Grad Ben Talks Gives Students a Chance to Shine

On Friday, March 17, at International House Philadelphia, Penn launched its newly created Grad Ben Talks with a day of TED Talk-style presentations by Arts and Sciences graduate students. Participants presented to an audience of undergraduates, faculty, staff, and fellow graduate students. A single winner was selected in each category by a panel of judges, and an Audience Choice winner was selected by audience members via votes submitted through an online polling service. Each category winner was awarded a prize of $500. The Audience Choice winner was awarded $500, as well.

“These [Grad] Ben Talks will be community-building and an official recognition of the work graduate students do—especially for Ph.D. students worried about the meaning of their work in the greater world,” says Eve Troutt Powell, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History and Africana Studies and associate dean for graduate studies at the School of Arts and Sciences.

The talks emerged out of a twofold desire: to give these scholars the opportunity to practice describing their specialization to lay audiences in an engaging, comprehensive way, and to remind the larger community about the role such researchers play in the University’s intellectual life. Students presented in four distinct groups: Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Professional Master’s Programs/Other.

Haley Pilgrim, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology, won both the Social Sciences category and the Audience Choice award with her presentation, “Accidentally Passing: The Identity Choices of Phenotypically White Black-White Multiracials.”  Pilgrim, who completed 30 interviews with second-generation black-white multiracials, found that “although most of my respondents 'accidentally pass' as white in their daily lives, they reject the identification as white, an identification that scholars suggest would be assumed if given the option.”

The winner of the Humanities category was Mary Zaborskis, an English Ph.D. candidate, with her presentation, “Age Drag,” which examined child beauty pageant shows and how they “disrupt accepted truths held by adults … [of how] age, gender, and sexuality are inextricably linked and unfold according to a synchronized timeline.”

In the Natural Sciences category, Jonathan Johnnidis, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology, won with his presentation, “Stem Cells Lead the Way Toward More Graceful Aging,” while the Professional Master’s/Other category prize was awarded to Bryan Currinder from the Master of Environmental Studies program. Currinder's talk was titled “Conserving Freshwater Systems in Bangladesh and Bhutan through Biomonitoring.”

Nora Lewis, vice dean for professional and liberal education at the School of Arts and Sciences, says that when students are working on research, whether capstones or dissertations, the tendency is to get into the weeds. “That’s necessary, of course, but at a certain point, the impact and value come from being able to translate and communicate it to people who don’t have your background and level of expertise, and haven’t spent months or years thinking about a subject.”

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