This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Jennifer Cherone. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Labratory
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Patrick Yurick: So what is your name and tell me a little bit about, you know, what brought you here and what you’ve studied and that kind of stuff.
J: So my name is Jennifer Cherone and I’m a grad student here at MIT in the department of biology. So I came here about four years ago because I was interested in pursuing my PhD to become a scientist at a biotechnology company. Before I was at UC Berkeley and while I was there I actually worked at a biotech company (?) Sciences, working on gene regulation and I…
Jennifer Cherone: My name is Jennifer and I study biology, more particularly I study post-transcriptional gene regulation and how micro(?) act in neurons.
P: And you’ve been at MIT for how long?
J: This is my 5th year in my MIT program at MIT.
P: Are you almost finished?
J: I would like to think so but these things… um, you never really know until the end, I think.
P: Do you expect to be here for another couple years?
J: Yeah, probably another year or two. The general amount of time that it takes for a student to graduate in the biology department is about six years, I think. Yeah, so it’s kind of the long-haul.
P: So have you given many talks- I guess the question here is, do you have any struggles when it comes to communicating what you’re studying, and is so, do you have an example? And the way I would rephrase that is have you done any conference talks or what are some issues that have come up in the past?
J: I see. Yeah, I guess when I read that question I was thinking in terms of just other people asking what you study and trying to explain it to people. I haven’t given any conference talks, you know. I’ve given posters, you know, where you’re talking to people in your field and then it’s much easier to communicate, I think. I think for me the issues come when you’re trying to communicate with somebody where you don’t really know what their background is in that field. So, you know, you have to kind of assess, you know, how much do they know and also try to gauge what is their real interest level in what I’m trying to tell them. Because it can be really hard I think in any scientific field but, you know, in biology we have a very specific set of words that we use just to describe even what are the basic things to us. You know, it’s just a lot of jargon and so to get into that, to really be able to describe the detailed, sort of, field that you’re studying, it takes a lot of- it can take a lot of backpedaling and so trying to size someone up and figure out, okay, how much- you know, how in depth should I go and how much do I have to sort of explain in order to just- to even get there. And additionally, how do I phrase this so that it sounds interesting to somebody, right? Because I think that a lot of people, you know, who maybe aren’t in biology themselves, sort of their main thought process goes, you know, how is this related to diseases. And at MIT, we don’t have a lot of translational science. You know, a lot of it is what we call basic science and so, sort of describing that in a way that people can see sort of what the point of it is or how that can translate into something they know about can be a challenge, I think.
P: Do you have any, uh- when you’re talking about that, do you have any times either when you’ve noticed you’ve done something well when you’ve been explaining something? A specific example of anything? Even if you’re talking to your family back home or teaching a class or trying to explain something you’re already working on with another biologist.
J: Yeah, like how specific of a story are you looking for?
P: Whatever comes to mind. Whatever’s relevant to you. And something you actually think about that you could’ve done better. Or you did do well and you’re shocked at how that went.
J: Yeah, think this question of “Tell me what you’re studying” comes up fairly often in the graduate community here. So for example I take a lot of classes at Sloan- or I have taken some. So Sloan students, while they may have an interest in technology, they don’t necessarily know a lot of background for the fields. And so you get the question a lot of “So what do you work on?” And I think that in that interaction you can kind of gauge how you’re doing by sort of by the unspoken body language feedback that somebody’s giving you and I think that it’s very easy to pick up on a glazed over look and I think that’s kind of when you know you’re not doing something right and that has definitely happened. And then you kind of have to figure out how to recourse for that because you’re real-time speaking to them. Ok, how do I re-engage this person. And so I think that’s sort of like a big clue, that body language you’re getting back as you’re speaking to somebody.
P: And that’s happened at Sloan? Like when you’ve been talking to some of the people over there?
J: Yeah, yeah.
P: When was the first time you noticed that was happening? Was it as you first were interacting with people from Sloan or you noticed it more gradually?
J: So I worked on various team projects with people and I think, uh- I don’t want to- this might sound bad, but I think people maybe kind of lose interest, you know, like they’ll kind of initially ask you and then they’re, oh, well that’s just way over my head, I’m done with that. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to say on here.
