You wouldn't normally find scenes from a Charlie Chaplin classic in a biology Ph.D. thesis defense. But Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, who studied at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, isn't afraid to defy convention. "We tend to think about storytelling as confined to fiction or entertainment," Britos Cavagnaro says. "But storytelling is a primal human activity, and there is no reason why it can't be leveraged as an effective way to communicate science."

Britos Cavagnaro used the scaffold of a story -- the Charlie Chaplin silent movie Modern Times -- in her Ph.D. thesis defense because it created a visually strong introduction to the subject of her research: the evolutionary success of bacteria. "In the movie, Charlie Chaplin's character is a factory worker employed on an assembly line, but then he is fired and has to survive famine and harsh conditions on the street. This provided a great metaphor for bacteria, which are efficient factories of self-replication but whose evolutionary success is above all due to their ability to survive harsh conditions," she explains.

In addition to producing visually dynamic presentations, Britos Cavagnaro believes that the act of storytelling can be a powerful tool for scientists who wish to take a fresh look at their own research. "It allows scientists to frame and reframe the problems that they are tackling," she says. And storytelling, she says, is just one of many ways in which so-called creative thinking can improve how scientists work and present their findings to their peers.

Better Presentations

In the coming weeks, Science Careers will be publishing a series of articles focused on improving the scientific presentation. This is the first article in that series.

Britos Cavagnaro's passion for creative thinking started at Stanford. As a third-year graduate student, she was part of the first group of students selected from a diverse range of disciplines to take part in a design thinking boot camp at the university's new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known informally as the "The premise of the is that in order to tackle the complex problems that we are faced with, there is a need for radical collaboration between disciplines, as well as the ability to imagine and shape solutions that do not currently exist," she explains.

She fell in love with this approach to creative thinking and started bringing concepts from the into the laboratory. "She would come to laboratory and be so excited about what she had just learned that she had to talk to me about it. We would then spend a while trying to imagine better ways to do science using these principles," says Esteban Toro, a biologist who worked with Britos Cavagnaro at Stanford and is now at the University of Pennsylvania. "I remember one afternoon when she came back and told me that the way we come up with projects in the lab was wrong. Instead of each person coming up with their own project, with some help form the adviser, we should sit the entire lab in a room and brainstorm questions that we think are interesting."

Estoban Toro (CREDIT: Alya Raphael)

Her flair for innovation has since taken her away from the laboratory and into a career focused solely on creative thinking. She explains the transition this way: "I enjoy working with people and as part of interdisciplinary teams tackling creative tasks," she says. "But experimental biology requires many hours working on your own at the bench." In 2010, she co-founded a company called Lime Design, which aims to teach a diverse clientele to think creatively about everyday problems. Student clients include schoolchildren, Google in Education (Google's educational division), and Microsoft. She also teaches a class in creativity and innovation at Stanford's

Slow to change

Unsurprisingly, Britos Cavagnaro faced resistance from scientific colleagues when she tried to do things differently. "People in our lab, including myself, were relatively conservative in our adoption of new technologies that Leticia introduced to us," Toro says. It wasn't just the content of her thesis defense that raised eyebrows at Stanford, Britos Cavagnaro recalls, it was the medium. She had stepped away from the scientific-presentation standards -- PowerPoint and Keynote -- opting instead for a presentation tool called Prezi. "My adviser was a very traditional scientist, and she initially expressed some resistance to my use of the software Prezi for my thesis defense," Britos Cavagnaro says.

Mapping Your Mind

Outside of the presentation context, Prezi -- and other applications in the mind-mapping genre -- offer still other advantages, Britos Cavagnaro says. She finds mind maps, visual maps of the connections among ideas and other elements, invaluable for organizing her thoughts and aiding brainstorming. For mind mapping, she uses Prezi, pen and paper, and Livescribe, a "smart pen" that uploads what you write to a computer.

Some mind-mapping applications are far from obvious. Toro uses Freemind, a mind-mapping program, to organize his bacteria database. "I found that the hierarchical organization of Freemind is perfectly suited to reflect the history of each strain. For any given strain, it was easy to see exactly what markers it has and what background it came from just by following its genealogy tree backwards," Toro says.

Prezi is based in the cloud and is more akin to a scientific poster than a traditional oral presentation. With Prezi, users put all of their content, including embedded video footage, onto one digital canvas, stored online (although you can also download its presentations). Users can then move around and zoom in to different areas of that canvas during the presentation. In essence, Prezi helps presenters build a mind map of their ideas, then lead the audience through the various parts. "Prezi allows you to prioritize the big picture and to go deeper if needed, with your research data accessible at all times from the cloud," Britos Cavagnaro says. It also lets you show relationships among the various elements in a more visual way than can be achieved in the usual sequence of Keynote or PowerPoint slides.

Toro has not embraced Prezi as a presentation tool. "I am open to using anything new as long as I feel that it really improves my productivity or makes my life easier. Unfortunately, that is not the case for most new things, even when they sound interesting and creative, like Prezi," he explains. He prefers the sequential nature of PowerPoint and Keynote. "I take a lot of time organizing and preparing my presentations, and having alternative endings in those presentations would only make them less polished and more confused," he says.

Many science conferences restrict scientists to using PowerPoint or Keynote. "I don't see any real reason why this should be the case," Britos Cavagnaro says. "On the contrary, using cloud-based presentation software, such as Prezi, would aid in the logistics of conferences. Instead of having presenters submit their slides in advance, or having to plug in their computers or flash drives before they start, their presentation could be accessed via a browser." Still, the PowerPoint genre remains the de facto standard, and deviations might not be tolerated.

Why should scientists spend more time crafting their talks when they are presenting research to peers who expect a PowerPoint presentation at conferences where alternatives are discouraged? "If you can't clearly articulate your ideas and get others excited about them, you will not get good questions and feedback, and opportunities for collaboration might be missed," Britos Cavagnaro says. "I see the time spent in creating a compelling presentation as a means to generate and refine ideas and an opportunity to reflect on and prioritize experimental results."

Toro may stick to the tried-and-true method in his own presentations, but that doesn't mean he's a voice for conformity. He regrets the pressure on younger scientists to conform. "Junior people are afraid of doing anything unconventional for fear of looking sophomoric," he says. "And if the standard in the field is a monotonous succession of text-heavy bullet points, then they will give a monotonous succession of text-heavy bullet points."

Prezi and Accessibility

While Prezi offers some advantages over PowerPoint and Keynote, it poses a problem for people with visual impairments: Its flash-based content is incompatible with "screen readers," which read text aloud. Instructional designer Scott Standifer of the Disability Policy & Studies Office at the University of Missouri, Columbia, raised the issue of disability access on Prezi's forum after finding no information on the company's Web site.

Prezi has acknowledged the issue but warns that there is no quick fix. "Unfortunately, the solution requires reprogramming Prezi in a totally different platform," Angelie Agarwal, a technology evangelist for Prezi, writes in an e-mail. "That said, we have created Prezis with built-in sound cues for blind speakers. Of course we care about all of our users and try any workaround to accommodate them however we can," she says.

Standifer suggests a simple workaround for presenters using Prezi: Provide electronic copies of the text in advance and describe any graphics that appear on the screen. However, as there is no text-only output option in Prezi, he says, this requires duplicating a presentation in another software package such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. "At that point, disability access becomes a significant burden for the presenter, because the software developer didn't address the issue," Standifer says.

Sarah Reed is a freelance science writer based in Cambridge, U.K.

Sarah Reed is a freelance science writer based in Cambridge, U.K.