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How going back to elementary school helped my Ph.D.

Essential lessons learned by a 5th year graduate student as she goes back to basics.

Emily Dennis Kids 1
Photo courtesy of author

For the past four years, I have been lucky to actively participate in and serve as a leader for a science outreach program called SciCats (Science Cultivates Academically Talented Students). SciCats was started in 2013 by professor Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova with the help of a graduate student, Maddy (Krentz) Gober. Originally, I joined SciCats to share my love of science with future scientists and also as a fun break from regular class and lab work. Currently, I am coordinator for about a half dozen grad students that go on a bi-weekly basis to do hands-on science experiments with 3rd-5th graders at two local elementary schools. In this short blog, I’d like to share how my experiences with SciCats have ultimately improved my grad school experience.


Public speaking: An important aspect of science is presenting your work; whether it’s to a committee or at a conference. Anyone who knows me, knows I am very soft-spoken and this has made presentations quite difficult. Before my first committee meeting, my PI, to get me to project my voice, asked me to sing very loudly the ABC’s to my lab group (my attempt was pitiful). However, with SciCats, I’m presenting to a whole class, which in past years has included students with hearing challenges. Each week, SciCats has been my time to practice projecting my voice and speaking with confidence. And I can say that, especially on days where we encourage group discussions, it is good practice for me to try talking over the whole class to get the young and very excited students’ attention. I’m happy to say that when I gave my departmental seminar last Spring, everyone could hear me, and I felt more empowered than I had been in past giving my talk.


Presenting ideas in easy to digest ways: It is one thing for the audience to hear you, it is another for the audience to understand you! Part of grad school is learning your field’s jargon, however, using jargon with 3rd-5th graders is a bad idea as you will receive blank expressions (Note: this will also happen with friends and family). Being able to put complex ideas (e.g., cells, DNA, molecules), into simple terms is very important when teaching young students and talking to the general public. We must be able to use analogies that can be understood by all. In my first year, I remember looking to the teacher to help me when I was getting blank stares from students, but now I’m better able to see when this is happening and guide other grad students away from jargon. I have learned that fancy words don’t mean anything if no one can understand what you are trying to explain. The simpler, the better!

Emily Dennis Teaching
Photo courtesy of author

A reminder that science goes beyond a dissertation: While the main goal of grad school is to do research, put together a dissertation, and become an expert in a specific field of research, grad school is also often the first time for us to test our abilities as independent scientists. In this process, it is really easy to see our experiments as a reflection of ourselves; when our experiments work, we’re brilliant and when they continually fail, maybe we feel we shouldn’t be in grad school. For me, working with the elementary school students has been humbling. For one, I was in 3rd grade the first time I looked through a microscope, and I am happy I can provide similar experience for the students. Second, they remind me that I have gained so much knowledge between 3rd grade and now, but there is still so much more to learn. One experiment where this really struck me was when we were simply asking whether a boat would float better on fresh or saltwater. Most students guessed the answer would be fresh water. Instead of being disappointed for making the wrong guess, so many were excited to learn that new fact! Third, working with other grad students to develop activities has provided good lessons about how to collaborate and work in a team setting. And finally, I have been surprised to hear some students saying that they cannot do science. This has challenged me to make sure activities really are hands-on and fun because maybe if a student enjoys one experiment, they might look forward to the next and believe that indeed they too can do science. Science is for everyone! Also, this is a reminder for me that I am more than the success of my experiments.


SciCats has been a fun way to enhance my public speaking skills and to remind me that I am more than what happens with my experiments on a daily basis, while also helping grow the next generation of scientists. Working with kids who are eager to learn about the world we live in is refreshing. Even for grad students who are already great at public speaking, I believe outreach programs like SciCats could be highly beneficial, if only for bringing light to your day when experiments don’t work. I would highly encourage all grad students to take the time to seek out opportunities similar to SciCats. You won’t regret it!





About Emily Dennis

Emily Dennis Headshot

 I am a 5th year graduate student in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Program at the University of Kentucky. My research focuses on discovery of novel antifungal agents. You can follow me on Twitter @emdennis8. I am writing this blog as a part of my public engagement class #UKCOPPublicEngagement #UKCOPSciComm.

I would like to thank my mentor Prof. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova (Twitter: @GTsodikova; Instagram: gtsodikova; YouTube: Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova) for encouraging me on my outreach journey.