other reasons, I started my journey to becoming an effective communicator by signing up for a course offered at the University of Washington: ASTR 599B – Communicating Science to the Public Effectively. This 2 credits course met every Monday from 2:30-5:20pm during the 2011 fall quarter. Throughout the course, graduate students practiced several strategies designed to make communicating science effective and accessible, used improvisation to reduce anxiety and promote audience engagement, and heard from many guest speakers on science communication. Each student’s final project will cumulate in a 30-minute public presentation to be delivered during the winter quarter’s Engage: The Science Speaker Series.

From the get go, we began working on our presentations for the Engage seminar. This is definitely a great way to get the most out of the course. We practiced storyboarding, improvisation, developing analogies to convey research, choosing content rather than jargon, distilling ideas concisely, and public speaking. If you walked by and looked into our classroom, you would often find us standing in a circle playing an improv game. Personally, one of the most nerve-wracking improvisation activities for me was to give a 1 minute presentation on a topic I was given 2 seconds before my talk began! We also had weekly readings and discussions and often heard from guest speakers.

So what is the best way to engage your audience? Tell them a story! For the vast portion of human history, we have been oral storytellers and listeners. Our brains are hardwired to process this information quickly and store it away. Good stories have four main parts: the setup, complicating action, development, and climax. In the Setup, the initial situation is established and protagonist and the protagonist’s goals are introduced. In the Complicating Action, the story is taken in a new direction and there is some action (the antagonist may cause some strife here). In the Development, the protagonist’s struggles to complete the goals are developed in-depth. In the Climax, progress is made toward resolving the goal. If you so desire, you can even add an Epilogue part to wrap up the story. Take a look at any movie or even a SpongeBob SquarePants episode, you’ll see each of these parts play an integral role in making a good story. If you have ever watched a particularly bad movie, one of these parts might have been out of skew; the setup may have taken too long, there was no climax, or the complicating action was not developed. This may be why some scientific talks are hard for a general audience to sit through. Scientific talks are often presented in an order that is contrary to our storytelling hard-wired brains- Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. This format probably evolved because this is how scientific papers are written. But, there is still hope for us yet. We can take the very same storytelling strategies I mentioned above to make scientific talks easier to follow and more interesting to audiences.

A fellow UW SACNISTA, Laura Martinez, also took the course this fall. Not only was it my pleasure to see Laura every week, for your reading pleasure is her take on the course. Laura says, “I think it’s important to concisely and effectively communicate our research and findings to our colleagues in the scientific community and the greater public. Unfortunately, this is not an inherent skill for many, but is certainly expected in our fields. I was very motivated to take this course to challenge myself and to learn skills that would help me become a better communicator and to gain a growing confidence when encountering an audience. Our instructors and guest speakers offered very enlightening perspectives about engaging our audience by telling a story and giving our research work and findings personalities. Developing these skills comes with time but I strongly believe that it is well worth it to be able to effectively communicate science topics and issues and to dispel any information that is often misconstrued because of our inability to communicate it. Our work is meaningful and we can make a powerful impact on our close to home and heart communities and the greater public.”

As a SACNISTA, it is important that we not only do great science, but that we are able to communicate our work to our family, communities, and peers. Throughout my journey to become a better communicator, I have often thought about how I can take these strategies back to my tribe, where elders often don’t speak English and there is not even a word for “cell” and “DNA” in our language. This will be a challenge that we all face as we endeavor to become professionals in our respective fields, and still remain connected to our communities and cultures. But you can start by realizing your public speaking weaknesses and conquering them with effective strategies. In the interest of space, I’ve only relayed a few gems of advice, but I just want to mention that there are great resources out there where you can find a more thorough discussion on various topics. In particular, below I’ve listed some great resources for building your powers of communication.


Olsen, Randy. Don’t Be Such a Scientists: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Island Press, 2009.

Dean, Cornelia. Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Mooney, Chris and Cheryl Kirshenbaum. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. Basic Books, 2009.

Looking for opportunities to improve your presentation skills?

The Pacific Science Center offers a Science Communication Fellowship that is composed of “professional development workshops focused on building the skills to effectively engage public audiences.

Also offered by the Pacific Science Center is a popular series called Science Café.

Check out the Toastmasters International. There are various Seattle Toastmaster Clubs you can become a part of.

Want a beer and science? Check out Science on Tap where several UW scientists are featured.

Radio Science? Academia Nut on Hollow Earth Radio

General information about Engage: The Science Speaker Series and Seminar.

More information specifically about the seminar.

Featured SACNISTAs in the Engage: The Science Speaker Series and Seminar

In addition, please support the your UW SACNAS Chapter peers. Both Laura and I took the course together last fall, and will be giving our Engage talks soon. Mark your calendars, but if you can’t make it, our talks will be recorded and uploaded onto this blog for anyone interested in viewing them. We have tried to use all of the strategies from the course so hopefully our talks can serve as an example on how to use analogies and what I mean by storytelling. Tickets are free to UW Students. Please bring your UW ID cards

Laura E. Martinez

The Life And Times Of A Cancer-Causing Bacterium That Can Thrive In The Human Stomach
Thursday February 23 08:15 PM Downstairs At Town Hall Part Ii

Katrina Claw
Mission Impossible: A Sperm’s Perilous Journey To The Center Of The Egg
Thursday March 01 08:15 PM Downstairs At Town Hall Part Ii

Katrina Claw is a 4th year Ph.D. student in the Department of Genome Sciences. She is a member of the Navajo tribe and originally from Arizona. A more detailed profile of Katrina is located in an earlier blog post on Native American Heritage Month. 

