UCalgary graduate students transform complex research into compelling stories

Final Five winner, Madeline Springle at the Science Writers and Communicators of
Final Five winner, Madeline Springle at the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) conference.
The national Storytellers Challenge named two UCalgary graduate students as top 20 finalists with one securing a spot among the distinguished final five winners

From research to resonance: The journey of storytellers

On May 6, 2024, the top 20 finalists of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) annual Storytellers Challenge competed for the chance to be named a final five winner. This unique competition, open to all post-secondary students in Canada, breaks away from the confines of traditional research presentations. It encourages participants to translate SSHRC-funded research into relatable narratives that resonate with a general audience, demonstrating how their work is making a difference in our lives, society and future.

The challenge encourages students to submit stories about their research in three minutes or 300 words and in a format of their choice - be it written, graphic, audio or video. From over 200 submissions nationwide, 20 finalists are selected, each receiving $3,000, research communications training and the opportunity to present their story at the SSHRC Storytellers Showcase during the 2024 Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) conference.

This year, the University of Calgary was proud to have two of its graduate students, Amanda Dickson, a Master of Science student in Geography, and Madeline Springle, a PhD candidate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, among the top 20 finalists. Dickson and Springle each made a submission as part of the first phase of the challenge. Dickson’s work, known as the " Foothills Coyote Initiative ", and Springle’s research, titled " Scene, Not Heard: Understand the Influence of SES on Asynchronous Video Interviews ", were both transformed into a format that was easily understandable to a general audience.

Their impressive submissions led them to the second phase of the competition, providing them the opportunity to present their story at the SSHRC Storytellers Showcase. The competition culminates with the selection of the Final Five winners, who are awarded an additional $1,000 each. Among these distinguished winners was Madeline Springle, marking a major achievement for the University of Calgary - the second year in a row a UCalgary student was in the final five.

"Madeline and Amanda’s remarkable achievements at the SSHRC Storytellers Challenge highlight the strength of our students’ ability to communicate complex research effectively," says Dr. Katrina Milany, associate vice-president (research). "Their work in the competition is an excellent example of the ways that students are conducting research with social impact. We are proud to support our students in these efforts and help them build their research communication skills."

The Storytellers Challenge underscores the importance of social sciences and humanities research in understanding the human experience and shaping a better future. It celebrates the power of storytelling in making abstract research accessible, understandable and impactful.

Springle’s research unveils bias in hiring outcomes

Springle is making significant contributions to the field of industrial-organizational psychology. Her innovative research, conducted under the supervision of Dr. Joshua Bourdage, focuses on the intricate dynamics of asynchronous video interviews (AVIs). AVIs are one-way video interviews, where job candidates record their responses at a time and location that’s convenient for them, without having an interviewer present. She investigates how background cues in AVIs can indicate an applicant’s socioeconomic status (SES) and whether this influences their perceived employability.

Her research is especially relevant today, as AVIs have become increasingly common due to the pandemic. The findings of her work shed light on potential bias in hiring outcomes based on the evaluator’s own characteristics, such as their socioeconomic status. "We discovered that a candidate’s perceived employability in an asynchronous video interview varied depending on the evaluator’s own characteristics, such as their own socioeconomic status. This is concerning because it highlights that employer bias can significantly impact the fairness of hiring outcomes," she explained as she presented her story live in front of an audience and a panel of judges at the 2024 SWCC conference.

The UCalgary community and beyond

Springle’s journey to the SSHRC Storytellers Challenge was a testament to her determination and the supportive UCalgary community. She expressed her appreciation for the university, stating, "I love being a grad student at UCalgary! The emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship inspires me to consider alternative career paths outside of the traditional academic or industry route post-PhD." This year, one of her goals was to increase her knowledge mobilization skills and to take part in the opportunities available to graduate students.

She also acknowledges the exceptional support she received from the Knowledge Engagement (KE) team in the university’s Research Services Office, the My GradSkills team in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Libraries and Cultural Resources. These teams provided multiple practice rounds and excellent feedback, creating a supportive atmosphere that Springle found invaluable in her preparation for the challenge. "We met multiple times for live presentation practices, and not only were they very encouraging, but the knowledge engagement team provided thought-provoking questions on my script that allowed me to ensure it was as compelling and jargon-free as possible," she shared. The workshops taught her how to prepare for a live presentation, including breathing exercises, vocal warmups and learning how to deeply memorize her script.

Beyond the skills support provided by the MyGradSkills and KE teams to prepare Springle and Dickson for the competition, both students attended the SSHRC Storytellers Showcase with financial support from the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the Vice-President (Research) Office.

"It’s easy to stay in an academic mindset when it comes to explaining your research and competitions like this are important to encourage and challenge graduate students to present their research in a way that’s captivating and speaks to a broad audience," says Dr. Tara Beattie, dean and vice-post (graduate studies). "We want our students to feel proud and excited to demonstrate their academic achievements and discover the value in research storytelling."

Springle’s engagement with the UCalgary community extends beyond the SSHRC Storytellers Challenge. She also participated in the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ 2023-24 Images of Research competition, which provided another opportunity to improve her knowledge mobilization. Springle encourages all graduate students to take part in these extracurricular opportunities, viewing them as one of the most important elements of one’s academic journey. She believes that these types of competitions make the graduate student experience well-rounded and exciting, a vital factor when completing a Master’s or PhD.

Looking ahead

Springle’s success at the SSHRC Storytellers Challenge is just the beginning. She plans to participate in the UCalgary Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition in the future. Her goal is to continue sharing her research with others, especially those who will benefit from her findings. "My lifelong goal is to do a TED Talk, I think that’s the ultimate storyteller challenge that will have a deep impact on such a wide audience," she shared.

The triumph of Springle at the SSHRC Storytellers Challenge is a testament to her hard work, the support of the UCalgary community, and the power of effective storytelling in research. Her success serves as an inspiration for other graduate students at UCalgary and beyond. As she looks ahead, Springle is eager to continue communicating her research in new and engaging ways while making an impact through her work.

Knowledge Engagement in the Research Services Office builds and maintains meaningful partnerships for research between the University of Calgary and community organizations to create knowledge with impact to benefit the community. The team also supports knowledge mobilization planning and the implementation of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment ( DORA ) My GradSkills is part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. My GradSkills connects grad students with workshops, resources and training to help them develop transferable skills and navigate grad school, internships, entrepreneurship and career preparation.