Science communication blogs and social media accounts are easy to find these days, now that scientists are realizing the importance of making their research available to more people than just their academic peers. We can blog and tweet as much as we want, but as with biology there’s only so much you can prove with lab work: at some point, you have to put on your waders and head out into the field. This week I realized that my interest in science education and communication wasn't enough; I had to go out there into the real world and see how things work. So last Saturday I left the safety and comfort of my blog posts to help with some science outreach firsthand.
The University of Liverpool recently launched a series of ‘Meet the Scientists’ events at the World Museum in Liverpool, which are aimed at engaging children and their parents with researchers at the University while learning about the science that they do. The latest one was held last weekend (November 21st) and I volunteered to help out. I hadn’t been to the World Museum Liverpool before and arrived a bit early to see the set-up for the event. Before my shift at the feedback booth, I had time to talk to the scientists running the displays. I was impressed by the time and care that everyone put into coming up with an engaging way to both interest and teach people of all ages. The focus was on conveying a message about science in a way that everyone could understand. There were impressive visual analogies, such as the pool noodle/balloon combinations to help show what cells look like and what gives them structure (the structure coming from the pool noodles, of course). The simple activity of coloring in cartoon mosquitoes was tied to a lesson on how malaria is transmitted. When I asked 6-year old child what he learned at the malaria booth, he replied that malaria comes from the germs carried by the mosquitoes, not the bite itself (crucial information on this widespread tropical disease, and probably something that many adult wouldn't know!).
One of my favorite displays was on cancer treatments, which on first glance would be a rather difficult topic to explain to kids. The way it was presented was really fantastic—cancer hits specific parts of the body (indicated by colored cups) but scientists can figure out and use specific, targeted ways to treat it (e.g. putting colored balls into its corresponding cup). It was creative, accurate, and positive, with the goal of talking about a nebulous, potentially scary topic in a way that kids could understand and see how cancer treatments can be helpful.
After doing a tour of the set-up, my task for the day was to collect feedback from the kids and talk to them about what they liked, where they were from, and to hand out a souvenir ‘Meet the Scientists’ petri dish for everyone. For a sunny and cold Saturday the museum was a busy place, and our stands seemed to be full for most of the day. All the kids were engaged with the University scientists at each display and we received positive marks from nearly everyone, apart from one three-year old who was adamant that he did not enjoy the day (I guess you really can’t please everyone). In addition to the petri dishes, kids took home quizzes, fun facts, and a piqued interest in science and medicine. I also enjoyed talking to parents and seeing what they thought, with most of them having a similarly good impression of the event as much as their kids did. I also enjoyed asking kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Not everyone wants to be a scientist, but I love seeing kids interested in learning new things even if it’s not their most favorite thing. One 6-year old named Isaac gave us some great feedback and wants to come again. When I asked his dream job, he replied that he’d like to be a ship captain. His reply highlights the fact that science isn’t just for scientists: science accepts anyone who is willing and excited to learn. Just because a kid doesn’t dream of a job in biology, chemistry, or medicine doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be encouraged to approach science, or any subject, with curiosity and desire to learn.
In between talking to kids I also talked to my fellow scientists, including some older museum visitors who also had careers in science. As we mused about how lab machines always break at 6pm just before they finish analyzing some crucial samples, or how we sometimes spend 7 hours a day in the lab pipetting, we realized that the running joke was that the science we do now was nothing like the science we were shown as kids ourselves. Our childhood memories included fancy museum displays, television programs on wildlife ecology, astronomy, and chemistry, and repeatedly hearing the message that with science you really could do anything. Then upon starting postgraduate study we abruptly learn the reality of what life as a career scientist is like: long days in the lab, field sampling trips where it rains and you only get half the samples you set out for, tedious chores and meetings and writing papers and all the countless little things it takes to make the breakthroughs that lead to those museum displays and the television programs. How is it that the reality of science seems so different than what we were shown originally? More importantly, can we ever see science like a kid again?
