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...
In the first blog post, I gave an overview of the definition of style and how this concept relates to how we should think about doing science. Now after some philosophical discussions as of late with colleagues and after a morning spent pondering over this article by 538 about p-values, retractions, and how science is a lot harder than we usually give it credit for, I wanted to take the time to go back to giving a definition to the first part of 'Science with Style'.
We should not only think about and define the components of 'Science with Style' but we should also think about what getting a Ph.D. really means. Is it a degree of ‘Phinally done’ (as my UF alumni bumper sticker says) or ‘Phucking Do it’ (as your advisor might say) or ‘Piled higher and Deeper’ (as Jorge Cham says)? No, because the Ph stands for ‘philosophy’, and earning a Ph.D. means you shouldn’t just be an expert at pipetting or counting cells, you should be an expert in being a scientist .
So what does the dictionary say about science?
Science, noun: ‘The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.’
Breaking down this definition piece by piece, we can see that science is meant to be more than just doing science. We can spend all our time in the lab generating data the rest of our lives and endless hours pouring over endless spreadsheets of results, playing with variables and looking for every possible combination of factors to tell us the meaning of the universe. As graduate students and post-docs especially, we spend a lot of our time as scientists-in-training doing science, but is that the same as being a scientist?
Part 1: ‘The intellectual and practical activity’
Graduate students and post-docs likely understand all too well the ‘practical activities’ that go into science. Although perhaps it’s a different issue of whether you want to call trudging to the lab at midnight on Christmas Eve to collect 12-hour time point samples or renting a 4X4 so you can drive to the middle of bear country to collect water samples ‘practical’ or not. In the early parts of our careers as scientists, our lives are dominated by the practical activities: rats to dissect, seeds to count, cells to split, livers to grind, surveys to conduct, field sites to map, machines to fix, data to normalize/analyze/synthesize/everything-ize. To non-scientists, and to many of us scientists that got interested in exploring the natural world at a young age, this is what science looks like, the clips they show on TV and movies of scientists making genetically engineered dinosaurs or solving crimes with fingernail clippings.
But the problem is that this is only half of what science is defined as, and only half of what science actually is. Especially as young scientists, busy with all of the practical tasks required to graduate or publish or get out of the lab by 9pm, it’s easy to forget about the intellectual side of science. There’s a reason for those 12-hour time points and water samples from bear country: you’re setting out to answer a key scientific question in order to address a specific hypothesis. Most of the time, especially in graduate school, this question and hypothesis wasn’t first crafted by you, but rather is part of a large grant your PI received or is related to some data that a previous student/post-doc collected 5 years ago in your lab. You’re expected as students to know the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing, but for most students you weren’t a part of the brainstorming and data analysis sessions that went into crafting your project. At the same time your PI is likely balancing other students’ projects and thinking ahead to other grants and collaborations, and may at some point have forgotten that afternoon sitting in their office when they came up with the brilliant idea that is your project.
This doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to some irrelevant project from years-old data or some idea your PI came up with in a caffeine-fueled brainstorming session that they happened to end up getting money for. As a scientist-in-training, your training includes both the intellectual and the practical sides of science, so you should focus on both of them. Do what you need to do in the lab, but before you run off to collect that 12-hour time point, go back to the beginning and think about the greater why of that time point:
- Go back to the literature related to your project. And don’t just read the papers, think about how they did the experiments, the statistics and conclusions that came out of them, and whether what they say they found is what they actually found. Read not just for facts but to synthesize what’s been done before and how it all connects.
- Approach everything you see with your own logic and let yourself see the data without the author’s or your PI's interpretation. Look at everything at a critical angle before you accept it as a (potential) truth. Science was made for cynics, not optimists, so take everything you find with a grain of salt!
- After you get a handle on the literature, do an afternoon brainstorming session of your own. Where are the gaps in knowledge? What was observed that couldn’t be explained? Where is there a question that’s been left unanswered?
This may not look like science to you or to most people who think of TV and movie science, but this is where the difference between doing science and being a scientist lies. And how we go about being a scientists and answering these unanswered questions lies within the scientific method.