P: No, no, I think it’s fine. I think it’s a common problem. I have it all the time. I used to be a teacher and in the morning I’d be getting coffee in the coffee room and the teacher would be, “How’s your day?” and I’d go into this, “Well, I’m trying to solve this big problem,” and they’re all, “I just wanted you to say ‘Good’ and then move on.” They didn’t want like an actual conversation and I have such a hard time reading that with teachers. With anybody, really. I think if you care about your subject you have that impulse to geek out and it’s hard to know when not to.
J: Yeah, especially when, like- I think- when you’re in a certain field, there’s the field of biology, and then there’s the sub-field of genetics, and then within that there’s the sub-field of post-transcriptional gene regulation, and within that there’s microan(?), and then a couple levels deeper is what I’m actually studying. And so to get down to that level of specificity… I can say five levels up I say post-transcriptional gene regulation and somebody still won’t know what that is and their eyes kind of glaze over and get that look. But for me, that’s not even what I’m studying and so it’s hard to get down to that real level of what I’m actually doing and what I’m interested in with people who aren’t familiar. And even within the field of biology, it can be a challenge sometimes because, like I said, there’s sort of these sub-fields and it’s definitely easier to communicate and easier to explain but there’s still so many different levels of expertise and different fields that you still have to bridge that a little bit.
P: What makes you excited to work on the things that you’re working on?
J: I think it’s really just figuring out a piece of how things work. I think originally when I got into biology I thought it was really interesting to figure out disease and how to design therapeutics and that’s sort of what first intrigued me. But once you get into it you really realize how much we don’t know about biology and that’s really the really interesting stuff. And so being able to figure out a piece of that, even if it’s just a small piece and contribute to that body of knowledge, I think is really fascinating.
P: Do you ever work about next steps? Like how you’re going to communicate with, say, sponsors or if you need to teach it all. I mean, do you have people to oversee it all right now or is it mostly your work is being overseen by others?
J: I think, as a graduate student, it’s mostly- and for me in particular- it’s mostly being overseen by others. You have your colleagues in the lab that you share what you’re doing with and people to give you feedback, and so there’s sort of that level of communication. I think, though, there’s certainly some grad students who may help train an undergrad or have somebody below them but for the most part you’re kind of the entry level person. It’s really also important as a graduate student to own your project. You know, you kind of want it to be your own work and not necessarily have too many people, though this can be different in different labs and different kinds of projects and different kinds of research.
P: And you probably have your thesis coming up, or at least you’re working on it on some level. Or your dissertation, or whatever it is.
J: Yeah, so we, definitely. So I have a long-term project that keeps chugging along, it feels like. I always say slowly but surely. You know, research takes a lot of time and a lot of commitment and a lot of motivation to keep going. And that’s why it’s important to have a biological question, or in whatever field a question that really drives you, to keep pursuing that. So hopefully there’ll be a conclusion to this eventually but we live in the process, I think.
P: I think it’s been interesting having this job because peeking into the minds of grad students at MIT, which is like- not like talking to grad students anywhere else in the world. It’s the top science school in the world and you’re not undergrads, you’re grads, and you’re being groomed to be researchers and top researchers, at that. And that seems like a lot of pressure. And then I think about how a regular dissertation is a lot of pressure and delivering that dissertation is a lot of pressure. And I wonder if it’s like a lot more pressure to do it at MIT. I’m not a student here. I have an undergrad in graphic design and I studied art education and school leadership so I have no idea how to relate to that. But is it a huge amount of pressure to do well?
J: Yeah, I think there’s always a lot of pressure to do well. I think one of the massive benefits of being somewhere like MIT is that you’re surrounded by so many smart people and so you’re constantly being challenged and constantly learning new things. But along with that I think comes a lot of pressure as well because you’re always trying to be as smart as the next person or rise up to the challenge. And that can be a little off-putting sometimes, to always feel like you’re not as smart as everyone else. And I think that happens a lot at MIT and that everyone feels that at one time or another.
P: How could you not? I watched “Captain America: Civil War” this summer and the opening scene was Tony Stark giving $100 million to every grad student- or $100,000 to every grad student, “All your projects have been fully funded!” and I’m like this is Hollywood’s interpretation of MIT. But ever since I started working here I’m dumbfounded by- I never picked it up but- MIT is synonymous with saying somebody’s smart. Like if you have a scientist working in a lab on a show, they went to MIT.
J: Yeah, it’s a lot of pressure.