I set out to answer this question by going back to the museum on Sunday after the event, this time to explore the museum firsthand, inspired by the kids I had seen the day before while trying to look at it from a kid’s perspective. I had been to a few other museums in Liverpool, but not yet the World Museum Liverpool, and to be honest I haven’t been a regular attendee of natural history museums for quite some time. Since starting grad school I was more attracted to art or human history museums, as if I was searching for a break from my day job, with art or history providing more things to learn and less overlap with my day-to-day work. I decided to end my natural history museum dry spell and headed back, ready to see science with fresh eyes and with the contagious excitement I had received from a museum full of kids who had spent their Saturday afternoon learning about biology.
My first stop at the World Museum Liverpool was an unexpected and very detailed exhibit dedicated to horology, although in hindsight not that unexpected, since Liverpool was a hub for clock and chronometer makers to be used on the many ships that came in and out of its port. I mused over the beautiful pieces and studied the displays of their inner workings, so complex yet tiny enough to fit inside your pocket, and for the chronometers with even more detailed inner workings so they would maintain regularity even after long periods of use out at sea. I realized how easy it is to forget the complexity it took to accurately tell time before cell phones and digital watches were everywhere, and the amount of time and work it took into making something that could just tell time (no other apps involved). These pieces weren't just the work of expert artists: the people that made watches clearly needed to be people who were extremely knowledgeable and trained in physics and precision machinery.
On the same floor as the horology display was a small exhibit on outer space, highlighting some pieces from the University of Liverpool’s collection of old telescopes and sun dials. These were coupled with examples of more modern tools, with displays explaining how astronomers used slow-capture imagery to understand the contents of galaxies, accompanied by gorgeously detailed modern images, as if to show how far technology has come and how our eye on the universe has expanded tremendously just in the last century.
Downstairs in the dinosaur and geology displays, I had a flashback to a trip I took last month to the Utah Natural History Museum and their impressive dinosaur displays there. Not to speak poorly of the World Museum Liverpool, but Utah does have the advantage of having quite a large number of paleontological sites within its borders. In the Utah museum there was a ‘real-live’ paleontology lab, where you could watch scientists wearing dust masks carefully and meticulously clean bone fragments. I thought about those paleontologists this weekend as I roamed through numerous displays of fossils, bone fragments, and fossilized dinosaur poop. What we get to see on display are the shiny, organised, categorised, cleaned-up pieces of history, but when looking at a skeleton that’s 150 million years old it’s easy to forget the back-breaking and tedious work that went into finding the fossil, getting it out of the ground and cleaning the dirt off. As much as my work has tedious parts to it, seeing a picture of a huge fossil ground in Utah, with what appeared to be endless piles of bones from who knows how many animals, confirmed that paleontologists must be a patient and persistent lot, who go through it all with the hope that they can piece together what life looked like so many millions of years ago.
Holding true to my biologist nature and environmental scientist training, my favorite part of last Sunday spent at the Liverpool World Museum was about animals. I was enthralled with the beautifully arranged display drawers full of butterflies and plants. I thought about the scientists who put these all together, their pride of having a complete set of species from a region or to have a rare specimen, and with what patience and care it took to pin each one so as not to damage or tear the delicate wings or petals. It was also a unique experience to see a large collection of skulls, from great white shark to sperm whale to hippopotamus, up close enough so that you could get a close look and really marvel at the power these animals have. While I’m not a huge fan of insects, I enjoyed the museum’s displays that showed how ants work together, what they eat in the wild, and how they live and reproduce. I enjoyed seeing kids in this exhibit not afraid or grossed out by the bugs but instead curious and interested to learn more about this small but numerous group of animals.
