UW Graduate School

Molly Grear
Engineer, biologist, science communicator, and winner of the 2017 UW 3MT Competition

Molly Grear

Engineer, biologist, science communicator — “I wear many hats,” says Molly Grear. This is how Molly, PhD candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering and winner of the 2017 Three Minute Thesis Competition introduced herself and her interdisciplinary research to the 3MT audience last year.

Molly studies the soft tissue and thick, fatty blubber of marine mammals to understand how the animals might be injured if they were hit by man-made structures in the water. Molly wears her engineering hat when she uses computer modeling and materials testing — the same techniques used to test steel beams for buildings — to understand the skin properties of aquatic creatures. She dons her biologist hat to collect tissue from marine mammals that wash up dead on beaches throughout Puget Sound. She is particularly interested in evaluating tidal turbines to minimize the damage they would cause on colliding with a marine mammal; for this research, she was named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in Energy for 2018.

Although she’s situated in engineering, she has connections to Friday Harbor Laboratories, a UW marine biology field station on San Juan Island. There, she has access to materials testing equipment that is smaller, and therefore more appropriate to her studies, as well as colleagues who are accustomed to fishy smells and don’t cringe at the stench of whale blubber in the lab. As well, working alongside biologists helps her consider her research in a new way. For example, finding that certain marine mammals have different material properties would lead her to question why the animals evolved distinct features, and to evaluate the differences that are important to capture in modeling.

For scientists like Molly who work in interdisciplinary settings, science communication is particularly important “because you have to be able to translate between the two disciplines and listen to your colleagues,” she says.

Yet science communication is not a skill that is prioritized by her department’s professional development programming. Among most of her peers, “it’s not necessarily a demand,” she says.  

So 3MT was invaluable practice in honing an elevator pitch for her research. In a practice session for the competition, the staff at Core Programs and the Research Commons gave Molly feedback that helped her refine the hook for her talk and develop compelling visuals to accompany it.

Molly’s skills in science communication are already paying off in her career. In a recent job interview, she was asked to explain her research without technical jargon. “I used at least half of the speech I prepared for 3MT in my answer,” she says. As she’s hunting for jobs and thinking about her future career, Molly aims to be a “forward-facing scientist,” someone who uses their science communication skills to interface with stakeholders, policy and the community.

Published April 2018