P: All of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, you went to MIT. You should be able to solve ALL our problems.”
J: Yeah, it’s kind of funny that you say that because yeah, whenever somebody asks, oh, where do you go to school, and you say MIT, they’re like, oh, you’re a smart one, aren’t you?
P: So yeah, and I was just even thinking about how communication that’s gotta be something that feels like there’s a lot of pressure behind it because you do your dissertation, and then you have to leave, and then it seems like the people that are successful as graduates at MIT are people who are good at other things- I mean, they’re good at their science, obviously, but they’re also good at, say, public speaking, or networking or finding money to fund their project. Do you feel like you’re getting a lot of that education?
J: Yeah, it’s hard. I think, sort of, the idea of graduate school education and how it can be reformed is actually a pretty big topic right now. So for the most part, grad school, at least in my field, is set up to educate students to eventually go into academia. That’s really what it’s set up for. And so I think there’s a lot of shifting attention to help prepare students in other ways for alternative careers in science, you know, as positions in academia- or the number of positions in academia are decreasing, we need a place for students to go, so I think that there has been in the interest of giving opportunities for students to learn about alternative careers, you know, bringing in people who work in the industry to tell students about what they do and what it’s like. I think that along with this I think students themselves are starting to realize that things like networking, being able to talk about what you do with other people, and have that come across easily is more important. And so I think students are starting to sort of like pursue those opportunities to learn more about how to do that for themselves as they realize, you know, hey, maybe academia isn’t for me, you know, what else do I need to know how to do in order to go into this other field. Because there’s not a lot that the actual graduate school curriculum gives you to know those kinds of skills and so you kind of have to at some point figure it out for yourself, I think, and yeah, that can be challenging, having to navigate that on your own.
P: I think that’s a perfect place to talk about the podcast. Like it said in the description I gave you, we have professors and professionals talking at you. The podcast is really- we wanted to have this end segment to be something special where a grad student could really be like, this was helpful or this wasn’t helpful, and kind of hearing- what were your reactions listening to the podcast?
J: I thought it was really cool. I like thinking about things that are usually unconscious and breaking them down and thinking, “Oh, how I do this actually does have an impact and let me actually think about- try to take a step back and think about how am I communicating, what is that permitting- uh, giving to other people, what kind of impressions and are there ways that I should think about this to change the way that I’m perceived.” So I think this topic is an interesting one and I’ve listened to other podcasts before that kind of break down elements of language, like vocal fry and upspeak, and so this whole area of language and how it affects how people perceive you, I think, is really interesting to actually give thought to rather than having it just be this automatic thing that you do.
P: Just so there’s a refresher, so we had Tony Eng, David Peterson, and Ted Gibson, and Ted was the one talking about how you’re perceived by the words you choose and what kind of access or pointedness that language uses, he talked about “there” and “their.” David Peterson was talking a lot about language from different perspective, and Tony was talking a lot about connecting to different audiences with the language that you’re choosing. What stood out to you? What is something that was, like, oh, that was interesting or anything like that that you heard?
J: Yeah, I think one of the first things that they talked about language that’s not just spoken language, that being such as in a presentation, I thought was fairly interesting. That you’re speaking and you’re giving this presentation but at the same time the audience is speaking back to you and that’s actually very important for how you continue to give this presentation, even though you’re the only one speaking. It’s really, in a way, a two way conversation and I think I hadn’t really thought about that before, and how important it is to perceive your audience when you’re giving a presentation. It’s interesting to think about.
P: Totally. My anecdote to that is when I first became a teacher I thought there was a lot of pressure on me to perform and that they, the students, were judging me and it wasn’t until I taught a lot of hours that I realized they don’t care about me and if I’m lucky they’re not paying attention to me because they’re paying attention to what they’re learning. The goal is to actually to kind of get me out of that equation as quickly as possible because I’m not important to integrating the knowledge I’m giving them. Like I’m a facilitator of that knowledge but I’m not the person- like, I don’t- they shouldn’t be thinking, oh, I wonder what Patrick is thinking right now. And it’s interesting, that ego-less presenter-mode, it’s interesting because I don’t know how to get there, I wouldn’t know how to tell somebody in a public speaking mindset how to get there but that’s kind of what you’re going for, right? To get out of the way of them judging you and be really interested in what you’re saying.
J: Yeah, absolutely.