The last stop of the Sunday at the World Museum was the aquarium, which will always be a personal favorite of mine. I didn’t know that the museum had a small aquarium, so I was excited to see some displays not only of tropical species but examples of fish from the North Sea and ecosystems close to Liverpool. There was also a nice taxidermy display on ecological communities, highlighting animals at risk for extinction and explaining the need for biodiversity and good community structure for a healthy world. I couldn’t help but think back to happy childhood summer days spent with my grandparents at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo while watching rays swim and holding my fingers up to an octopus’ tentacle from across the glass. I thought back on my first visit to the zoo aquarium when I was 8, the excitement of that day and of seeing penguins and octopus and sharks so close at hand, of hearing of the plight of oceans and the rest of our beautiful world as a kid and being inspired to do something about it. Even now at 28 and with a PhD to my name, I still feel those natural childlike fascinations and the pull towards doing something good for the planet through science.
After the weekend at the museum, Monday morning came with some retrospections on my own career. The day-to-day life of a scientist doesn’t always make you feel like you're in a position to save the world, but instead can leave you with a feeling that you’re mired in the mundane tasks of science, not its glorious breakthroughs. Whilst that feeling can be hard to get rid of, going to the museum helped me realise something: the mundane tasks, whether they are dusting bones, pipetting yeast, or counting ants, are what need to be done to help create the scientific body of knowledge that the textbooks and museum exhibits rely on. What feels mundane on many days is just the work we need to do to progress, albeit sometimes more slowly than we had hoped. It’s not that we were lied to about what life as a scientist was like, we were just shown the end of the story but not the journey it took to get there.
In terms of how move forward and not to dwell on the occasional misrepresentation of science, take time to reflect back on our own childhood ambitions and remember what got us started on a trail towards science. Ask yourself: what experiences led us to a career in science? What were the questions that got us wondering what else there was to the world and how it works? Who inspired us to dream big and to strive to make an impact beyond money and fame? Remembering what drives our curiosities and inspires us on a natural, child-like level can help re-invigorate our motivation and to get us through the doldrums that we need to progress science as a whole.
With the next ‘Meet the scientists’ event coming up in January, I’m already musing on ways to show kids what science looks and why we do it, to show the story from start to finish. I think it is important to tell kids that science is not just about the neat and tidy textbook knowledge, but also about the experiments it takes to get there, and that good questions are the key to good science. Ultimately, although we have museums and books full of facts, there is still so much we don’t know and still so many things left to discover about how the world works - and that’s why we’re scientists!
You could easily fill up an entire blog talking about all the lives of the great scientists, the pioneers, the giants’ shoulders who we stand on (so to speak). A hero of science isn’t necessarily the smartest, the most well-funded, or the one with the most papers: a hero of science is someone who has recognized the value of the scientific method as a way towards reaching the truth about how the universe works, and not letting any adversity or barrier stand in the way of making that truth known. With this ‘Heroes of Science’ post series, I want to highlight both my own personal heroes of science as well as scientists that stand out for their contributions to the realm of science and to how we navigate through our own careers as professional scientists.
I was partially inspired for this post series by a recent Science Friday podcast featuring a 1996 interview with the great science communicator Carl Sagan. During his life, Carl Sagan was a proponent of the scientific method and had a great passion for sharing science with everyone. After listening to the podcast and remembering how much I loved reading Contact, I started off on ‘Demon-Haunted World.’ I was surprised to hear in the introduction that two of Carl Sagan’s heroes on his path towards a career in science were his own parents, both of whom were not professional scientists or even had a strong inclination for science. In the book Sagan mentions his parents as a source of fascination balanced with skepticism about the world. He touts this balance as a crucial part of life for any career scientist: to be continually interested in learning more, yet cautious when it approaches. Reflecting on his words—with more on his discussion of the dangers of a world full of pseudoscience featured in next week’s post—led me to think about my own scientific heroes. I can’t help but think back a long, long time ago to a 16th century Italian astronomer and physicist, called the “father of science”, and a man who stood up for his views on the place of the world within the universe: Galileo Galilei.
