Rice University alumnus Leo Elworth '19 recently won an award for the best postdoc poster at the 31st Annual Keck Research Conference, where over 60 postdoctoral fellows and Ph.D. candidates from 10 universities and 8 training programs pitched their work. The conference theme, Infectious Diseases: Emerging Threats and Emerging Technologies, was a perfect fit for Elworth’s computational research on tracking pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 in Houston’s wastewater.
“Anyone with solid research can win a poster or pitch competition. You just have to pay attention to the judges’ criteria,” said Elworth, who earned his Ph.D. in computer science at Rice. “I already had some ideas for the poster, then all the participants received a copy of the judges’ form.
“For papers, presentations, and posters, I always start with an outline then think the content through from start to finish, noting all the main points I want to hit. Once I settle on the overall vision, then I’ll go fill in the details. For the Keck poster competition, I just adapted my content and formatting to fit the judges’ criteria.”
His communication skills were well developed when he arrived at Rice because while working as a software engineer, Elworth had followed a colleague’s suggestion to try Toastmasters.
“Everything changed with Toastmasters,” he said. “As my public speaking confidence grew, my status updates and contributions in team meetings improved. Even my personal relationships benefited from being able to clearly state my thoughts and feelings.”
So Elworth was ready when it came time for one of his first graduate student presentations at Rice. He’d practiced with his slides, his Toastmasters training had prepared him to engage with the audience, and he was excited about his research. Then his assigned pitch coach fell asleep in Elworth’s practice session. And snored.
“I was shocked when I wrapped up and my coach woke up, and then proceeded to give me tips,” recalled Elworth. “But I had already realized that not everyone has valid feedback for every presenter. So I looked elsewhere.”
Elworth would ultimately meet Tracy Volz, the Director for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program, while she was leading the campus-wide Program for Writing and Communication. Her feedback for Elworth included specific slide critiques as well as general speaker suggestions such as not looking at the floor at any point during his presentation.
As he moved through his Ph.D. program, Elworth continued honing his communication skills by presenting fresh work in student seminars and conferences, mastering the quick pitch in poster sessions, sending papers off for publication, and even winning best in Computer Science in Rice's engineering research pitch competition.
He was ultimately hand-picked by Volz to be part of an elite team that would revamp a seminar course in which attendance was required for all the graduate students in Elworth’s department.
“Dr. Volz is amazing, awesome, and one of my favorite people,” said Elworth. “The department chair couldn’t have picked a better person to breathe life and meaning back into a course that had been neglected for too long.
“To launch the new seminar semester, she asked Rebecca Smith and me to give the first presentations so she could both critique us for the class and also use our presentations as models for the other speakers. Our presentations gave us credibility as coaches for the other students. We joined Tracy for every practice and seminar talk, taking our role seriously and listening closely.
“We all had a lot to say to the practice presenters. There was an expectation that the bar was being raised and the students would have to step up. No more recycling old presentations that had been used with a different audience.”
Seminar courses are primarily composed of peer presentations and are rarely any graduate student’s favorite class. But the new and surprisingly interesting student presentations in Volz’s revamped COMP 600 sessions revealed a wide range of exciting research spanning all areas of the department. Elworth said the presentations —now styled so everyone in the audience could follow along— helped him learn even more about computer science and its different applications. The hour he had once dreaded each Monday had slowly evolved into an enjoyable part of his week.
“Tracy and I harped on the students to think about the audience. That was always a first rule of giving presentations. If someone started recycling an old presentation for a past conference they attended, or one that was not tailored to the audience, we’d have to step in. ‘Stop and think about who is in this audience. I felt I knew most of the 100 people in the room and we’ve all been hearing them talk for a year or two. I knew how varied their undergraduate backgrounds were and their work with their advisors. Some folks had pure math or biology backgrounds or even philosophy. So you know you can’t leap straight into your specialized niche with that audience.’ And the presenter would have to recalibrate. How much detail could they actually dive into in a 30 minute presentation to a group with diverse research interests? Not much,” said Elworth.
Volz privately followed up with speakers if she thought they needed additional practice before addressing the audience in the seminar classroom. Her goal was to help them find and build confidence in their speaking skills by both presenting information and fielding questions.
Elworth said Volz did not hesitate to critique a speaker who interrupted an audience member as they started to ask a question. In fact, she called Elworth on it at least once in the seminar presentations.
He said, “It is easy for a speaker who really knows their topic backward and forward to say, ‘Oh, I see where you are going,’ and jump into the answer. But even if the speaker was right, the rest of the audience didn’t get to hear the full question, and they could potentially get irritated with a speaker who interrupts. Worse, it also makes audience members less likely to ask their own questions, resulting in the presentation slowly grinding to a halt. I have always thought this was an extremely valuable piece of feedback that Tracy initially gave me and I still think about it often to this day when watching others make this same mistake that I used to make routinely.”
Volz’s coaching, coupled with multiple semesters as a coach in the seminar course, further honed Elworth’s presentation skills. After a short stint in industry, Elworth returned to Rice as a postdoctoral research fellow and continued presenting his work in various settings. The 2021 Keck poster competition felt like familiar ground.
“My research poster was about our early work in wastewater analysis. My current fellowship is from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) for computational research aligned with biomedical applications. My work focuses on analyzing data collected from wastewater samples across the globe, but mostly I would like to focus on Houston,” said Elworth.
“Dr. Lauren Stadler, my primary mentor for the NLM fellowship, had already been a wastewater researcher when the pandemic began in the spring of 2020. By November of that year, she’d released her first pre-print paper on CoV-2 predictive modeling working closely with the Houston Health Department.
“The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes the disease we know as COVID-19. Traces of the virus found in wastewater indicates that people in the area producing that wastewater have experienced some form of the disease. Identifying how much of the virus’ RNA is in the weekly wastewater samples is a very promising way to try and model how many cases of COVID are in each area of Houston. I just proposed we expand that wastewater testing infrastructure to include a broad array of disease causing pathogens.”
His proposal was based on Stadler’s seminal work with its roots in civil and environmental engineering, Elworth’s own computer science background, and co-mentor Todd Treangen’s research into bacterial and viral pathogen genomics using novel algorithms and software. Elworth spent two years working in Treangen’s research group and the computer scientist agreed to be his secondary mentor if Elworth was awarded NLM funding.
“Working with Dr. Treangen prompted me to read a lot of foundational papers about pathogen genomics, which created a unique knowledge base and strengthened my fellowship proposal to work with Dr. Stadler immensely. This was in addition to the incredible mentoring and training I had already received for five years with my Ph.D. advisor Dr. Luay Nakhleh,” said Elworth.
He had only been working with Stadler for a few months when the Keck conference took place. “I knew the strengths of my own poster, but there was a lot of amazing research and extremely talented individuals all around me,” he said. “I was obviously competing against the best of the best. To win an award with that caliber of researchers was especially gratifying to me. It is something I will always be proud of.”
This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.