Telling it straight – How selenium helps prevent cancer

‘Explain your research and its importance to a ‘lay audience’ (aka non-scientists) in a concise and dynamic way, in five minutes’. Sounds simple, right? ‘Telling it straight’, however, proved much trickier than first anticipated. This DCU-run competition challenges post-graduates to communicate their research to an audience and panel of judges that have no prior knowledge of their research, and are unlikely to be in their field. The aim of the competition, apart from bestowing a nice monetary award on the winners, is to encourage early stage researchers to start thinking about how to communicate a complex concept, project or method to someone outside the field, without losing the essence or meaning of the research. The importance of communication cannot be stressed enough, as not only do we post-grads and researchers attempt to explain our research to friends and family on a daily basis, but good communication of our research becomes crucial in career development, research promotion and, of course, in acquiring funding. The following video shows my presentation on the day to the TIS panel:


In a nutshell, I started my PhD in September 2015 at the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB) in DCU in collaboration with my sponsor, Alltech Ireland. My supervisors are Prof. Martin Clynes, Dr. Joanne Keenan and Dr. Finbarr O’Sullivan in NICB and Dr. Karina Horgan in Alltech. My PhD project aims to investigate the potential anti-cancer properties of selenium, a trace element consumed in the diet that has important functions in normal human health. Selenium acts as an antioxidant amongst its many other functions, and oxidative damage is known to play an important role in the development of cancer. This has led to increasing interest in the role selenium may play in preventing various types of cancer, such as lung, colon and prostate cancer.

There have been several large clinical trials carried out around the world, studying the effects of increased selenium levels in the diet (via selenium supplements) on cancer incidence in its patients. However, there have been mixed results, where some trials saw lowered levels of cancer in patients with increased selenium, and some did not. The underlying mechanisms of selenium’s effect are not well understood, and until we know more about how selenium is working in the body, we will not be able to fully exploit this to our advantage. This is where my project fits in, trying to understand more about how selenium may protect against cancer and how much selenium we should be getting in our daily life to maximise this protection. As I will have to present my research regularly in the future, the Tell It Straight competition seemed like a good opportunity to get practising.

Armed with PowerPoint and Google I set to work, foolishly thinking I could get slides together in an evening. Not so. The first draft was heavily edited by my supervisors to remove about half my original slides, emphasising the importance of simplicity. The second draft saw an increase in pictures and a decrease in text to highlight key points. The third draft started to look more like a finished product, but the speech that was to go along with the slides was thoroughly re-vamped. Finally, I had something that both my supervisors and I were happy with. A copy of my slides are available here.

TIS Group
The competition was held in the Seamus Heaney lecture theatre in St Patricks’ College in Drumcondra. DCU President Brian MacCraith opened the event with remarks on the importance of communication and inter-disciplinary sharing and collaboration. Post-grad students in their first year of study were the first category to present, followed by a single category for 2nd, 3rd and final year post-grad students and finally a video/animation category. I delivered my presentation, the last student in my category, and the delivery was, thankfully, similar to rehearsal, but no rehearsal takes into account the overload of adrenaline and shaky nerves! Relieved, I sat down afterwards to watch the other presentations and marvel at the high standard of DCU post-grads.

Caitriona Osbourne won first place in my category, an excellent speaker who intends to implement Chinese lessons into secondary level education, and Aidan Fitzsimons was runner up, a confident presenter who will be paving the way for maths education for gifted students in secondary level education. I am delighted to have taken part in the competition, as there really is no substitute for gaining your own experience to build upon. This challenging competition has encouraged me to gain all the presenting experience I can get, so when the day comes that I must present at a scientific conference or a DCU research day, I will be well versed in the art public speaking.