Amina Ann Qutub, Ph.D. on speaking to empower and connect with others

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Amina Ann Qutub about her experience speaking as part of her scientific research career, how she uses speaking as a way to connect with many different audiences, and the advice she has for new (and experience) speakers.

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing Women Talk Design speakers about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Event header image for Women Talk Design Speaker Stories with Amina Anna Qutub, PhD on Tuesday February 21th written in white font on a dark pink background. There is a round headshot photo of a woman with light brown hair wearing a dark purple sweater with her arms folded, smiling into the camera.

Amina Ann Qutub, Ph.D. methods at the interface of computer science, biology, and engineering to study the design of human cells, and help eradicate diseases affecting cells of the brain and vasculature.

Amina is the Burzik Professor of Engineering Design and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA). She serves as a research thrust lead of the Artificial Intelligence MATRIX Consortium for human well-being and Director of the UTSA – UT Health Medical School Graduate Group in Biomedical Engineering. Bridging basic science to translational impact, she directs the Quantu Project, a nationwide study to optimize brain health over a lifespan using an integration of biosensing technology, artificial intelligence, and experimental neurogenesis bioassays. 

She also is a co-founder of a data visualization startup, and a frequent keynote speaker in the precision health and medicine industry and academic events including The Health Cell State of the Industry and TEDx talks.

Witnessing how neurological conditions have altered the lives of family, friends, patients, and research volunteers, Amina is motivated to develop cutting-edge computational and experimental methods to rapidly advance therapeutic discovery for disorders affecting the brain. She also strongly advocates for open access to neurotechnology innovations, data, and designs that augment human sensing and enable a more equitable world.

On how she started speaking

Amina talked about how she started speaking at a young age, beginning with a Model UN conference in high school.

“I was very involved in a lot of different things in high school. My senior year I was an athlete, I was in drama, I was a Math Olympiads, and [I was in] Model United Nations. 

Every year, [Model United Nations] had a big conference in downtown Chicago, which is where my family was from. I really wanted to go to that conference but I hadn’t been showing up for all the meetings. I went to the teacher who was organizing this conference and asked him whether I could still present and he begrudgingly said yes. 

When you looked, you realized I was probably at the lower end in terms of what he thought my presenting skills were because you were assigned countries based off of GDP and and your speaking abilities. My brother, who was a year older than me, got United States. My friends got France and Germany. I was so happy that I actually got Fiji.

I was thrilled to be able to present at this Model United Nations event in downtown Chicago, where I could represent Fiji and its stance on climate change. And it was just a great event. It really is what [started] my interest in teaching and in presenting.”

After her experience in high school, Amina said she dove into more public speaking thanks to a mentor she had in college.

“I didn’t get started doing more public speaking until I was in college and after I started a couple of tech companies. That was partially stimulated by a really good mentor who coached me for many, many, many, many months on how to present well on the science and the tech that I was researching in his lab.”

On what she’s speaking about

Amina mostly speaks as part of her work in science and technology. She highlighted the topics that she’s speaking on, related to cellular communication and other areas of her research.

“I’m really passionate about understanding how we communicate at every level of biology.

A lot of the focus of my research has been understanding how human cells communicate. We think of us communicating at a systems level, but internally, at every level of biology, you have many types of communication.

It’s a huge leap in medicine and in science to be able to take what we’re studying at the cell level and understand how we respond as a human to our environment. My focus right now is developing technologies and speaking about those technologies that allow us to bridge from the cellular level and cell communication to how we respond in the real world.

I would call this experiential medicine, and that encompasses a lot of different things…I see an emerging area where we’re bringing in all these [different] domains of medicine to be able to really focus on helping people with neurological conditions. That’s what I’m really passionate about–bringing together the component parts that the doctors who are often in their own silos.

On how she finds speaking engagements

In discussing how she finds speaking engagements, Amina highlighted the importance of meeting other people and how the connections she’s made have moved her forward.

“In the very beginning, when I was starting the tech companies, I applied [for talks]. Initially, you submit as much as you can and then your first invites come from those. People resonate with what you’re saying and they bring new invitations. 

It became a feedback loop for me. Once I presented at one conference, people would invite me to another one. Or, if they learned about my technologies from when I pitched in a closed setting, I would get a public invitation to speak.

The more I’ve shared my work–whether that was writing about my work or talking to people–the more invitations have come. [My] TEDx talk was a part of it, starting a company with two of my students was a part of bringing in more talk invitations as well.

We also hosted a lot of workshops on techniques where it was free for people to attend and that brought in a bigger audience for me. That led to many talk invitations.”

Through all those different experiences, Amina said she’s had the opportunity to give a wide array of talks to a very diverse audience.

“I’ve given talks at pubs and restaurants. I’ve given talks to elementary school students and high school students and engineers. I’ve even had an opportunity to speak in an area where there’s a Nobel laureate.

There is an initiative started by a colleague called where, around the world, you can sign up as a scientist to give a public talk at a pub. It’s an opportunity to meet people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the type of presentation you’re giving or the knowledge that you bring as a researcher.

And vice versa. You learn so much from speaking to different audiences and there are so many different questions [that come up] you might not have thought of in your own research silo.” 

On her favorite aspects of speaking

When asked about her favorite aspects of speaking and her favorite talks to give, Amina pointed to all she’s learned from the range of people she’s met and cultures she’s been able to experience.

“I’ve loved the diversity of the audiences. If it was always a similar audience, I wouldn’t learn as much.

