Sharang Chaudhry speaking in front of brain simulations.

A Math Lesson Without Equations

Embracing contradiction made statistics doctoral student Sharang Chaudhry a better research presenter.

Editor's Note

: This story highlights the Graduate Showcase, which will be held from 4 - 6 p.m. Oct. 12 in the Science and Engineering Building as part of UNLV Research Week 2018. For a full list of events celebrating UNLV's research, scholarly, and creative activities Oct. 8-12, visit the Research Week webpage . All events are free, but some require an RSVP. Please RSVP to the Graduate Showcase by Wednesday, Oct. 3.

When Sharang Chaudhry, a Ph.D. candidate in statistics at UNLV, decided to present his research in last year’s Graduate Showcase, a Stephen Hawking quote came to mind.

“Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales,” Hawkins had written in A Brief History of Time. “I therefore resolved not to have any equations at all.”

What would happen if Chaudhry, essentially a mathematician, took the same approach and set out to develop his showcase presentation without equations? It certainly wouldn’t be easy. But that’s the type of challenge and opportunity awaiting all graduate researchers who participate in the annual event.

“It’s not about you as speaker; it’s more about the audience,” Chaudhry said. “The presentation isn’t just about providing details on your work. It’s also about making sure you’re inclusive of the people who want to hear about your work.”

The Graduate Showcase, now in its third year, provides graduate students both the forum and the training to successfully present their research to a general audience. The first gauntlet students must pass through to have an opportunity to participate in the event is preparing a two-minute video that illustrates how comfortable and confident the budding researchers might be at presenting.

That was the easy part, Chaudhry said.

The second gauntlet was to present his work to a general audience over the summer.

“The most appealing aspect of my work to those in my field revolves around technicalities and details: ‘How did you improve on what exists? What did you do to update what’s already there?’” Chaudhry said. “But those things are difficult to address in a brief and general presentation, so compromises had to be made.”

Chaudhry pulled together his first attempt at the presentation, sans equations. Luckily, because his work deals with visualizing nerves in the brain (i.e., neuroimaging) and analyzing MRI data, he could avail of images instead.

Still, he found it challenging to demonstrate the problem his research seeks to address — how to make it easier for medical professionals to visualize the brain — and the work he’s doing to solve it by providing the type of imaging and data that enable doctors to know exactly what they’re looking at before the first incision is made. His presentation was much longer than he wanted it to be as well, and was still laced with technicalities a general audience would likely not find compelling, no matter how crucial they seemed to him.

“That’s where mentorship from the Graduate College came in,” Chaudhry said. With a little help from assistant professor and graduate coordinator Donovan Connelly, interim executive director of the office of community engagement Sue DiBella, and his faculty mentors, Chaudhry was able to sacrifice some of the more extraneous material for the good of the presentation.

After that, he said, it was on to rehearsing. Several rounds of feedback and revisions later, Chaudhry found himself onstage giving his presentation at the 2017 Graduate Showcase during UNLV Research Week last October.

Already, Chaudhry sees the difference that preparing for the Graduate Showcase made in how he presents his work to others now. Earlier this year, he presented his research at the Eastern North American Region 2018 Spring Meeting of the International Biometric Society. Immediately after presenting, he received compliments on how well he’d outlined his research problem through pictures — something rather foreign at conferences in STEM fields.

“Sometimes we as researchers want to exemplify the details and the progress that we’ve made so much that we forget that explaining the problem and its gravity is just as important,” Chaudhry said. “We just want to write our equations, but we forget that it’s actually hard for us as scientists to grab the audience’s attention and explain the problem in 30 seconds. The Graduate Showcase really helped me get beyond that.”

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