McGovern Institute scientists share stories of grit, perseverance and resilience at inaugural story slam.

Storytelling brings MIT neuroscience community together

McGovern Institute scientists share stories of grit, perseverance and resilience at inaugural story slam.

Kristy Johnson, McGovern Institute and Media Lab graduate student and winner of the 2020 McGovern Institute story slam, describes how she developed technology to help her son.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down offices, labs, and classrooms across the MIT campus last spring, many members of the MIT community found it challenging to remain connected to one another in meaningful ways. Motivated by a desire to bring the neuroscience community back together, the McGovern Institute hosted a virtual storytelling competition featuring a selection of postdocs, grad students, and staff from across the institute.

“This has been an unprecedented year for us all,” says McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone. “It has been twenty years since Pat and Lore McGovern founded the McGovern Institute, and despite the challenges this anniversary year has brought to our community, I have been inspired by the strength and perseverance demonstrated by our faculty, postdocs, students and staff. The resilience of this neuroscience community – and MIT as a whole – is indeed something to celebrate.”

The McGovern Institute had initially planned to hold a large 20th anniversary celebration in the atrium of Building 46 in the fall of 2020, but the pandemic made a gathering of this size impossible. The institute instead held a series of virtual events, including the November 12 story slam on the theme of resilience.

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A selection of stories from the 2020 McGovern Institute story slam: In moving from Russia to Israel, Gabrieli lab postdoc Ola Ozernov-Palchik loses her ability to read, a moment that shapes her work as a researcher. McGovern Institute Scientific Director Jill Crittenden describes turning one rejection letter into two publications. Kristy Johnson, a McGovern and Media Lab grad student, describes her complete career change to develop technology to help her son. Jazayeri lab graduate student Mahdi Ramadan overcomes incredible odds and self-doubt to pursue his dream of coding. Heather Kosakowski, a graduate student in the Saxe and Kanwisher labs, finds a new lease on life after the birth of her daughter.

Seven storytellers shared five-minute tales to a virtual audience including fellow researchers, supporters, and the general public. Tellers included graduate students, postdocs, and staff from across the McGovern Institute – each with a unique interpretation of resilience.

The event was moderated by Kirsty Bennett, founder of MIT’s storytelling group MITell, and stories were judged by Maddie Sofia, host of NPR’s daily science podcast ShortWave, and Tina Hesman Saey, senior writer at ScienceNews. Judges selected their winner based on three criteria: relevance to the theme, clarity of scientific concepts, and originality of story.

Sofia and Saey selected Kristy Johnson, a McGovern Institute and Media Lab doctoral student, as the winner of the slam. Johnson told an emotional story about how her son’s diagnosis of a rare genetic disorder changed the trajectory of her personal and professional life.

“As a person who professionally tells science stories, I have to say that Kristy did so many beautiful things in her story,” explained Sofia of their choice. “She did a great job of doing something we call sign posting which leaving us little things along the way that we’re going to find. There was a big climatic moment and a beautiful resolution.”

Both Sofia and Saey commended all of the tellers for their stories, adding that “it’s not easy to tell a story, it’s not easy to tell a personal story, and it’s not easy to tell a story over zoom.”


Jill Crittenden  |  Scientific Advisor, McGovern Institute
Dipon Ghosh  |  Postdoctoral Fellow, Horvitz Lab
Kristy Johnson  |  Graduate Student, Gabrieli Lab / Media Lab
Shannon Johnson  |  Graduate Student, Boyden Lab / Media Lab
Heather Kosakowski  | Graduate Student, Saxe and Kanwisher Labs
Ola Ozernov-Palchik  |  Postdoctoral Associate, Gabrieli Lab
Mahdi Ramadan  |  Graduate Student, Jazayeri Lab

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