P: Were there any techniques or advice or anything of that nature that you’ve used in the past that wasn’t mentioned in the show? You mentioned upspeak and what was the other one?
J: Vocal fry.
P: Yeah, yeah.
J: I think the only other thing that I heard on language before was a podcast sort of dissecting those two. Like, what is vocal fry and what is upspeak, and how those two, they really have a negative effect on how people perceive you but when people use them they don’t even realize that they’re using them. And then there’s the whole element of male vs. female, because I think they’re both things that tend to be used by females. So upspeak would be- both of them would sort of be associated with the valley girl talk. So upspeak is kinda when you talk up and kinda phrase every sentence with a question, in a way, when it’s not. And then vocal fry is when you would sort of talk down and talk like this [uses gravelly voice].
P: Like monotone?
J: Yeah, yeah. Kind of like a monotone but a little bit like a crispy nature to your voice. And I think, basically, a lot of women who work in radio are really analyzed for this and critiqued for this and so it can be something that’s really difficult for them that they have to overcome and actually they train to basically remove these elements from their speech because they’re so preyed upon for them.
P: Yeah, my wife was a two-time debate champion and in debate, it’s interesting because it’s very related to politics and public speaking. I’d never heard of this before but she told me that they actually train the females to speak lower because unconsciously we’ve associated deeper voices with confidence and with a superiority. And it’s this totally unfair judgment because the only reason men have deeper voices is because during puberty our vocal chords swell and we don’t have a choice about it, it just happens to us. Females don’t go through that. So there’s actually coaching you can do to manipulate the audience’s latent sexism and the way they’re listening to things. Which I think is totally horrible, right? But it sounds very similar to the stuff you’re talking about and it’s interesting to me. But if you’re not aware of it, it can really hurt you, right?
J: Yeah, exactly. It’s something that you don’t even realize that you’re doing. Yeah, but I think for tips and tricks, I don’t know that I use any tricks, per se, but I think that my main things that I’m thinking about whenever I’m about to give a presentation or maybe I’m just answering a question in a class, which sometimes can be nerve-wracking when it’s a large class, I try my best just to not sound nervous. So I really think about how I’m controlling my voice. I think in my head I try to slow down my speech and I think also like you mentioned deepen my voice a little bit because that’s sort of I guess innately what I perceive as being confident. Which is interesting, now that we just had that conversation, but yeah, I think in my head I just try to get really good voice control and not speak too fast. In my mind I think I have a list of things probably in the back of my mind where these things make somebody sound nervous. And I try not to sound nervous and how that comes across, I’m not sure.
P: Have people told you you sound nervous when you talk?
J: No, I think people usually tell me that I don’t sound nervous at all so I guess it’s working but I’m very nervous inside, usually, so….
P: I get nervous when I need to talk in class or in front of large groups, especially when it’s raising your hand and asking a question or bring up a point. I think of what I’m trying to say and all of a sudden it’s blah blah blah, I over-explain, it’s a bad habit. Do you minimize ums when you’re trying to talk or stuff like that or do you even think about that?
J: I probably don’t think about ums and I probably say them too much. So maybe I should think about them more. But I think I try to think about pacing and rhythm and the words that I’m going to use. And I think maybe sometimes that’s not always the best thing, then when you start to talk it’s a little bit jumbled in your mind and you’re trying to pull out these words and these phrases that you had just been thinking about before you started talking. But yeah, I think I think more about the pacing than anything.
P: So was there anything else from the podcast that you found that was just something you’ll take away or even integrate into- I mean, you mentioned the other- about thinking about how the audience is having a conversation back with you somehow. Is there anything else?
J: I think there were two other things that I took away. The first one being the “will and testament,” which at first I thought, “What’s will and testament?” But then when he explained it I thought it was kind of a nice little play on words, that’s it’s the English word followed by the French word, and when you introduce a new word, or it could also apply to a new concept to sort of directly after say it in another way, a simpler way that your audience could understand, and using that just sort of the first couple times that you introduce a new word, whether it’s a piece of jargon or something that maybe your audience isn’t familiar with, I think is a really good technique to think about. And useful in science, especially. Another thing that I thought was interesting was the reading your audience, which is maybe something that I thought about before, how you try to size up who you’re talking to and figure out- um, adjust your language for that person. It’s interesting thinking about how you’ll speak differently to different people based on what their background knowledge is.