TEDxMSU: Hot or Not? Just Try.

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Shouting “Sex!” in front of nearly 2,000 people can be scary, but it proved to be a pretty effective way to grab an audience’s attention. On March 4th, 2015, I delivered a TED talk on my evolution research at TEDxMSU, an independently organized TED event held at Michigan State University.

The process to getting selected was an interesting one. One of the TEDxMSU coordinators had apparently run across my profile on Twitter, and after seeing my website, invited me to apply. Since giving a TED talk was a bucket list item of mine, I decided to give it a shot. The competition was stiff (nearly 200 applicants!), and I was one of the lucky 12 who found out, just about a month before the event, that I’d be presenting. Cue scrambling.

To prepare, there were lots of on-campus practices for speakers. However, since I’m finishing up my dissertation from afar, I was challenged to find listeners who didn’t know my work, but would be willing to give me feedback about the ideas. From the input of both strangers on public transit and my friends and family, I was able to craft a talk that captured people’s attention, and which expanded my view of how the public thinks about evolution and sex. In particular, I was encouraged to describe evolution without saying the word, and to include as much humor as possible to get those less accustomed to thinking about sex (at least in public) to engage with the material. This feedback was hard to hear (why not say evolution?!), so it meant I needed to change my general approach if I was going to get ideas across without hitting barriers.

The event’s theme was “The Will,” mirroring the campaign at MSU “Spartans Will”. In every talk at the event, the theme “The Will” manifested itself, from solutions to mass incarceration, to recovering from traumas, to understanding the will to survive. My talk focused on an extremely variable population of sticklebacks, in which we found courtship vigor, or “trying” in mating, appeared to best predict whom females chose as mates. In the talk, I pointed out that investments in different traits, including behavior, have been under study since Darwin, and that which individuals are getting lucky can shape the evolution of many species.

Now that things are calming down from the talk, I’ve been able to reflect on the feedback. I’m still a bit scared to see the official talk appear on the TED website, but the feedback from friends and faculty who attended has put my worries at ease. I was able to speak to several students afterward who were interested in the same types of questions which originally grabbed my attention, and I was moved by the students who said they were now considering evolutionary biology as a career.

Talking about science to a general audience can be scary, particularly when your topics are those which aren’t always easily discussed. But it is important that we have the will to do it, learn from each experience, and keep trying.

See my talk here (session 1, about 25 min in): http://new.livestream.com/msualumni/TEDxMSU2015

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