Ruchi Shah has never been at a loss for words, particularly when it comes to talking about her passions: science, research, and the all-natural mosquito repellent she developed while in high school to address the world health problem of mosquito-borne diseases.
But when the then-Stony Brook University freshman was tapped to be the spotlight speaker for the STEM panel at the Forbes Women’s Summit: Power Redefined, held in Manhattan last May, she wanted to make sure she delivered her message in the most impactful way. She would be the youngest presenter at the conference filled with power players — CEOs, leaders, entrepreneurs — the very people who would be able to carry her message forward. So Ruchi sought help from Stony Brook’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, Improvisation Coordinator at the Center, answered the call.
“Ruchi came to me with a very inspiring talk,” said Lantz-Gefroh. Her talk recounted how her uncle, while on a family trip to India, contracted dengue fever. Going to a clinic and seeing the long lines of people waiting to be treated for mosquito-borne diseases motivated Ruchi to develop a low-cost, all natural mosquito repellent.
“But she was operating on the assumption that the audience would know something about life in India,” continued Lantz-Gefroh, “so the story was rushed. When I pointed out that our very American audience needed more information, she detailed the story more vividly to give us a window into the family health situation that inspired her journey.”
Ruchi had a tendency to tell her story in one breathless paragraph. Lantz-Gefroh taught her to focus on “what the audience is hearing, not on what she was saying.” Lantz-Gefroh explained that when she works with a speaker “I ask them how they want the message to land with the listener. That change in focus creates air in a speech, but it comes from an organic place.”
Ruchi also needed help with her closing. “I knew what I wanted to talk about,” said Ruchi, who is a veteran poster presenter at science fairs and research symposiums, “but I wasn’t really sure how to end my talk. Professor Lantz-Gefroh suggested I close with a challenge to the audience.”
“In listening to her I was very moved — but pointed out that a speaker needs to have an objective that they want the audience to come away with,” said Lantz-Gefroh. “What is the call to action? What do you want them to do after they have heard you? Any speech needs to be approached from that angle. If her objective was to impress us she had certainly accomplished that — but it seemed to me that she wanted something bigger than applause … what she really wanted to inspire were more mentors to help other students accomplish their dreams.”
A member of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, Ruchi knows firsthand how valuable mentoring can be to one’s education. “Research at Stony Brook is special because of the accessibility of the faculty,” said Ruchi, whose research with her mentor, Kenneth Shroyer, MD, chair of the Department of Pathology, focuses on improving cervical cancer diagnosis.
Ruchi continues to inspire both mentors and budding scientists by using what she learned from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to share her story. This past summer the biology major/journalism minor, who is also in Stony Brook’s selective Scholars for Medicine program, was chosen for the prestigious Summer Student Program at The Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, Maine, for a co-funded National Science Foundation REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) fellowship. Her research project and presentation on how a novel immune pathway plays a role in cancer was so polished and impressive that she has been asked to return to Jackson to coach other REU program participants on how to communicate science effectively and understandably. She also has been invited to present her research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Nashville, Tennessee, this November.
And this fall Ruchi was selected to give one of the inaugural TEDxSBU talks, which were held at the Charles B. Wang Center on October 10.
“After the talk, a fellow student came up to me and said he had an 11-year-old sister who was interested in science and he couldn’t wait to go home and show her the video of my talk,” said Ruchi. “That is why I’m sharing my story.”
She continues, “If telling my story can inspire just one person to do something, I have a responsibility to tell my story in the best possible way, to as many people as possible.”
— By Joanne Morici; photo courtesy of Ruchi Shah