Student Spotlight: Andrew Barr

Name: Andrew Barr
Major: Applied Math
Year in School: Senior
Ethnicity: Peruvian-American
Hometown: Washington D.C.

My current studies and research at the University of Washington focus on applied math and high performance computing (HPC). My current research group, under professor Nathan Kutz, is creating software for American Sign Language recognition on smartphones. I recently was awarded a Mary Gates Scholarship to support this. I have been privileged to take a number of graduate courses as an undergraduate, and am currently applying to graduate programs in applied math.

Please visit Andrew’s website for more information on his academic career, his intentions in graduate school, his CV and his contact information. 

Guest Blog: Quantitative Advocacy

Advocacy & Statistics

Many times in graduate school and now in my position as a research scientist, I have found myself in the position of defending the importance of efforts towards broadening who is participating in STEM fields.  Conversations about diversity are much easier with other SACNISTAs – there are shared experiences and a natural empathy to the challenges of being underrepresented in an academic department.  The same conversation with another academic can invoke feelings of frustration, comments and questions that make me wonder if we’re even on the same planet.

In spite of the frustration, I decided that if I wanted to improve my advocacy skills and help change campus culture it was important to not avoid those conversations. I found through trial and error that if I’m talking to quantitative scientists about why we should be making efforts towards diversity, I should speak in numbers.  I don’t mean to paint all academics with a broad brushstroke, but having quantitative evidence infuses advocacy for diversity efforts with the kind of rigor that other academics recognize.  It’s speaking the language of the institution so you can start breaking down skepticism and move conversations beyond the need to defend why you spend time and energy towards increasing diversity.

Helpful resources

The National Science Foundation has an interactive website with statistics for women, minorities and persons with disabilities in science and engineering.  The site takes some navigating, but there is a wealth of up-to-date information – one nice feature is that they include descriptions the U.S. demographics on the site.  This allows you to illustrate visually how underrepresented some groups are in science and engineering.  There are limitations to the data sets.  For example, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders and multiple-race are grouped as ‘other’ in employed scientists and engineers from 2006.

Quantitative descriptions of what schools in our communities look like have also been valuable in my work bridging the university and K-12 education efforts.  UW academics are often stunned by how diverse Seattle Public Schools are, especially when compared with the university’s student body.  Two sites that are particularly helpful in capturing the differences include the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and UW Diversity.

For the purposes of talking about SACNAS as a tool for enhancing diversity for groups beyond Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans, statistics from the 2011 conference are great tools for demonstrating how the SACNAS National Conference draws a diverse audience.

Challenges using social science

Digging into the statistics does take time and my training is not as a social scientist. I’m trained as a natural scientist and when I speak about diversity, I’m usually talking to other natural scientists about social science. My presentations of quantitative data are often the first time the audience has seen any kind of data connected to assertions about diversity in STEM.  Because I’m using data to illustrate broad points, I have found that it’s sufficient to my audience to be transparent about what I did with my data and why even though I’m sure some of it would make a rigorous social scientist cringe.

There are cases where you want to compare data from sources that don’t represent the same year, race/ethnicity categories, etc., but keep in mind that you can still use imperfect comparisons to make broad claims.  In the first figure above, I want to compare U.S. population and employed scientists and engineers from the same year but I didn’t want to use the archived U.S. population data from the NSF site because it added Native Americans to the category of ‘other’.  The US Census Bureau has population data from 2006, but the site is much harder to navigate than NSF. Since it’s reasonable to assume the U.S. population demographics wouldn’t shift radically between 2006-2008, I used data sets from two different years.

It’s also important to be aware that for some demographic data, population totals won’t add up to 100%.  In some data sets, ‘Hispanic’ is an ethnicity that is separate from race and people under this label are counted in more than one category.

There are many tools and strengths that SACNISTAs bring to the table when we’re advocating for diversity in STEM.  Quantitative data are valuable additions to our advocacy toolbox.

Amanda Bruner is a Research Scientist & Outreach Coordinator at the University of Washington.  Her current position with SoundCitizen is focused on broadening public participation in environmental research.


Student Spotlight: Vanessa Galaviz

Name: Vanessa Eileen Galaviz
Department: Environmental and Occupational
Hygiene, Department of Environmental and
Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health
Year in School: PhD Candidate
Ethnicity: Chicana
Hometown: Palmdale, CA

Vanessa Galaviz supports the San Ysidro community in California with her research on personal exposure and uptake of diesel particulate matter (DPM) among pedestrians who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. 1-nitropyrene (1-NP) is a major constituent of DPM and   recent research has indicated 1-NP as an exposure marker for DPM due to its abundance and minimal contribution from other non-diesel sources. In addition, the applicability and utilization of 1-NP as a prominent DPM marker is strengthened in that biomarkers specific to 1-NP can be collected and quantified in urine. Utilizing biological and environmental sampling, her work as a doctoral student in the Environmental and Occupational Hygiene program will be used to support the recommendations of the local community group, Casa Familiar, and to provide information to the San Ysidro Community Group as well as the San Ysidro Smart Border Coalition, ensuring that the redevelopment planning already underway by the US Government takes into account community concerns.

The UW SACNAS Chapter is proud to announce that Vanessa will be receiving the Community Volunteer Award for the School of Public Health’s Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 12, 2012. Congratulations, Vanessa!