As a disclaimer, this post is by no means an exhaustive biography of the Life and Times of Galileo Galilei, but is meant only as an overview of his life as a scientist and why I feel he is a Hero of Science. The information on his life is based on everyone’s favorite source of fun facts, and certainly there are better sources than this blog if you are interested in learning more about Galileo.
But before jumping off to Galileo, let’s set the scene with another scientific giant: Copernicus. In 1543, just shortly before he died at the ripe old age of 70, the Polish astronomer and mathematician published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), a very technical publication using mathematical functions to provide an alternate universal model: one in which the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa. With the completion of his seminal work and the first such mention of a heliocentric theory, Copernicus passed away, and unfortunately the immediate impact of his work passed just as quickly. The book was never formally banned but it was removed from circulation soon after initial publication, with a low initial demand due to its technical nature and described as ‘mathematical fiction with no physical reality’.
Jump forward just three years later to 1546, when Galileo Galilei is born and named after his ancestor who was a physician and university professor (no pressure, of course). Galileo went to school to become a physician (OK, maybe there was a little bit of pressure) but he soon realized he had a much deeper fascination for things outside of medicine, concerning questions like ‘why do things move the way they do?’ Galileo asked his father to change to natural philosophy and math, and was given permission (despite the fact that Galileo must have forgotten that doctors earned more money). Galileo soon excelled in a new program, with his skills in applied science, mathematics, and enough of an artistic background to also be an expert of design.
During his scientific career, he taught at the University of Pisa and the University of Padua, penned twelve books, and made numerous discoveries and tools, including the refracting telescope which to this day is still referred to as the Galilean telescope. His efforts were focused on observation, experimentation, and bringing in mathematics to better understanding natural laws. With his new telescope he was able to write the first treatise of observational astronomy, including observing the moons of Jupiter, the roughness of the moon, the Milky Way, and even sunspots. Through his observations he also worked on promoting the Copernican theory of the universe, but was unable to prove the theory at first. He went through theories on tides and comets, but realized that these ideas didn’t fully support the theory of heliocentrism. Nonetheless, he continued to search for scientific and mathematical means to support his claim.
After Copernicus had died, his heliocentric theory was not overly controversial, mainly because the available data, the lack of stellar parallax, did not support it. A parallax is the phenomenon that occurs when you perceive a shift in the position of a faraway object depending on where you are: try looking at a picture on the far side of the room while closing just your left eye, then closing just your right. Similarly, if the earth revolved around the sun, then there should be observable shift in a star’s location every six months (beyond the changes corresponding with the seasons). The lack of this shift was evidence to many in the 1600’s that the heliocentric theory was invalid, even though Copernicus had argued that the distance was so large that the parallax would be negligible to the naked eye (and it wasn’t until the 19th century that there was even good enough instrumentation to detect it at all).
However, the controversy with the heliocentric theory was more than just where the sun and the earth sat with respect to one another: it was about respect for Papal authority. This was seen as especially crucial in Italy, who had just witnessed the effects of the Counter Reformation after the Protestant uprisings against the Catholic church in the early 1500’s. The heliocentric model was attacked by the Papacy using biblical references which were vague at best, including Psalm 96:10 (King James Version) ‘Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously.’ Galileo argued that heliocentrism was not in contrast to the bible in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, and he was soon called to Rome by the Inquisition for his Protestant-like threats to ‘reinterpret’ the Bible. He was ordered by the Inquisition to abandon the idea, with works by Copernicus and other authors banned until they could be re-written by the Catholic church.
