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“At the end of the day, all presentations tell a story, so storytelling techniques are an important part”

“At the end of the day, all presentations tell a story, so storytelling techniques are an important part”

We talk with Marina Álvarez, the winner of the sixth edition of the Rin4' competition, which sees PhD students describe their research in four minutes to a non-specialist audience.

13.07.2021

Imatge inicial

Marina Álvarez is doing her doctoral thesis in the Comparative Genomics research group, led by Tomàs Marquès-Bonet in the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences (DCEXS) and the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE: CSIC-UPF). On 25 May she won first prize in the Rin4' (Research in 4 minutes) competition with a presentation titled "Salvem els nostres cosins evolutius" (Let’s save our evolutionary cousins).

What did winning the competition mean to you?

I’m very happy. I think trying to explain a thesis project in four minutes is a highly complex task, but one that is very necessary. I believe it is important to make the work we do approachable, since if we can’t explain what we do to the people on the street, no one will want to fund science.

How did you prepare your presentation?

At the end of the day, all presentations tell a story, so storytelling techniques are an important part. Firstly, I didn’t only consider what was important for me, but rather what people found interesting about my project, what drew their attention. In this case, we’re dealing with a being that is very similar to us, and that was what I wanted to focus on, as I see it as an attractive part of my research. There is also the potential for a bit of humour, because I work not with blood samples, but rather fecal samples. It’s not the most pleasant part of my job, but I find it intriguing that we can study the DNA of a species in Africa here in Barcelona using a fecal sample. It was also important to ask myself a number of questions and make a careful selection of the key messages I wanted to convey.

 I believe it is important to make the work we do approachable, since if we can’t explain what we do to the people on the street, no one will want to fund science.

Why do you think science communication is important?

I think everyone should have the chance to know what we are doing and why. At the end of the day, what we are studying isn’t for us, it’s for society. Knowledge should be for everyone. If we make our projects open to everyone, we will help increase people’s interest in science and, in turn, foster more progress.

Have you undertaken other dissemination activities?

I’ve always enjoyed teaching and also really like design. Whenever possible I do illustrations for the articles written by other members of the group or help them with their presentations. My degree final project was to create educational content for patients undergoing genetic counselling, offering them a strongly visual explanation about where DNA can be found or what a chromosome is, drawing parallels and using analogies. I really enjoy doing these kinds of activities. With a fellow student I participated in an activity through Science in Your World, explaining areas of evolution on the Barcelona Libraries YouTube channel. We also participated in the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB) open day and are organising an activity with the Zoo, the PRBB and the National Theatre of Catalonia. I think that in this way I am very lucky because I really enjoy communicating science and our research area is both attractive and very relevant.

Can you tell us briefly what your research consists in?

We work with fecal samples because they are non-invasive, but also because they are easy to obtain, we don’t need to go through so much bureaucracy or obtain permits like you do with other kinds of samples. Our aim is to obtain as many as we can to maximise the representation of gorillas and different populations. The problem is that it is very difficult to work with these samples. To sequence the DNA of a fecal sample, we need to enrich the sample in the laboratory and “fish out” the gorilla DNA, separating it from the bacteria DNA. With the results, for example, we can see that a population on the periphery has more consanguinity and the individuals have less variability. So, in this case, we would need to push for protection measures to be implemented to protect that population and those corridors that may allow this population to encounter others, enabling contact between gorilla groups.

We are now seeing that there are many gorilla populations living in natural parks, in very restricted areas. Gorilla numbers are going up, which of course is positive, but due to the area’s geographical limitations, there are more encounters between groups, with more violent confrontations, and more young are dying in these fights. So, while it is very good that we are preserving the species and gorilla numbers are on the rise, we must, at the same time, try to connect their habitats and monitor the populations to know what state they are in.

Genetics and genomics contribute to their conservation but it is a very broad area. Conservation implies so many different aspects that it is like a bridge which is still under construction. It is not easy to go from scientific research to its application in the field, because resources are limited and it requires governments to be involved. A lot of work is being done and there is still much to do.

The first part of the project is laboratory work: extracting the DNA from the samples, preparing it and sending it to be sequenced. After receiving the data, we enter the second part of the thesis, which involves the use of bioinformatics to analyse the genetic data.

It is not easy to go from scientific research to its application in the field, because resources are limited and it requires governments to be involved. A lot of work is being done and there is still much to do.

Were you sure you wanted to start a PhD?

I finished my degree in genetics in 2015, before coming to the Genetics group at the DCEXS for a one-year placement and doing the Biomedical Research Master at UPF. I then began working as a technician in the group where I am now and they offered me the chance to start the doctorate. I chose this project because it connects laboratory work and experimental tasks, which I was already doing as a technician, with data analysis and visualisation, which is an area I find very interesting. So it very neatly brings together what I already know and what I want to learn.

What are your plans for the future?

I sometimes question whether doing the Phd was the right decision. But I think it is giving me a lot, both on a personal and professional level. My idea is to finish it and then I need to think about what direction to take. Maybe something related with communication, graphic design and data visualisation; basically to work on a more visual presentation of science.

What advice would you give people who are starting their doctorate now?

First that they consider what the doctorate can give them, as that is a very important question. If it is because you really want to keep doing science, then go for it. But for those people who are not so sure and who are just continuing the path of doing a degree, then a master… then I don’t think the PhD is necessary. Doing a doctorate takes many years, it takes up a great deal of energy and the money is not great. That’s why you need to be very sure that it is what you really want to do.

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Unidad de Comunicación y Proyección Institucionales

Institutional Communication and Promotion Unit