Speaking of Science

June 11, 2015 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Last year, Chelsea Karson was so apprehensive about her upcoming presentation at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research in Lexington, Kentucky, that she was relieved to see a podium at the front of the room where she would be speaking.

She figured it would help disguise her nervousness.

“I was so nervous, I was shaking,” said Karson, a biology major from Lake Zurich who graduated from Elmhurst at the end of May. She was at the conference to talk about her part in an investigation led by Assistant Professor Kyle Bennett into the complex genetics of a tiny bivalve called the scorched mussel. “I thought, ‘Good, I’ll be behind the podium, they won’t be able to see my knees knocking together.’ I was like a cartoon character.”

Karson has long since overcome her stage fright. In her last two years at Elmhurst, she crisscrossed the country, from Lexington to Denver to Spokane, Washington, to deliver presentations at three national undergraduate research conferences, and at the College’s annual Research and Performance Showcase. She was coauthor, with Bennett and six other students, of a paper published electronically in the journal Mitochondrial DNA. And she has learned through experience that one of the most challenging parts of a scientist’s work is explaining that work to non-experts.

“It’s so important for scientists to be able to communicate,” she said. “Doing all this has made me much more confident as a speaker.”

Karson was again in the spotlight in May, when she accepted the College’s Founders Award for Service to the Greater Society. The award recognized Karson’s work as service chair for the Honors Organization and as a founding member of a club for students assisting animal shelters and the Commuter Advisory Board. She also logged more than 100 hours of volunteer work in the emergency room of Barrington’s Good Shepherd Hospital.

Karson began working in Bennett’s lab as a sophomore. She was one of a group of undergraduates using gene-sequencing tools to more clearly distinguish the mussel species Brachidontes exustus from close relatives. She credits Bennett and Honors Program Director and Professor Mary Kay Mulvaney with preparing her to present her work at research conferences. With its obscure species and complex genetic processes, Karson’s project could seem an especially difficult one to explain to those not so familiar with biology and genetics.

“Sometimes it takes a few tries to make it understood,” Karson laughed. “But I think I’ve improved vastly as a communicator. I practiced over and over. And it helps when you’re talking about something you really care about. You want to share everything about the topic.”

Karson, who plans to apply to medical school, spent the summer of 2013 as a certified nurse assistant in an internship at Pediatric Care Associates in Hoffman Estates. Among her duties were physical exams, including blood pressure readings, for the practice’s young patients. She also earned minors in chemistry and medical humanities, a program that emphasizes ethics, communication and humanistic values in health care.

Karson said her studies and service experiences will inform her work as a physician. “The values I will apply to my career are patience, acceptance and advocacy,” she said.

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