The benefit of speaking to young children about what I’m doing is that you can see that they ask questions out of curiosity that other people would be shy about. Sometimes they’re really relevant and they start us thinking down a different direction. It’s also really exciting to engage people at a young age where it might change the trajectory of their career.

For me, the most exciting talks were ones where I got to travel internationally to groups which I wouldn’t have access to normally. Through speaking, I’ve been able to travel to Saudi Arabia. I’ve been in France. I’ve been in Germany and China and India and UAE and Poland–all these different places where, if I wasn’t speaking about science, I wouldn’t have access to the culture and the scientists in this other country.

Those talks have been very exciting for me because it’s a very different cultural perspective of the technology.”

Amina said that she views speaking as a great way to meet others she otherwise wouldn’t and build a connection.

“Giving talks is an opportunity to meet people in the audience. If you give a talk, you present a little bit about yourself. After the talk, that’s an impetus for people to come up to you and ask a specific question about the research. You don’t have to have the small talk in the beginning–it’s already there. There’s a talking point and it helps you learn about people really quickly from your audience.

[Connecting] with somebody in the audience might help bring your science forward or your tech forward or your career forward.”

On how she develops a talk

Amina discussed her process for developing talks as a busy scientist and entrepreneur and often doesn’t have much time.

“Sometimes it’s very informal or it’s more show-and-tell for the younger audience. For others, it’s crafting a storyline so it resonates well and people can see themselves in what you’re describing.

As a speaker with a primary role as a scientist and researcher and entrepreneur and technologist, you’re really busy. You have to be very quick in crafting a talk and sometimes you don’t have the concentrated time to do the work that’s really needed to craft a talk like a great orator would.

If you look at the speeches by Martin Luther King or by Churchill, they’re lyrical in what they’re describing. A scientist doesn’t usually have time to craft that type of talk. 

What I’ve done is I’ve looked at the day before I’m giving a talk and blocked off big periods of time just to focus on walking through the conversation of the talk that I’m gonna give. This really helps me in whatever context that I’m developing the talk–having concentrated time to work on it, even though I may not have had the dedicated time earlier.”

She also talked specifically about how she prepared for her TEDx talk, weaving her own real-life experiences in.

“I was caring for my father. He had a massive stroke in his late fifties which impacted part of the way he interacted with people and not others. At any given instance, you could tell that he was suffering from a neurological condition and other times you couldn’t.

When I was giving that TEDx talk, he was staying with me in my apartment in Houston. I wanted to think about how I could represent what we’re doing in the lab in a way which shared the trajectory of why I was doing what we were doing and how it can impact someone like my father. And vice versa, show how my father’s health influenced the work that I was doing.

I was given the rubric to talk about something related to the number 5. It was a really broad ask. I started writing about it in little bits and pieces the month before. What could I do to really have a good talk that could resonate with people? 

Most people can’t see individual human cells on a regular basis and people usually don’t get to see everyone’s data, but a lot of people–1 in 8 people–suffer from a neurological condition. I was thinking about how to craft [my talk] in a way where people could see the context of what I was presenting, and it could resonate better with something about their own lives.”

On how speaking has impacted her career

In the same way that making connections through speaking has allowed her to speak more, Amina said that the people she’s met through speaking and the opportunities she’s gotten have affected the trajectory of her career.

“As I mentioned, one of the things I really love about speaking is the ability to connect with the audience members. It’s been audience members actually connecting with me afterwards that has changed the trajectory of my career and led to a new collaboration. It’s led to business contracts and new invitations. And it’s led to opportunities. I wouldn’t have had–public speaking in different countries as an example.

If I wasn’t speaking, I would have a much smaller world around me. And that would affect the science and the technology that I do.”

Amina also talked about speaking as a motivator for both herself and her audiences.

“It has made me much more aware that it’s not just my family that needs the type of technologies that we’re working on–it’s a lot of different people. The impetus and the speed in which it’s needed is so urgent. That has empowered me to speak out more.

If you look at some of the best orators and people who give really really good talks, their goals are to empower the audience and to call them to do something, to change something. I see speaking as an opportunity to highlight a field that needs more resources or needs more people’s attention.”

On her advice for new speakers

Amina has some great advice to share with new speakers, from how to think about getting their first talk to what questions to ask when considering why they want to speak.

“For your first talks, be fearless about where you submit and about the fact that everyone has a unique perspective because you’ve experienced things differently. No one’s going to replace experiences you’ve had and that’s a key to also giving a really unique and good talk.

You have that experience and only you would be able to relate what you want to share that resonates with you.

Think about why you are giving that talk. If you think about really famous orators–Martin Luther King or Churchill–their first reason was to empower the audience and to make sure that the audience has more confidence. The second was to [motivate] them to do a specific action.

[When] you have an opportunity to share with the public, you’re asking the public to do something, and you’re empowering them in the same thing. Before you start submitting for talks, ask yourself those two questions: How are you going to empower the audience and what are you trying to empower them to do?”

One last piece of advice from Amina–everyone gets nervous.

“When I was starting to speak and give talks, I was at a conference and happened to intersect [with a keynote speaker] in the bathroom and she was doing exactly what I do before a talk: She was practicing in front of the mirror. 

I saw her and she saw me and she said, ‘You know, I can never get over being scared.’

Looking back, that’s true. Before a big talk, most people have a nerves, regardless of whether it’s their 200th talk or their first or second.

So just start somewhere and then build up and know that even Nobel laureates and others are gonna get nervous before their presentations.”

For more on her experience with TEDx, how she deals with speaking mishaps, and the best advice she’s received, check out the full video below.

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