Building Communication Skills on Campus – A Conversation with Doctoral Candidate Amber Habowski

Two pivotal experiences in high school sparked Amber Habowski’s interest in biology and her desire to communicate science clearly.  She sought to understand the biomechanics of her own sports-induced knee injuries and surgeries and the neurophysiology of her grandfather’s brain after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This led her to work at both the physical therapist office who treated her knee and the Parkinson’s center where her grandfather was treated. Eager to share her new-found fascination with biology and medical knowledge with her parents and others who lacked a scientific background, Amber learned how to talk about science in a clear and understandable way.  

Amber is currently pursuing her doctorate in Biomedical Science at UC Irvine and has her sights set on an academic faculty role combined with running a cancer research lab. Meanwhile, along with conducting research on stem cells and colon cancer, she invests time honing her communication and relationship-building skills. Here she shares her roadmap for finding opportunities to learn and practice these essential skills.

Seize the Opportunities to Learn to Communicate
Become a Teaching Assistant

“You learn the material when you teach it and being a TA forces you to learn to communicate it too.” Amber has had a variety of teaching opportunities but has particularly enjoyed the challenges of teaching biology for non-majors. “I remember teaching students about cell division and the struggles they would have with the complex words and jargon.” To keep her students from being overwhelmed by everything they didn’t know, Amber would start by reminding them of the big picture and overarching point. She’d say, “Ignore all of the words. This is simply going from one cell to two. What does it take to get that done? Copy DNA and split the cell.” Once the big picture made sense, she would apply the technical terms to the steps. Amber credits her biology teacher in her senior year of high school with showing her the importance of grasping the big picture. “She would have what she called ‘Big Picture Day’ where she would beautifully diagram complex processes, such as photosynthesis, and draw out the big steps.”

Take a Public Speaking Class

Amber attended Activate to Captivate, a public speaking course geared to PhD students offered through UC Irvine Graduate Division by actress and science communicator Bri McWhorter. Bri helps people distill their message and improve their delivery. She teaches strategies for dealing with nerves and generally how to make your public speaking engaging and interesting to the audience. “At one point she had me stand on a chair to learn to better project my voice so I could feel large and in charge, creating a stronger and more confident impression in front of others. She’s been so influential on campus – you often hear people ask: ‘Has your presentation been Bri’d?’”

Participate in Elevator Pitch Competitions

On-campus elevator pitch events gave Amber several occasions to find high impact words for talking about her research. Off-campus she has participated in Brews and Brains” a neuroscience group that meets at a pub. Amber says, “It’s very interactive and the public attends so it is an ideal place to test how well your message is understood.” In all her speaking engagements, Amber uses a conveyer belt as an iconic analogy to help explain the colon crypt structure and what happens with stem cells. She often draws a giant U shape with her hands to show the location of stems cells at the base and how they move up along the conveyor belt as they divide and differentiate.  

Give Formal and Informal Technical Scientific Talks

The Research in Progress talks through Amber’s department, the UC Irvine Cancer Research Institute, and UC Irvine RNA Club, are other natural opportunities she takes advantage of to sharpen her communication skills. She also attends national and international conferences sharing her work via poster or oral presentation with other scientists. Amber values the ability to communicate science both to the public and to her colleagues. Talking about research in progress and future directions is a great way to get useful feedback.   

Pursue Fellowship Opportunities

UC Irvine internal fellowship and grant competitions require Amber to speak for only 15 minutes in front of a selection committee of donors and deans. She’s had success on several occasions by tailoring her comments to get her listeners to act. “I zero in on what’s holding back my research, some sort of obstacle. I create a connection to what their money would do. When I was having trouble getting actual patient tissue to use in my research because I couldn’t get an active consent pipeline, I was awarded funds to pay a clinical coordinator who helped remove that barrier.”


 Amber Habowski discussed her work on RNA Processing in the Colon Crypt during a 2018 SoCal RNA Symposium at UC Irvine.

Building Relationships to Help Advance Your Science 

Outreach and Interviews Drive Rapid Fire Relationship Building

Amber applied and was selected for a AAAS fellowship called Emerging Leaders in Science and Society (ELISS).Participants were tasked with bridging the gap between science, society, and policy to address big societal problem. Her cohort of grad students from different disciplines took up the problem of safe drinking water. “We had to build relationships, hold hundreds of informational interviews, solicit advisors, and figure out who to bring on board. We learned how to do stakeholder mapping by identifying the type of people we needed to connect with and understanding the big picture problems.” “Overall we found people were very receptive to our request to interview them. If you go in with the attitude you just want to learn from someone – and don’t have your own agenda to push, it helps get the relationship moving in the right direction.”

View Conferences as Opportunities To Build Reputation and Relationships

At conferences, Amber makes a point of getting to know people. “People love to talk about themselves and their science. To build a relationship deeper than that I try to find some common ground. I also ask deep questions that makes someone think. I ask the unexpected.” She says that sometimes you learn something that someone wouldn’t typically share. She likes to ask, “If you could go back and change one stage of your education or change your major and start in a different field, what would you change?”

Seek out Mentor Relationships
Amber believes it’s good to be with people you can learn from. “As a child, I was always the one who wanted to sit at the adult table and soak up the wisdom of older people.” She has been fortunate to have several excellent mentors– her thesis advisor Marian Waterman at UCI, her biology teacher in high school, and a faculty advisor starting her freshman year of undergraduate. He made an exception and let her do research in his lab because her persistent requests demonstrated how motivated she was. “I emailed him my freshman year asking if I could do research in his lab and finally wore him down. He became a father figure and mentor and I continue to stay in contact with him.”