School of Engineering and Applied Science's first Lightning Talk Competition

Three students stand holding certificates and smiling. The first two are males and the third is a female. They are all smiling and wearing formal/casual attire.

Students from the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and the Computer Science and Engineering Department earn the top three spots in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences first Lightning Talk Competition.  From left: Grant Iraci, Md. Arafat Ali and Vidhi Rasik Solanki

Photo: Sethu Thakkilapati

By Justin Huang

Published April 2, 2024

In place of the retired annual Graduate Poster Competition, 15 graduate students from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences gathered on March 8 to compete in the first Lightning Talk Competition. Contestants each presented a two-minute oral presentation accompanied with a singular PowerPoint slide aimed toward communicating their research effectively to a trio of judges.

“These talks spur people to think creatively and share what normally would be foreign, technical information in an accessible format. ”
Caitlin Hoekstra, Director, Career Development and Experiential Learning
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

The grand prize for the best pitch was the honor of presenting again at the UB Celebration of Student Academic Excellence, as well as gift cards for the top three placements. 

The organization behind the Lightning Talk Competition was headed by Caitlin Hoekstra, director of Career Development and Experiential Learning in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She identified the benefits of switching from posters to pitches; by condensing months of research into two minutes, it showed employers that these students were not only technically capable but could also articulate their work. The event gave students a chance to practice their communication skills and served as a way to bring together the SEAS community. 

“It’s an outlet to hear what others are doing in different disciplines,” Hoekstra says. “These talks spur people to think creatively and share what normally would be foreign, technical information in an accessible format.”

Pitch topics varied, ranging from aerospace parts to algorithmic coding solutions. Despite the subject matter, most contestants faced the same challenge– deciding what to include within the talking time and slide restrictions. 

“Fitting everything into two minutes was a big challenge. [Even when] I excluded the nitty gritty details, I still couldn't finish within the time limit,” says third place finisher and civil engineering PhD student Vidhi Rasik Solanki. 

Despite the challenge, Solanki successfully outlined alternative electrical infrastructure configurations for earthquake simulation testing. The design of the pitch competition pushed her outside her boundaries, and she capitalized on that opportunity. 

“This is my fifth, or nearly sixth, year in my PhD career. Yet, I was nervous because this was one of the first competitions I participated in, [but] I loved it,” says Solanki.

Second place finisher and computer science student Grant Iraci emphasized the practical implications of his research. The presentation explored tracking rates within written software to improve coding for sensors. 

“It’s challenging once you’ve been in the technical weeds for so long, but this is how you become a professional researcher,” Iraci says. 

Iraci’s work centered around improving technology for other computer scientists to use. By utilizing tracking rates in embedded systems, his research helps detect inconsistencies in written software. 

“The driving factor for me was really stressing that we can use tools, theory and math to support the people writing the software and make their job easier,” says Iraci.

While some students engaged in a learning experience, others took the competition as an opportunity to sharpen their existing skills. Environmental and water resources engineering student Md. Arafat Ali took home first place in the Lightning Talk Competition pitching a nanomaterial to remove carcinogenic forever chemicals from water supplies. He was also a finalist last year for UB’s Three Minute Thesis Competition, a similar competition that he attributes his success to. 

Ali took a different approach when it came to his singular PowerPoint slide– rather than trying to fit detailed graphs and diagrams, his presentation consisted of rudimentary clip art collage. His concise pitch and simple graphics made the complex topic of separating the chemical bonds of toxic per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) understandable.

“I wanted to express my research without using scientific jargon or technical wording so that anyone can understand my work” says Ali.