PhD candidate makes complex scientific research sound simple

Brooklyn College grad wins national competition

April 21, 2014 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Lyl Tomlinson makes scientific concepts fun and understandable for average listeners. Photo by Ryder Haske, National Geographic
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Forget Bill Nye the Science Guy. Lyl Tomlinson is the new star of the world of science!


Tomlinson, a Brooklyn College graduate who is currently studying for his Ph.D in neuroscience at Stony Brook University, recently won the National FameLab USA competition. The contest challenges young scientists to talk about their research in an engaging a manner that could be easily understood by a general audience.


Tomlinson, 25, beat out more than 100 young scientists from across the country.  In June, he will represent the US at the FameLab International Final in England, competing against the winners of FameLab competitions in 23 other countries. The contest is sponsored by NASA, National Geographic and the Cheltenham Science Festival.


The contest requires competitors to speak to a non-scientific panel and were judged on how effectively they could communicate complex ideas simply.


At the FameLab USA finals earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Tomlinson was one of 11 finalists competing for the U.S. title. His winning presentation, “A Few Steps to a Better Memory,” was about his dual passions: running and the brain.


Tomlinson’s research suggests that there is a link between running and a boost in stem cell production in the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain responsible for memory.  In three minutes, he described his research showing that mice that run on exercise wheels remember simple tasks better and have more stem cell production than their non-active counterparts.


During a Q&A session following his talk, Tomlinson was asked if the research might mean that any exercise, like yoga, could be of benefit. “We haven’t really found that yoga might stimulate stem cells, mostly because it’s really hard to get mice to assume yoga positions,” he shot back, not missing a beat.


The judges were impressed.


Tomlinson honed his presentation skills at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a program housed at Stony Brook University. Alda, an actor whose credits include “MASH” and “The West Wing,” has long held an interest in science, according to the center’s website. He helped create the center for scientists to hone their speaking skills to better assist the general public in understanding the wonder of science. The center uses improvisation techniques to help scientists relax and engage an audience.


Tomlinson has participated in Alda Center programs since the spring when, as a teaching assistant in biology, he received training in improvisational theater techniques from the Alda Center. Working with Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, the Alda Center’s improvisation coordinator, Tomlinson also helped to launch the Alda Center’s Science Unplugged program, in which Stony Brook graduate students go to local high schools and libraries to talk about their research.    

“It was exciting from the very beginning developing my talk with critical feedback from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. My excitement only grew while I refined my skills in the FameLab master class into the final when I presented on stage with other engaging science communicators. I am thrilled to be participating again in June,” Tomlinson said.


“We are very proud of Lyl for this great achievement. He is a talented, dedicated scientist who understands how important it is for scientists to be able to connect with a wide range of people,” said Elizabeth Bass, executive director of the Alda Center. 


Tomlinson, who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, earned his B.S. in psychology from Brooklyn College and later pursued his interests in neuroscience at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center. He is working toward a Ph.D in neuroscience in Dr. Holly Colognato’s lab at Stony Brook.  



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