Soon after Galileo’s papal hand slap, there was a new pope elected, Urban VIII (one who happened to be a friend and fan of Galileo and who had opposed his condemnation) and Galileo chose to stay out of spotlight. While the papacy might have thought him tamed, he instead spent a considerable amount of time building up his arguments on heliocentrism. After nearly twenty years of work and staying away from controversial letters and treatises, he emerged from the shadows and published “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” his seminal work on the heliocentric theory. He had received formal permission and authorization from the Inquisition and Pope Urban VIII, who had previously requested Galileo to give arguments for both the heliocentric and the geocentric (also called Ptolemaic) theories and to include Urban VIII’s personal views within the book. Galileo did so, although in a way to be sure as not to make either the Inquisition or Urban VIII very happy with the result.
Galileo’s Dialogue is set up as a debate, with the players being a Copernican supporter Salviati (named after a friend of Galileo), who voices many of Galileo’s opinions directly and who is referred to as the ‘Academician’ in Dialogue. Dialogue also features an initially neutral but intelligent man named Sagredo (another friend of Galileo) who offers additional comments and direction throughout the discussion. The last character is Simplicio, who holds to the ways of Ptolemy and also voices the direct opinions of Pope Urban VIII. In addition to putting the words of Urban VIII into the mouth of a simpleton (the connotation of Simplicio from Italian), anyone reading Dialogue sees the clear victor in the discussions being Salviati, and with the book being apparent to any reader not an evenly-balanced dialogue but a direct attack on geocentrism. While Galileo’s arguments on the heliocentric theory using tides as an example were not correct, Galileo’s book did touch on a number of other scientific topics and was clearly directed at Rome and her challenges made against science.
Galileo was called to Rome to defend himself in 1632 immediately after the publication of Dialogue, where he was forced to admit that he had held onto his Copernican beliefs after his last trial, despite being told to do otherwise. He was found ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and was sentenced to imprisonment and to ‘abjure, cure, and detest’ his opinions on the matter. He remained under house arrest for the rest of his life until 1642, and his Dialogue was banned. While there is much doubt of him uttering the infamous words ‘and yet it moves’ while being forced to recant his theory during the trial, the urban legend brings to life the power of his story and defiance of papal law. During his imprisonment he was forced to read seven penitential psalms per week, while in his spare time writing summaries of his work which were published in Holland to avoid censorship and are credited as the foundation of modern physics.
While his most controversial arguments on heliocentrism were not founded on observation, he still had numerous contributions to the field of science before his death: work on the science of motion, the mathematical laws of nature, and his support for a separation of science from philosophy and religion, which was a new and turbulent idea in his time. He was also willing to change mind in accordance with observations, understanding that information was crucial to bringing an idea to life. Perhaps that’s why he worked so tirelessly to the tides theory, and a shame that only technology more than 200 years after his time could prove him right. He was also a lover of design and of function, and left behind many practical and beautiful engineering works such as his refracting telescope.
Perhaps the reason Galileo first came to mind for me, however, is his relentless search for the truth even in the face of adversity. His quest was for knowledge and for scientific truth, and this is what should drive us as scientists. But all too often we are driven by other pressures: for funding, for acceptance of ideas, for pleasing our outside collaborators or PIs. What should drive us is the search for answers to questions, regardless of what those answers are, whether they are what we thought they would be when we first set out. Being a hero of science means adapting your mind and your ideas to what you see, not in adapting what you see to your mind and your ideas.
To this day, Galileo is still called the Father of Modern Science by more modern scientific greats such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. And while the Catholic church may have negated his works at first, his legacy stands in a more positive light. In 1939, Pope Pius XII made his first speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and described Galileo as being among the "most audacious heroes of research... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way…" While we probably won't all become future pioneers of modern science as Galileo was, we all have the opportunity to be ‘audacious heroes’ in our own worlds, to stand up and work towards truth, and to meet the challenges as they come with fervor and with courage.
I hope you have enjoyed the start of our Heroes of Science series. If you have a hero, be he or she modern, ancient, or anywhere in between, send your suggestion and a rationale for you choice to our gmail address or leave a message in the blog post. We look forward to sharing more heroic stories in future posts!
