How Talking about Mouse Pee Landed Elana Varner a California Government Fellowship

February 23, 2023

How Talking about Mouse Pee Landed Elana Varner a California Government Fellowship

SFU PhD Biological Sciences alumnus, Elana Varner, never dreamed that her Three Minute Thesis (3MT) talks on mouse pee would help with her career preparation. But the skills she developed were what she needed to help land a California Council on Science & Technology (CCST) Fellowship placement with the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

“I never envisioned a career in policy, but I was open to learning and trying new things – which brought me to 3MT and helped me learn the importance of science communication,” says Varner. “My CCST fellowship is a truly unique opportunity. Their [CCST] mission is to ensure that California policy is strengthened and informed by science, and science communication is instrumental in making this happen. I feel very well armored with my 3MT experience.”

Although, Varner’s initial thoughts about competing in 3MT felt like procrastination tactics, she soon realized that the skills she was learning were incredibly valuable.

Varner says, “I used to joke that I was procrastinating my PhD work by getting involved in activities outside of research. But these extracurricular activities all ended up being what I put at the top of my resume when I was applying for post-graduation opportunities. These extracurriculars are what got me a job!”

The job that Varner currently has through the CCST fellowship, uses what she’s researched and studied in her master’s and doctoral programs, and puts her in front of policymakers that can make a difference – using science-backed information to make decisions.

“Policy makers do not have the time or bandwidth to comb through massive amounts of literature. It's extremely important for experts and scientists, including graduate students, to synthesize and communicate their knowledge to ensure that policy is scientifically based,” says Varner.

SFU professor, Gerhard Gries, who supervised Varner through her master’s and doctoral studies acknowledges the importance of Varner’s current position.

“Take, for example, the scenario in California, where [in 2018] 70% of all mammals in that state have rodenticides (rodent poison) in their system. That's incredibly bad and disturbing. Elana’s in a position to communicate to decision-makers, politicians and governments generating laws that there are alternatives to rodenticide – there's integrated pest management, meaning rodenticides should be [heavily restricted] and alternatives should be used instead. I'm sure in her career, Elana will have many moments where her input will make a difference in the real world,” says Gries.

You learn something new by trying something new. This is what Varner discovered through participating in 3MT – she gained the confidence to participate in additional professional development opportunities – all of which were vital to preparing her for life beyond grad school.

Says Varner, “I found out that science communication is really fun! So, if there’s a procrastinatory activity that you find yourself having fun doing – that is a VERY good sign. Maybe you can make a career out of it!”

About Elana

Elana Varner (she/her) completed a BSc in Pre-Veterinary Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst before moving to British Columbia to pursue her PhD at Simon Fraser University. Elana defended and passed her thesis without revisions in September 2022. Titled “Unravelling information flow and olfactory eavesdropper networks in murine rodent communities”, Elana first identified rodent pheromones to then explore if other species eavesdrop on these conspicuous mating signals. Her most recently published paper is “Rodent odour bait: A new bumble bee conservation tool to enhance nest box occupancy” in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity. Before rolling up to a PhD, Elana’s Master of Pest Management coursework introduced her to Integrated Pest Management.

Elana is passionate about science communication and science policy, having placed 2nd in the National 3 Minute Thesis competition for her PhD thesis and 3rd in Western Regionals for her Master’s work, started a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion student group, and advocated for IPM over second generation anticoagulant rodenticide use with legislation passing in both California and British Columbia. Elana Varner has been selected as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) and has been placed with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation for her fellowship.

Find Elana Varner on LinkedIn

3MT Advice for Participants

Varner, having placed 2nd in the National 3 Minute Thesis competition for her PhD thesis and 3rd in Western Regionals for her Master’s work, has some 3MT advice for participants:

  • Remove all unneeded details! Strip down your research to the key points. This sounds simple but is probably the hardest part for scientists. I’d argue it’s also the most important skill to master.
    • Ever have a friend who tells a story that goes off on a million unrelated tangents, making it feel like they’ll never reach the conclusion? That’s what talking to a scientist can be like! When this happens, the audience has trouble following and the whole point of the story is lost. Decide what the main point of research story is and only add back in the most critical details.
    • Being able to concisely tell scientific stories is  key to science communication, especially when you’re talking to policy makers.
    • In practice, it can help to write everything out, unneeded details and all. Then begin to chip away until you found the core message.
  • Remove all jargon and translate scientific terms into lay terms. Read your script to a non-science family member or friend. Ask them if there were any terms that they didn’t know or had to pause and think about.
  • Watch previous competitors’ 3MT videos. Pick out the elements that you think work best.
    • Broadly, what is the structure of the talk? How do they transition from the hook to the study itself? What elements of the methods are kept?.  How do people use body language to help tell the story?
    • Have a good hook! Grab the audience’s attention right away. Visual descriptions in particular can help an audience immediately relate to a topic..
    • Be funny! Jokes help keep the audience’s attention and gives them a chance to digest the information.
    • If you can, have a recurring theme. Repetition is a powerful tool to harp back to an earlier point and help cement the connection between concepts.
  • Memorize your talk. I found this to be extremely helpful and a way to, essentially, take the thinking out of giving a 3MT performance. I memorized it to the point where it was like singing a song in your head; effortless and the words that come next just flow naturally. Each night the week before, I’d go through it in my head a couple of times before bed and wake up knowing it significantly better.
  • Have fun with it! If you’re enjoying telling the story, the audience will enjoy listening to it!

The Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies website has videos of previous winners and participants as well as additional materials to help graduate students prepare for the 3MT competition.

Watch Elana Varner's 2020 Winning 3MT Entry

Elana and her pet rat, Al

For graduate students interested in science policy, Varner recommends joining a local science policy graduate group or student advocacy group. Explore JSPG for some great resources as well.