The Innovation Exchange

by Maureen Deiana

The audience of fellow researchers is welcoming, but may not share your passion; informed, but not likely to be tuned into the context of your work. This is the annual Graduate Research Achievement Day (GR AD) at WPI . It is more like the real world than professional-track conferences, where everyone lives and breathes the same areas of interest. Here, graduate students are challenged to make a “clean, smooth pitch about what they’re doing and why it matters,” explains Richard Sisson, dean of graduate studies and George F. Fuller Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

WPI ’s annual showcase of graduate research talent compels students to think as entrepreneurs do and communicate about the real-world relevance of their work.

Launched in 2006, GRAD is an opportunity for students to emerge from their labs, practice talking about their work in a manner anyone can understand, and revel in being part of a thriving research community. Although not required, participation is growing — from 140 posters presented in the first year to 217 in 2010. “Most faculty say, ‘You will participate,’ because this is the place to get it right,” Sisson adds. There are also awards to win, reputations to build, and chances to discover and benefit from what is happening in other labs around campus.

Walk from poster to poster — or follow partcipating students from year to year — and you get a sense of the breadth and depth of work under way as well as the scale of WPI’s research enterprise. “This is the premier research event at WPI,” says Grant McGimpsey, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, director of the WPI Bioengineering Institute, and, from 2007 to 2010, associate provost for research and graduate studies. “It’s our chance to celebrate that graduate students are more than cogs in the wheel; they are at the sharp end of our quest to solve problems and generate knowledge.

”The energy in the room is infectious,” he adds, “It’s like coming to the town center on market day. There are the straight scientific pitches, and those that are more entrepreneurial. Either way, you need to be able to sell your work.”

Graduate students are rising to the challenge.

Prime the Pitch with Passion

Being among friends makes GRAD “a safe place to hone skills and gain a fresh perspective,” says Greg Cole, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, who credits GRAD with giving him the confidence to present more broadly and in a more meaningful way. “I used to write a speech and wonder why the people I wanted to impress kept cutting me off,” Cole says. Now he brings his passion and has learned to listen for and answer questions. Cole’s presentation on MRI-compatible surgical systems earned him top honors in the Engineering Division poster competition at GRAD 2010. He also won first place in the new Innovation Presentation Competition, or “elevator speech” contest. With no posters as props, students have the podium for five minutes to sell an idea, as an entrepreneur would pitch a venture capitalist.

“Almost more important than what you’re doing is why you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the technology is if it doesn’t meet a need.”
— Greg Cole, PhD Candidate, Mechanical Engineering First Place, Innovation Presentation Competition

“Almost more important than what you’re doing is why you’re doing it,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter how brilliant the technology is if it doesn’t meet a need.” Right now, for Cole, the need is in health care, specifically to overcome the technical and financial obstacles of using live MRI-guidance in deep brain stimulation procedures, such as that used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Getting to the “Aha!” Moments

“By the third year, seeing the event grow, it really sank in that I am part of an impressive research community,” says Zach Pardos, PhD candidate in computer science, whose poster on educational data mining to track learning rates, guessing rates, and other characteristics of the individual student, took second place in the 2010 Science Division.

Pardos has come to appreciate the peer review that is a natural part of GRAD and believes it’s an opportunity to build a reputation. “We don’t judge each other, but we do observe, and because it’s a recurring event, my theory is that GRAD actually improves the quality of research at WPI.” As if to prove it, a few weeks after GRAD, Pardos placed fourth in a field of 600 competitors for the national 2010 Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining Cup. “Presenting my poster at GRAD gave me a sense of what I needed to touch on for the ‘Aha!’ moments I’m after.” The best strategy, he’s learned, is “to focus on my contribution and why it matters” to teachers and students in the classroom.

“It prepares you to think about your research in terms of the higher level contribution you’re making.” — Lori Pelletier, Recent PhD Recipient, Manufacturing Engineering Special Judges Award, Innovation Presentation Competition

The third time was also the charm for Lori Pelletier, whose GRAD 2010 presentation garnered her a special judges award in the Innovation Presentation Competition for the “project with the largest societal impact” and third place in the Science Division poster competition. Pelletier, the director of performance improvement for UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester, presented her work on physician measurement in primary care.

Of her GRAD experiences, she says, “It prepares you to think about your research in terms of the higher level contribution you’re making; to frame it, quantify it — and in my case — to finish the dissertation.” She did so, and defended it successfully, just weeks later. Pelletier’s performance measurement model is being applied at UMass Memorial, and its broad acceptance, particularly by the physician community, is especially gratifying. “The whole reason for leaving a very good job and focusing my doctoral studies on health care was to make an impact on a very important societal problem,” she says.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

For Tracy Gwyther, being tapped for the GRAD 2010 elevator speech competition was a game changer. The PhD candidate in biomedical engineering realized that to communicate with an audience with no science background or concept of life sciences research, she’d have to rethink virtually every word. By doing so, she crafted a winning story.

“You have to be able to get your message out so a broader audience can understand the importance of your work.”
— Tracy Gwyther, PhD Candidate, Biomedical Engineering
Second Place, Innovation Presentation Competition

"To be able to talk on a detailed technical level is one thing, and it's very important," Gwyther says. "But you also have to be able to get your message out so a broader audience can understand the importance of your work. You have to paint a picture." Gwyther's research is on the use of tissue-engineered blood vessels in cardiovascular bypass surgery. Using "everyday words and food analogies" is one of her picture-painting strategies: A patient's cells are placed in shallow Bundt pan–like molds to make rings, fed a high-nutrient blend, and stacked like bagels on a rope to fuse together as a tube, the shape of a native vessel. Production is simple, fast, and consistent — essential factors for clinical and economic feasibility.

Jacques Guyette, working on his PhD in biomedical engineering, also aims to "mend the broken heart," a phrase he worked into the title of his poster to move away from a "typically rigid" model of description and presentation. It's a move that comes with the self-confidence of having done three previous GRAD posters, frequent stand-ups among his peers, and talks at professional conferences — and one that helped him take top honors in the Life Sciences and Engineering Division.

"Part of the graduate experience at WPI is to learn to better describe what you do, and be able to sell it," Guyette says. What he's "selling" is a novel therapy for repairing cardiac muscle after an infarct, or heart attack, by delivering adult stem cells to the damaged tissue. "It's important to get your story down for a broader audience — to stand and deliver," he says. "You get so focused when you're in your lab. This is a day to think and talk about the big picture."