An insider's view of pitching a project in a competition (Ismael Maclennan)

AMP pitch night participants, image courtesy of AMP Amplify
It was just another day for me, like many of the other days that passed before and perhaps no different from the days that were about to come.

Every day that comes and goes brings you closer to the end of your PhD journey, and during those final days you realise that you devote most of your time to perform one task: writing and writing and writing...

This day, however, was special.

Apart from receiving my usual weekly dose of spam calls, I noticed that someone had left a voicemail.

I was very excited to hear that my application for the AMP Amplify Ignite PhD competition was successful, and I was shortlisted for a phone interview with Jessica Chalker, the event organiser.

The application process was done online and required me to answer briefly a few questions about myself and how my project would fit in with the ‘edge of possible’ theme of the competition without using very technical language. Following a phone interview, I was selected as a finalist, together with another 19 PhD students from around Australia.

This outcome added some colour to my recently colourless daily routine. Although the goal of my PhD is to make stem cell lines from the highly endangered Tasmanian devil for conservation purposes, I am always interested in the ‘big picture’ side of things. We are living in a fast-paced world where innovation and disruption are leading the way to new technologies and knowledge.

When I learned about the concept of transmissible cancers, I was fascinated. Could this be the missing piece of the puzzle to understand cancer itself? I felt like nature is giving us clues but nobody really pays attention to them. So, this event was the perfect opportunity for me to showcase my PhD work and hopefully raise some interest from industry.

What to expect

The Amplify Ignite program exceeded my expectations. Most of the people involved, including guest speakers, mentors and coaches, were from the marketing, branding and advertising industry.

Even though the program runs for three full days (two days training in May plus the pitch night in June), you can expect to be busy in between! For example, I spent many days - and some sleepless night as well! - thinking about the pitch, deciding on how to present it, and putting all the pieces together.

Before flying back to Sydney for the PhD Night Grand Final, I met with my supervisor Dr Adam Hart and Dr Katherine Firth (RED Unit). They provided me with valuable feedback and eventually motivated me to re-focus the direction and title of my pitch. Inspired by Adam Scott's FreeState talk, I put everything I had into the competition as I assembled a ‘detectivesque-noir’ performance that I called ‘Hunting down a serial killer’. The pitch relied on the use of audiovisuals, lighting, and an immersive script that had to be delivered in only 150 seconds. I really wanted to make a compelling and cohesive story and to do that I had to run the extra mile, explore my creative side, and become familiar with video editing software such Adobe Premiere and After Effects.

What I learned

The Amplify Ignite PhD Night Grand Final was held at the Basement in Sydney. It was initially scheduled for 6pm but all Ignite finalists had to be there in the morning for rehearsals. I was very excited with the coach’s feedback comparing my presentation to a ‘choreography’. The Basement had Star Wars-style theme, including C3PO and R2D2, and someone in the audience even looked like a young George Lucas.

Participants were divided in three groups according to the Star Wars episodes:
  • Episode 1: Ignite the Force
  • Episode 2: Research of the Jedis (I was here!)
  • Episode 3: The Doctorates Strikes back.
The competition was fierce. Everyone improved greatly from their rehearsals. The mood in the audience was high and cheerful throughout the night so I became hesitant whether my noir-style presentation would connect properly.

Both winners (People's choice and Ignite winner) were from Sydney. In hindsight, perhaps one of my biggest mistakes was to give up on my lighting instructions due to time restrictions as it would have required me to rehearse several times with the AV technicians. Eventually, my words didn’t convey the same emotion and passion from the rehearsal. This taught me one very important lesson: just keep it simple (especially if time is short).

Finally, all Ignite students were also required to prepare a Pozible crowdfunding campaign that went live the day after Grand Final night. The name of my campaign is ‘See No Devil, Hear No Devil’. So, if you want to help save an endangered species and fight cancer, make a pledge for a reward or simply donate for this important cause! Here is my campaign.

Why you should consider it

Without a doubt, I would highly recommend that every one of my PhD peers apply for this type of program.

You get the chance to be immersed in a very dynamic environment, get to know really interesting people, and spend quality time with PhD students from other universities.

Sometimes, when you think your life can’t get any more uneventful, it can surprise you with an unexpected twist. The opportunities are out there waiting for you to take them.

I was very honoured to be part of Amplify Ignite during La Trobe's 50th year anniversary. I am also very thankful for the support received from my supervisor Dr Adam Hart (School of Molecular Sciences) and the Graduate Research School (GRS).


Ismael Maclennan's scientific career got a huge boost when he moved out of his comfort zone in Peru to Australia ten years ago.

Having graduated as a Cell biologist from the National University of San Marcos (Lima-Peru) and completed two Masters degrees at Monash and La Trobe Universities in Clinical Embryology and Biotechnology respectively, he is in the final days of his PhD journey at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS).

His research interests are in the field of stem cell and regenerative medicine and, throughout his PhD, Ismael has developed a special fascination in the application of stem cell technology in marsupials.

He ensures he has a balanced lifestyle, and is a keen sports enthusiast and a passionate guitar player. Ismael is also an avid language learner, being fluent in Spanish, with a good command of English, and with a knowledge of French. He's currently also studying Mandarin.