Inaugural National Lab Research SLAM showcases early-career researchers

National Lab Research SLAM finalists (Download Image)

The 2023 National Lab Research SLAM finalists and judges pose on stage. Pictured from left: Taran Driver, Brandon Zimmerman, Theresa Kucinski, Anne Villacastin, Mickey Rogers, Janet Meier, Daniel Marx, Liz Laudadio, Marcia McNutt, Steve Welby, France Córdova, David Turk, Tarryn Miller, Stefan Knirck, Yunpu Zhao, Ashraf Abedin, Seong-Moo Yang, Megan Dahlhauser, Sean Noble, Pierre Chatagnon and Kevin Vallejo. Photo by Blaise Douros/LLNL.

Gathered in the Congressional Auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 17 early-career researchers used three minutes and a single slide to present their pioneering research during the inaugural National Lab Research SLAM.

Representing each of the 17 Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, finalists presented in four research categories: Energy Security, National Security, Environmental Resilience and Scientific Discovery. Sponsored by the House Science and National Labs Caucus and the Senate National Labs Caucus, the first-of-its-kind event heightened competition and collaboration while raising visibility of the national laboratory system and federal research priorities.

The event opened with remarks from Chuck Fleischmann, U.S. congressman for Tennessee’s Third District, and Ben Ray Luján, U.S. senator for New Mexico. Jean-luc Doumont, a noted expert in research communication, served as the evening’s emcee. Doumont had also coached the finalists during several practice sessions leading up to the event, offering improvements to the structure, delivery and slide used in each presentation.

Once the talks had been given, the finalists and audience members adjourned to a reception while the esteemed panel of four judges deliberated. Each finalist was evaluated on comprehension, content, engagement and communication, with one participant from each of the four research categories named a winner. 

David M. Turk, deputy secretary for DOE, said “It all comes down to the caliber of the people working in our labs. This event proves that humanity can step up to the challenges we’re facing. It’s incredible to see the presenters’ energy, that enthusiasm, and know that whether they stay in the lab or do other things, they're going to be doing good things for our world for literally decades of their career.”

France A. Córdova, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance and 14th director of the National Science Foundation, was “deeply impressed by the quality of the science and the profound questions these participants were asking. Our national labs have made a good investment in these young people.”

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said “Determining winners tonight was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. But I really want to congratulate the national labs for elevating communication through the SLAM. I hope this is the beginning of a tsunami that washes through all laboratories and academic departments to really emphasize the importance of clear and enthusiastic science communication.”

Steve Welby, deputy director for National Security, Office of Science and Technology Policy, felt motivated by the breadth and scope of the work presented. He explained, “it demonstrates the importance and relevance of work that's being done by these researchers and their peers across the national labs. Everything that we saw today is enormously relevant to our nation's future.”

The top presentations and quotes from the winners are noted below:

Scientific Discovery: Theresa Kucinski, Los Alamos National Laboratory

“Prepping for the SLAM increased my stage presence and my ability to talk to a diverse audience, which will be beneficial at conferences, in work collaborations, and potential future visits to Congress. And it’s been wonderful to see how friendly and collaborative the group of contestants has been. You get to know one another so quickly, and we’ve formed true friendships over the experience.”

National Security: Brandon Zimmerman, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)

“We were only together as an in-person cohort for a few days, but everybody has become so close. We were all cheering each other on, and now I have a friend group from all the different national labs. The turnout for this first-ever event has also been really impressive. Looking out at the audience and knowing that I’m speaking to stakeholders directly interested in my research is so exciting.”

Energy Security: Janet Meier, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

“It's a very unique skill to be able to give a technical talk in such a short amount of time. There was a lot of polishing that happened that helped identify those little tics or habits that we have while presenting. There was also a lot of learning how you may love this image, or you may love this line, but if it isn’t being received by your audience, it has to be cut. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the thing that you love to support your message.”

Environmental Resilience: Sean Noble, Savannah River National Laboratory

“I learned how to compose a talk in a way that's more compelling than I had known before. I would highly recommend this experience to national laboratory colleagues because your comfort zone is stretched a bit, but you learn a lot and you have a good time.”

In-person and virtual attendees showed their support for their favorite presentation by voting for the People’s Choice Award. LLNL’s Brandon Zimmerman, winner of the National Security research category, also took home the People’s Choice Award. 

The event was the culmination of years of planning, led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and LLNL. Organizers Meg Rodriguez, director of the Career Pathways Office at LBNL, and Christine Zachow, operations manager for the Academic Engagement Office at LLNL were elated at the success of the event, crediting the many individuals, teams and organizations that had contributed their time and talents. 

“I’m so grateful for the support from LBNL colleagues and leadership, the national lab complex, and our partners in Washington, D.C., that made this event possible,” said Rodriguez. “So many people devoted their time, talent and resources to this wild idea Christine and I had. The entire group was extremely enthusiastic about our vision and the persistent response was, ‘what do you need from us to make this happen?’”

Zachow agreed, “Meg and I started this event thinking that it was an opportunity for postdocs to present their ideas and research, but it’s become such a great vehicle for communicating the power of the national lab system to a wide audience. It’s been gratifying to work with colleagues at the other laboratories and hear about their plans to make local and regional SLAMs a regular event.”

The continued growth of local, regional and national SLAMs is a credit to all involved. What began as a speaking competition for postdoctoral scholars has evolved into a showcase for the next generation of researchers, engineers and technologists. 

Learn more about the finalists, judges and the inaugural event at National Lab Research SLAM site.

– Stephanie Turza

SLAM group
The 2023 National Lab Research SLAM winners pose with Jean-luc Doumont, the evening’s emcee. Pictured from left: Theresa Kucinski, Sean Noble, Jean-luc Doumont, Brandon Zimmerman and Janet Meier. Photo by Blaise Douros/LLNL.