Greetings from the sunny Midwest of the US of A, relaxing at my parent's house after the SETAC North America meeting. After a busy week of science, networking, and some amazing Utah beers, the big conference is done, talks and meetings about future meetings and everything in between. While there’s still a lot to be done, coming back home from these conferences is always a refreshing experience, thinking about spending time with new colleagues and old friends and with new ideas and renewed motivation to spur me through the rest of the year.
As promised in a previous post, I wanted to finish off the tutorial for the five easy* steps for a perfect** presentation. I’m glad that the talk went well and that even when being placed during one of the last sessions of the conference when people are already heading home that there were a decent number of people who came to hear my talk. This post will focus on how I applied the lessons about the concepts of the story, take a bow, and break a leg to make the talk in the best way I could, even after a busy week of networking and meetings within meetings to talk about future meetings.
3. THE STORY
I had previously finished the introduction part of my story board for a previous post, and once I developed an outline for what I wanted to say I went on to make the actual power point slides. While I had given a talk about some of this data before, this time I wanted to feel more confident with how I presented the introduction and took the initiative (and a few minutes outside of my lab work) to think about how I wanted to tell this story. While narcosis is not a new topic of interest either in SETAC or for Unilever, I hadn’t yet thought about how I saw the problem and potential solutions. And while there are other experts on narcosis out there, my goal with this talk was to present my perspective based on my own background reading and my own vision of the problem. I was much happier with how these slides came out than last time, and was glad to have taken the extra time to think about the problem and the solution(s) more in-depth as opposed to just saying word-for-word what someone else had previously said.
With this revitalized excitement and a bit more ownership of my post-doc project, I found that once I made the introduction slides (which did take some time, with lots of new graphics and thoughts about how to display different pieces of information), the rest of the talk came more easily. It was just a matter of deciding which figures to show in the short amount of time I had and what was most relevant to show that addressed the questions I presented. For the methods overview and experimental background, I focused on using flow chart-style slides that depicted what questions I was answering with what analyses (see the end of the paragraph for the middle section of my slide deck). I kept these questions as headers of my slides that showed the results relevant for each section, in order to make it clear to my audience why I was presenting what I did. I avoided using tables or figures with really small font, because nothing is quite as awkward as presenting results that no one in the audience can see or interpret. Before the talk began I actually took out an entire slide because I realized during practice that it wasn’t adding anything to the presentation. I put the slide at the end of the talk as a back-up just in case there were specific questions related to it, and I found that when I took that superfluous slide out that the story flowed much more nicely.
4. TAKE A BOW
I’m in debt to my presentation co-authors on this one. Initially I had a rather messy slide summarizing the findings and listing all of the experiments we were planning on next. Thanks to a comment about the slide, I rearranged how I talked about future experiments to make it look more streamlined. I also gave a big-picture look at how the project fit in with Unilever’s aims and goals as well as the project itself. In the conclusions I presented here, I first focused on what did you learn about the problem? by breaking down results specific for the two questions I presented. Then instead of just listing out all of the things we could do for this project, I focused on looking at what still remains unanswered but is important for solving the problem? and how that fit into the overarching goals and objectives for the project on a wider scale.
I also had a slide thanking co-authors and collaborators, which I prefer to see at the end of a talk as opposed to the beginning. It keeps the flow of the presentation more smooth and makes more sense logically to thank people that helped you out with a project after you actually talk about what that project is. In addition to the acknowledgements slide, I also include a second thank you slide to thank the audience and to have a holder photo or something visually appealing. I do this so you can transition away from the acknowledgements slide and have a holding slide while you answer questions. This doesn’t leave a distracting slide full of collaborator names to look at, and doesn’t force you to use the black screen that powerpoint gives back when you finish a presentation. During my PhD I used pictures from the field sites I worked at, or happy little mosquitofish swimming around, and now I enjoy highlighting my adopted home town of Liverpool and to make a comment about how it’s not always raining in England.
