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About 20 scientists are clustered in a cramped conference room in San Diego, one of the country's science hubs, but they aren't there to pore over their latest research. Instead, this is a meeting of BioToasters — a chapter of the public speaking organization Toastmasters, geared specifically toward scientists.
"For a typical scientist, they will spend a lot of time at the bench, so they're doing a lot of maybe calculations or lab work where they're not interacting directly from person to person," says BioToasters President Zackary Prag, a lab equipment sales rep.
But scientists still often need to be able to speak to a crowd: Academics give seminars; pharmaceutical researchers present results; and graduate students defend their work in front of their professors and peers. Prag says it's important to learn to speak clearly and make small talk.
At a recent meeting, two other Biotoasters were doing just that. New member Gina Salazar gave a presentation on "meeting girls and guys — pickup for smart people."
Salazar practiced with member Greg Mrachko. "You're adorable! You really look like Michael J. Fox," she said to him, as the rest of the club laughed. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Michael J. Fox?" he responded. "Probably because of my new haircut."
Practicing these social graces leads to better public speaking, and that's important for a scientist's career, says Union College physics professor Chad Orzel.
"Part of the way you make a reputation within the field is by giving talks at meetings, and then people see you give the talk and say, 'Oh, that person gave a really good talk. They must be really smart,' " he says.
Orzel says part of a science professor's job interview is giving an hour-long seminar. "In academia, we're hiring people who are going to be expected to teach classes as well, so it's absolutely critical that you be able to give a good talk," he says.
That's why Salazar joined BioToasters. She has a doctorate in biomedical engineering and worked for a while as a postdoctoral scholar, but now she's struggling to find another job.
"I failed a job interview, and I called them and was like, 'Oh, why didn't I get the job even though I had the interview?'" she says. "And they said, 'Well, you don't make eye contact, and you seemed nervous.'"
Three months after she joined BioToasters, Salazar seems less shy. In fact, not long ago, Salazar's mother died and Salazar had to deliver the eulogy at her funeral.
Salazar practiced the speech about her mother's work as a nurse at BioToasters.
"She measured her success not by promotions or by salary, but by how much she contributed to saving peoples' lives and providing them with comfort," Salazar told the group.
Salazar's newfound confidence and poise shows just what the group can do. While she's still looking for a job, Salazar has become a better-speaking scientist.