“I didn't write my presentation so that I would sound more natural"
The EPFL final of the My Thesis in 180 Seconds competition was held on 17 March and, for the first time in six editions, the jury and the audience chose the same winner. Sophie Rivara, a PhD student in life sciences, will go on to represent the School at the Swiss finals on 19 May at the University of Geneva alongside second and third place winners Tamara Rossy and Eric Paic. Rivara spoke with us about her experience.
In only three minutes, Rivara brought viewers into the captivating world of innate immunity through her well-structured speech, impeccable elocution and engaging humor. She may have been the last of 14 presenters to go on stage, but she really connected with the crowd by comparing the central role of DNA in the innate immune system to “naked people in the street.” She will represent the School, with Tamara Rossy and Eric Paic, 2nd and 3rd respectively, in the Swiss final of the competition to be held on May 19 at the University of Geneva.
You can watch her presentation here:
What do you think tipped the scales to give you not only the top prize from the jury, but also the audience?
That’s not really for me to say. But I think my analogy had something to do with it – it was a bit of a stretch but it made the audience laugh. From the feedback I’ve had, it’s an easy thread to follow.
How did you prepare for the competition?
A week before the public speaking course, which is one of the prerequisites for the credit, I learned that it was better to have a draft presentation. So I spent that whole weekend trying to figure out how to present things in a simple way, to people from all backgrounds. I needed an analogy that could be seen as logical in some situations but not always, and I wanted to avoid competition tropes like the cops and robbers dichotomy. So I tried the bit with the naked people in the public speaking class and they liked it. I had to push the analogy a bit, but it worked. Unlike many of the participants, I didn’t write out a script. I think if you memorize your presentation, it starts to sound unnatural. So I summarized the ideas in my head and redid the presentation several times until I came up with a version that was almost always the same. I then presented it many times to my mom – who must know it by heart by now – and I tried it out on my friends and colleagues whenever I could.
Why did you enter this competition? Was it a spur-of-the-moment decision or a long-standing goal?
I’d been thinking about it since starting my PhD in 2018, and the ECTS credit is actually part of my curriculum. In the first few years, I found that I didn’t have enough material to present. Then Covid happened and the 2021 edition as canceled, so this year was my last chance.
You didn’t seem stressed in front of the audience. Any secrets?
I was stressed just before, but it’s true that once I started, it went away. I’ve been doing theater for four years – it’s a good complement to my work, and I think it made my presentation smoother.
Have you always had a passion for immunology, or is that a more recent interest?
It happened a bit by chance. Just before I enrolled at EPFL, I decided to study life sciences and during that time I worked on metabolism and immunology. These are very multidisciplinary fields that combine biochemistry, health and genetics. Before starting my PhD, I went to Germany for eight months for my Master’s project, where I discovered innate immunity. Then, when I came back here, I continued working on immunology in the lab run by Andrea Ablasser, who had been my EPFL for my Master’s project.
What’s your goal for the next few years?
First, I’ll probably take a break after I finish my PhD. Working on a thesis is very interesting and exciting, but it’s also a huge long-term commitment. I want to take the time to make the right decision for my future with a clear head. I’m very interested in scientific communication – sharing with people the science and research that I’m still passionate about – so ideally, I would like to find something that lets me combine research and communication.
How are you preparing for the Swiss final?
By writing down my presentation! You have to have a script for the preparation courses for this final. The preparations for the final itself are very interesting, as you work on communications and public speaking skills, which you rarely focus on when you’re in a laboratory. I’m really looking forward to meeting the other candidates during the workshops and at the final. And above all, I hope that I will be able to enjoy my presentation – and make it fun for the audience – on the big day!
The Swiss MT180 final will be held in French at 6:30pm on 19 May at the University of Geneva. It will also be broadcast online on RTS Play. For more information: https://www.mt180.ch/accueil/