“From the beginning of grad school, an important part of our Ph.D. training is not just how to do science but how to communicate it. And I was pretty terrible at that part,” said Arun Mahadevan ’18.
The Rice University bioengineering alumnus worked hard to turn around his communication skills. In fact, he improved so much that his three-minute research pitch on the Social Network of Stem Cells was selected as both the Alumni Choice and Grand Prize Winner in a competition shortly before his graduation.
“The first challenge is to get a clear picture in your own head of what your research is all about,” said Mahadevan. “You are still learning what your question is in the first place and why it might be a question worth asking, so the science communications at that phase starts with the big picture.”
New Ph.D. students usually suggest ideas to their research advisor and talk informally with the other students in their group, which can be a safe space in which to try out different analogies or explanations. As their work progresses, the researcher’s communication skills have to keep pace.
Mahadevan said, “You’ll probably start by presenting at a poster session or you will go to a conference and give a talk. In either case, you have to format your talk so that a large range of audiences will get it. Of course, you might end up at a conference with a super narrow focus, but it is more likely you will be presenting research at conferences with 1000s of attendees engaging in all kinds of research.
“How you get your ideas across in an effective way to a large range of audiences should be part of your Ph.D. training. My grad school friends and the postdocs I worked with all had similar experiences: how your science is communicated makes a difference in how your research is accepted.”
One of his Rice friends, Mohit Kumar Jolly, encouraged Mahadevan to get involved with ComSciCon-Houston. The event created for and by graduate students provides opportunities to practice communicating science. Jolly involved Mahadevan in organizing the first ComSciCon-Houston, where he helped recruit experts to give talks. Mahadevan moved into a leadership role the second year, when Rice joined with the University of Houston to expand the opportunity to more grad students.
“In addition to learning through ComSciCon, I worked as a peer consultant in the Program for Writing and Communication (PWC), where I continued learning by teaching good communication practices. My assignments included helping other students with everything from personal statements for grad school applications to research pitches and conference talks,” said Mahadevan.
“Then the three-minute pitch competition was being held and it felt like a great avenue to really own my presentation skills. The three minute format is fantastic. It is just enough time to go somewhat into depth but also not overwhelm your audience. This was an opportunity to learn how and where to fine tune the level of detail required to get your information across.”
As much as he loved communicating about research, he also loved performing the research so he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with a mentor he admired at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Dani Bassett was a pioneer in applying network science and complex systems theory to understand the nature of human brain networks and how the networks are impacted by disease. It was a great opportunity for me to apply cutting-edge analysis techniques to study brain networks and understand how the structure of these networks relates to human behavior,” he said.
“I learned a lot in those two years. In particular, I had the opportunity to work with clinical data sets involving individuals with diseases like schizophrenia. Those patients had undergone functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); I could apply analysis to the details found in the imaging data and link the findings to clinical variables to start closing the loop between behavior and experimental data.”
When family ties pulled him to the Bay Area, Mahadevan switched back to science communication. He joined a consulting firm to write and review clinical evaluation reports (CERs), analyses about proposed medical devices under consideration by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and equivalent organizations in Europe.
He said, “The documents I wrote had to indicate if there was sufficient evidence to allow a specific device to be marketed. Details would be important to the agency’s decision, so I was reading a lot of reference material, processing very detailed medical literature and fitting the relevant information into a template.
“It was interesting work, but there is little room for creativity in technical writing. The CERs are purposefully written to be very compact and devoid of emotion because the proposal can’t leave room for interpretation. The ability to distill really dense technical information into a concise format is essential for this type of communication.”
While he was writing and consulting on CERs, Mahadevan was also wrapping up several research papers he’d been working on with his former Rice research advisor, Amina Qutub. Qutub had also recently moved to the Bay Area after being recruited by a precision medicine company called Rarebase.
“Amina was really excited about Rarebase,” said Mahadevan. “It had only 12 employees but there was a spot for me if I was interested, and I would be involved in the growth of the company from the formation stage. Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’”
Rarebase is a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) working to develop therapies for rare genetic disorders that fall through the cracks of regular pharmaceuticals. A typical patient may have a disorder seen in very few people in the world, and such small patient populations do not provide an incentive for standard pharmaceutical research and development.
“We meet our collaborators through personal connections, rare disease advocacy groups or foundations,” said Mahadevan. “The relationship we build with them allows us to communicate closely with the patients themselves or their parents. They provide samples or other kinds of data, then we analyze the data and try to find therapies for the disorder.”
Mahadevan is inspired by such a rewarding challenge, and said it feels a bit like going back to his roots with the kind of experimental work he was pursuing in grad school. His current research has the added benefit of supporting the Rarebase mission, with the ability to impact patient lives directly.
“Everything we are building —and we are going so fast! — is designed to generate experimental data and analysis platforms to find solutions for patients with no other recourse. That is why patients come to us, because no one else has been able to help them,” he said.
“The patient’s needs inform everything we do — all our discussions, all our experiments are geared to positively impacting patient lives. Not everyone in the biomedical industry gets to see such a fine and clear endpoint for their research.
“When we get to meet the patients in person – maybe at a fund-raiser or other event – those are the heart-filled moments. We see kids with severe disabilities and their parents are so desperately searching for a cure or a therapy for their child. Those are powerful moments for our entire team. Contributing in any way we can to their hope for their child’s future, that’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.”
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program