One thing I forgot is to put my contact information and twitter handle on the last thank-you slide. This makes more sense than having it at the beginning, since it will be the slide that will stay on the presentation screen for longer than if it's at the first slide. Something to remember for next time!
5. BREAK A LEG!
Despite other scientists telling me that I’m a great presenter and having won a few SETAC platform presentation awards, I still get nervous and have a few moments of panic and self-doubt before any talk. Because my last talk on this project hadn’t gone that well, I was especially nervous and wanted to do really well, this time with a potentially much larger audience of peers and collaborators. No pressure! With all this in mind, I took the time I needed to practice my talk and to make sure that I had my transitions and talking points solidly in hand.
I practiced the talk two times completely through, and realized after my first go that I had no idea how to start the talk. I spend time thinking about what precisely I wanted to say once I clicked off from the title slide, and once I had that sorted out I actually wrote down what I wanted to say just to get it more 'stuck' in my mind. I didn’t’ take down my notes up on stage but when I practiced the talk a second time I jotted down the key points that I wanted to be sure to say and things that weren’t clearly written on my slides. Writing them down during the practice, but not reading them from paper during the talk, ensured that I remembered them when needed without looking awkwardly at notes or index cards while searching for a thought during the actual talk.
At the start of my talk I saw the lead author of a paper I cited, and a SETAC veteran and all-around nice guy, sitting in the audience. I thought he might show up so I acknowledged his presence in the room when I talked about his paper. Maybe a bit over the top but I feel it’s weird to talk about someone’s paper when they are sitting in the audience, so I embraced the awkward and said hi to the guy. (Follow-up note: He said hi to me after my talk and told me he really enjoys seeing where my work is going. Awesome!!).
Final hurdle for the presentation itself: My talk was being recorded, meaning that all my collaborators and Unilever folks could watch it and listen to me after the meeting. The talk I subbed in for was also recorded at the last SETAC meeting, and I remember being horrified while listening to myself. I had a bit of a cold at the time and was sniffling LOUDLY during the entire talk, all captured on audio and immortalized for SETAC history. With that memory in mind, this time I made a quick dash to the bathroom to blow my nose before the talk and paid attention to myself as I spoke, making sure to do any coughs or sniffs away from the microphone. I think this time I sounded much better, but I’ll have to force myself to listen to my talk yet again and make sure I didn’t make some other strange noises to replace the sniffling.
I also took a cup of water up to the podium with me and took one drink during the talk because I tend to have a bit of dry mouth from nervousness. I time my drinks so I don’t take too large of a gap in time between thoughts. What I normally do is grab the cup when starting a slide, hold it in my hand while talking through the slide, and then take a quick drink and set it down as I click to the next slide. It keeps the thoughts moving more smoothly but still allows me to give my parched throat a rest during the 15 minute talk.
I was happy with how the talk went, and not because I did all of slides perfectly with no awkward sarcastic comments or mis-steps over words. I felt comfortable because I was telling a story that I had crafted instead of repeating what someone else had explained and said was important. I listened to advice from co-authors to help make the finishing slides more clear and concise. I recognized that I needed to do a couple of practice runs, even though this data was not brand-new, to make sure that the story came across accurately but was also interesting. That being said, I think I did make at least one sarcastic joke about my science hidden in there somewhere, which will soon become immortalized on the SETAC website for all to hear and enjoy. Maybe if research or style blogging doesn’t work out I can always take my show on the road as a nerd comedian. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to give back to the world...
I've been meaning to write a blog post since the meeting kicked off on Monday, but as conferences always go there's always someone to talk to or some meeting to listen in on or a talk to attend. I'm taking advantage of a short break between coffee socializing and talking to students and exhibitors about the next SETAC YES meeting to write down some thoughts and perspectives on this conference.
