Emma Kaeli receives applause after her talk during NU Talks 2017.
Emma Kaeli receives applause after her talk during NU Talks 2017, featuring TEDX-like talks by nine students in various areas of science.
Photo by Alastair Pike for Northeastern University

by Sage Wesenberg, Biochemistry and Journalism 2019

Northeastern’s Biology Club’s wildly successful event, NU Talk 2017, won Best Program at the 2017 Student Life Awards.

NU Talk was inspired by TED Talks, with the idea to have a similarly styled event that could bring students together to share their research experience in different fields. The first NU Talk in early 2015 was small scale and heavily biology based. After three years of hosting this event, it has changed greatly and grown immensely. Now, larger and much more interdisciplinary, NU Talk strives to give students an understanding of all that is going on in and around the Northeastern community and how this innovative research, no matter how different, can come together to give a vision of the future.

Various Biology Club members have been dedicated to this event since it began, first created by by Ori Feldman and John Nguyen, the club’s President and Club Officer respectively. This year, three members stepped up to coordinate and collaborate on everything that went into this now large scale night of science. Joey Rissman is a rising fifth year biochemistry student who took on the role of organizing the night’s speakers, working with professors to help train and practice with presenters to ensure excellent presentations, as well as coordinating the event space and logistics of the night of the event. Alex Farahani, also a rising fifth year biochemist acted as the head program director, considering himself to be a jack of all trades, contributing in every area necessary to tie all the pieces together. Shalin Shetty, rising fourth year biology major played the intermediate role between Rissman and Farahani as the administrative director to communicate between the Biology Club and Northeastern administration to iron out many logistics like the budget, advertising, and creative planning. Although each of them had a distinct role, they worked together almost daily to make the night the best it could be.

Shetty described how dramatically NU Talk has changed in just a short three years. “Before 2016, NU Talk was a very small scale event with about 40-50 people in attendance. In 2016, after advertising for the event on Facebook and reserving the Raytheon Amphitheater in Egan, we were expecting a larger crowd, but were shocked to have to turn people away after shutting the doors at 400 people. The turnout was ridiculous, and we had awesome speakers talking about things like gut bacteria’s link to depression and the biology behind bath salts – the show took off that year,” he said.

Their success caught the attention of Jonathan Tilly, Interim Dean at the time, who passed his praise along to President Joseph Aoun. NU Talk 2016 became a pivotal moment for the event and the group received more backing and support from the university. Biology Club members including Shetty were given the opportunity to meet with President Aoun and discuss future NU Talk ideas, which inspired much more driven planning for NU Talk 2017.

At the end of the 2016 school year, Shetty, Farahani, and Rissman sat down to create a charter and concrete vision for NU Talk, and began a rough marketing plan several months before the event was to be held, in February 2017. Once the Fall 2016 school year began, Rissman described three major departments where most planning efforts were focused, the biggest of which being finding and training speakers for the night of the actual event, followed be essential advertising and administration to pull the event together.

Through a rigorous online application process, speaker applicants could submit a short summary of what they would like to discuss. A committee was formed with representatives from other on-campus clubs to help select presenters. A final list of 11 speakers was compiled after finding those who could share something that would define their field, follow along the themes of NU Talk, and could fit into a ten-minute time constraint.

“We had people from different colleges on the committee to round out everything to make sure we had presentations on the most interesting thing in the field that can really define the future,” Rissman said.

Once selected, presenters were held at high expectations to create their presentations, meet with professors for advice and tips for giving an engaging presentation, while simultaneously updating the NU Talk team biweekly. It was a process that required dedication and a large time commitment to everyone involved. Shetty described the constantly developing nature of the process. “It was constantly on our mind. Alex [Farahani] and I were roommates at the time, and he would knock on my door late at night with a new idea he thought of, and every weekend a chunk of our time was devoted either directly with students or amongst ourselves to ensure everything was moving forward,” he said.

This process was not without its challenges. Being fully student run and trying to work autonomously, Farahani, Rissman, and Shetty all agreed that they felt large responsibility for anything that slipped through the cracks, which happened often since they were mostly relying on busy, committed students who were not being compensated for their work. All three learned a lot about being adaptable as unexpected changes came their way. In the meantime, they were all balancing either co-op or a full class schedule for the duration of the process and relied on each other heavily to split up the work as best as they could, keeping their other commitments in mind.

Guillaume Harmange , left, and Fazli Bozal, right, speak during NU Talks 2017.
Guillaume Harmange , left, and Fazli Bozal, right, speak during NU Talks 2017.
Photo by Alastair Pike for Northeastern University

After months of hard work and late nights, NU Talk 2017 was a huge success, with a large turnout of about 400 people in Blackman Auditorium, and close to another 300 watching through livestream. The audience enjoyed the topics they got to learn about everyone involved gained a great deal from this experience.

“I most enjoyed seeing the raw talent and potential of all of our speakers – some of the most hard-working, passionate people I’ve ever met. At the end of each meeting I felt so inspired,” Shetty mentioned, upon reflecting on what he got out of the event. “Personally, I was blown away by the potential of these students.”

Rissman shared similar feelings. “I’ve worked with professional scientists and professors, but I’ve never gotten the chance to discuss research with students and show it to people who don’t know anything about what you’re saying – and it’s a really cool learning experience,” he said.

“This was some of the best networking I’ve ever done. Over the course of the show we all got to know each other to some extent and I was able to learn so much about what these amazing people have accomplished,” Farahani added.

Their reflective remarks embody the overall goal behind NU Talk. As their compass logo indicates, The Biology Club’s goal was for this event to act as a compass in giving students some direction in discovering what they might want to do with their future. “As an underclassman, I had no idea what I wanted to do in science and through experience and co-op, I learned a lot and gained a lot of direction,” Farahani explained, “Through this, we can connect people to resources available to them to help them connect with their life goals.”

And you better believe these three are already brainstorming for an even better NU Talk 2018. They hope that with this award, they can gain more recognition to help recruit even more people to next year’s event. Farahani described some preliminary plans for a bit of a variation for NU Talk, as it transforms into a four night event, one for each Thursday of the month. Hopefully held in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex (ISEC) auditorium, NU Talk 2018 will shift the focus to choose a central theme for each night with two to three related speakers to speak in panel discussions. These conversations will be broadcast live so those not able to make it can still listen in.

The talks will all still be interdisciplinary, but by separating it into distinctly themed nights, there will be a stronger connection between the talks, something the audience gave important feedback on. Rissman hopes this will help everyone get more out of the experience and gain deeper understanding in the importance of interdisciplinary STEM connections for our future.

“This award gave us a positive boost, and it meant a lot to get recognition from the University for all of our work. We’ve put so many hours in and were able to put in a good show, and it means a lot that we were able to get this really far,” Shetty said.

They are all so thankful for the hard work their presenters put in and the helping hand they received from Northeastern. Congratulations again to the Biology Club and keep an eye out for NU Talk 2018!

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