Skip to main content

‘Flash talks’ offer bite-sized learning at Annual Meeting

Got 10 minutes? Some people want to talk to you.

Katherine Wu


A series of “Flash Talks” at the AAAS annual meeting gave members a chance to get a quick earful on a subject they might not have caught during the event, or from a voice they might not otherwise have heard. The 10-minute talks covered topics ranging from new discoveries and tips for public engagement to how researchers’ personal stories shaped their careers.

“The nice thing about Flash Talks is they don’t necessarily seem to be restricted to one format,” said Katherine Wu,  a microbiologist and 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow. “I felt like going into this I had 10 minutes to explain a couple of themes that have been important to me, and I’ve been really grateful for that flexibility … There’s more of a personal flair here, and I think that’s often what speaks to people.”

The Flash Talk series started in 2017 in order to mix up the format of the Annual Meeting. The idea was to give conference-goers a chance to learn about new topics in bite-sized form between longer sessions and provide more of a platform for early-career scientists.

Jason Grieves

For Jason Grieves, one of the current crop of Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, the talks are a way to spread the word about the work he’s doing as a senior program manager at Microsoft to help aid people with disabilities.

Grieves was born with an uncorrectable optic nerve defect that impairs his vision. Now he works on software that can compensate for disabilities. In his talk, he recounted how his team at Microsoft helped former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who’s now battling amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), keep signing autographs for fans using a combination of eye-controlled software and a robotic arm.

 “We’re looking for people to continue to work on accessibility in any facet of work,” Grieves said. “I had one person say, kind of in tears, that this thing that we’re building is going to change their life, and it’s going to allow them to do new things. That pulls at my heartstrings, that the work I do can help people live in new ways. That’s what invention is all about.” 

Being an Invention Ambassador has been a “great avenue” for getting that message out, he said.

For Wu, who spent her media fellowship writing stories for Smithsonian Magazine, going from lab to newsroom took her back to her first days at college.

“I started college as an English major, because I thought I wanted to be a journalist or memoirist,” she said. But she realized she missed science, and a class on bacteria made her realize the microbes “had these amazingly complex lives, and I wanted to figure out everything about them.”

Her undergraduate experience left her with the impression that writing and science “were mutually exclusive pursuits.” But in grad school, she realized the two could intersect. That led her to try her hand at science writing and put in for the AAAS fellowship.

At Smithsonian Magazine, Wu wrote pieces ranging from how the makeup of a man’s sperm influences offspring beyond the DNA it delivers to how Dartmouth anthropologists used facial-recognition software to trace the possible origins of the Dr. Seuss character the Lorax to a specific monkey species. And as her first non-academic job, “It was a huge change for me.”

“I was used to running back and forth in a lab environment and handling chemicals, putting on gloves and lab coats,” Wu said. “There, I would walk through the office very day, sit down at my computer, write, make some phone calls and send a few trillion emails. I think I thought I would find that boring, but it was realy great to just have conversations with people all over the world … I felt like I was sort of being transported into different fields and diff environments without leaving the comfort of my cubicle.”

She enjoyed it so much that she’s now taking a stab at journalism as a full-time job. Her flash talk is aimed at giving others a sense of that experience, what it’s like to take a non-traditional route during a PhD program.

“I went into the mass media fellowship thinking it was going to be a nice experience,” she said. But she discovered science writing “is perfect for anyone who is curious about the world and knows more about it.”

Grieves said there’s an art to the talks. He said Lemelson ambassadors got coaching from biologist-turned-author Randy Olson, who taught them that they had to earn the attention of the audience.

“You have to get them excited,” he said. “You can’t tell them about your work or what you want them to do until you’ve hooked them on something they care about.”

Conference participants in particular “are going to tons of presentations throughout the week,” he said. But telling “one really good story” that illustrates a problem can grab their attention, “Then you can start to talk about the science or the engineering or the inventing behind it.”

Blog Name