This is my 6th time attending the SETAC North America meeting, and even as an early career researcher I'm always overwhelmed with catching up with people I knew from before while also making new contacts. It's great to be back as something of a scientific family reunion at this year's meeting in the clean and contemporary capital of Utah. Salt Lake City has been a great venue for this event and for my return back to the US of A after a year away, and a good opportunity to wear my autumn boots on this chilly autumn day!
While I've been busy this week I've managed to come up with a few thoughts and suggestions to help make the best of those fast-paced and exhausting conference days:
- Be comfortable. I yet again made the mistake of wearing heels on the first day of the meeting. I followed up the rest of the meeting wearing my favorite broken-in Lacoste black trainers, and while I may have looked more casual I felt more comfortable and more like myself. When you feel comfortable you can act more like yourself and let the more important things shine through, like your passion for your research or your presentation skills. We tend not to wear conference clothes all of the time, with shoes not broken in and dress pants we haven't worn in a year. Instead of just dressing up, focus on embracing your style while still conveying a professional look, attitude, and how you carry yourself. And if you can stand and talk to a new contact without shifting awkwardly in shoes giving you a blister, you can make the focus of the conversationmore on you and your ideas and less on what you're wearing.
- Let ideas happen. I spoke on Monday to Namrata Sengupta from Clemson about the Clemson What's in our Waters (WOW) project, which I'll feature in a future blog post talking about outreach projects at different universities. This idea first came about over drinks at a previous SETAC meeting. It wasn't from a formal sit-down brainstorming session but just came about while sitting around with friends and colleagues talking about what would be fun, useful, and engaging for undergrads. At conferences we all get busy thinking about our own presentations, project meetings, and talks we have to go to, so be sure to leave time for creative endeavors and new ideas to take form, which often times don't take place in a board room but at a pub or over coffee with friends.
- If you're at a loss for words, ask where someone is from. I love doing this because it can always lead to a story or a shared experience. Maybe you've been on a trip to where someone grew up or you happened to go to nearby universities for undergrad. It's interesting to see where people go and where they came from throughout their careers, and it's an easy conversation started since everyone you meet is always from somewhere. One exhibitor even made a word association game out of it, asking people what the first thing they thought of when they heard 'Texas'. It was a bit more boring to do that the opposite way for me and ask people what they thought of about Nebraska. Yes, it is flat and yes, we have corn.
- Take notes! I'm in a slight crisis at having lost my original program book, after I wrote down some ideas and follow-up tasks during an organizational meeting. Now I thankfully have my trusty green idea notebook back at hand and have been jotting down impressions and ideas from this meeting along the way, without needing to rely on the intermittent wifi connections. You'll meet so many people and hear so many ideas, so write them down before you forget them! I also write down a couple of words about someone if I take a business card, whether it's what we talked about or what I wanted out of a follow-up, just so I don't end up with a pile of names and affiliations after a long week of talks and meetings.
- Minimize your screen time. The hardest part about being a blogger at a meeting is that I don't want to sit by myself and blog! There are so many colleagues and new people to talk to that I hate the thought of isolating myself to write. For me, writing is a way to relax a bit and recharge after a lot of social and professional interactions, so forcing myself to think and write during a break in the meeting was a good exercise. It can be tempting, especially for us introverts, to want to spend too much time on your phone or computer or to make excuses that you need to work on something. While there are emails that need answering and presentations to practice, be sure to focus on using your time for personal interactions. And they don't always have to be formal-great ideas and connections come from coffee with new colleagues or jokes at a poster social.
Now with the poster social starting I should get off my laptop and back into the social universe. Good luck to those of you finishing off the SETAC meeting and for anyone with an upcoming conference,whether its a first-time meeting or sixth-time meeting! Tomorrow is my conference presentation so I'll tie up the lose ends of the post I made about making my conference presentation based on the five easy steps for making a presentation. So stay tuned for an upcoming post on how it went and how I used the five steps to make the best possible presentation. And now, time for beer and networking!