Part 2: The ‘systematic study’
At some point when your primary school teacher was getting your class ready to come up with a science fair project, you probably had a diagram similar to this hanging up somewhere in your classroom. This one comes from a science fair project website and just because it was made for 13-year olds doesn’t mean you shouldn’t print it off immediately and hang it in your office:
At some point the scientific method was probably covered again during your undergraduate studies, maybe even in more than one of your courses. This all likely seemed too easy and common sense when you were 13, and your brain was soon filled with more important details like chemical reactions and math equations and the entire Krebs cycle. The issue is when we get so bogged down with the practical parts of science that we forget about the common sense/intellectual parts of science. It’s easy to get lost in the details and the experiments that you have to run to get data, but if you don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’ll end up flailing away in the lab running a thousand different assays without any clue as to where the meaningful answers are.
The scientific method may be common knowledge when you look at it, even 13-year olds can get the gist of it, but we can’t push it aside or think that the details are the only thing that matter. The scientific method is the heart and the core of science as a field of study. It’s what makes science science, a field of study where we are trying to figure out ‘the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. ’ We do this not just by banging our heads against the wall or coming up with things out of thin air, but with a systematic study that we follow for every single thing that we do, if we are to call ourselves scientists. But when bogged down with the details and practicalities of science, where do we start in order to make progress towards making sense of the world? We go back to the beginning, once again: We ask a question.
Part 3: ‘Observation and experiment’
Look back at the start of the scientific method diagram. Where does it begin? With a question about why you’ve seen something. In the case of your work, what you ‘see’ is what the literature in your field has told you already. What did someone find but couldn’t explain with what was already known? That’s what you’re setting out to do: to explain something that’s currently unknown. The observation part is what we do to understand what’s known and to help us ask a good question. The experiment is what we do to understand what’s not known and the work you do will lead you to an answer. And it’s not a good answer or a bad answer, it’s just an answer to your specific question.
While you can debate on the relevance of 1100+ significant p-values in 538’s article (perhaps there should be a multiple testing correction added into the widget), the take-home message in regards to science is this: The key part of science isn’t in finding good answers, but in asking good questions. You can play around with variables and experimental designs and will likely find different results every time. There’s a million ways to find an answer, and changes in policies and ideas about science are indicative of this: eggs are good, eggs are bad, don’t eat carbs after midnight, carbs don’t matter, Pluto is a planet, no it’s not.
But what’s at the crux of science isn’t the answers, it’s the questions. And when you ask good questions, the answers you get back (regardless of what they are) are the meaningful ones that withstand the test of time and replication. So whether you just desperately want to be 'Phinally Done' or are setting out to 'Phucking Do it' or feel like you're always 'Piled higher and Deeper', remember that what you're towards is becoming a Doctor in Philosophy, and that a Ph.D. is not just about doing good science but in becoming a great scientist.
WHAT IS STYLE?
1. a particular procedure by which something is done; a manner or way.
"different styles of management"
2. a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed.
"the pillars are no exception to the general style"
Webster gives us a nice definition of ‘style’ but perhaps not a complete one. The term ‘style’ has evolved to be synonymous with a distinctive manner or way of appearance, more of a combination of the two parts of the definition, in the way that ‘a/the style’ is distinct from style.
What style is NOT, but sometimes gets confused for, is fashion, trends, and other shallow things that look good on the outside but have no value inside. The people and things that have style are the ones that are true to themselves, whose legacies and images withstand the test of time, whose paintings or songs or movies stand out in no matter what generation or age or millennium, the ones you still feel a connection to even years after they were made. When I think of who to me has style, I think of the likes of David Bowie, how The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on repeat will make any bad day seem better. Or one of my favorite artists Winslow Homer, how his paintings of waves and the battered coast of Maine seem as if the wind and water could knock you over at any minute. Or my childhood pet, an English bulldog named Buddie, how she did what she wanted when she wanted and didn’t care very much what anyone else thought about it, be it barking at non-existent squirrels or going for a ‘walk’ which usually ended at the top of the driveway. Style is about never compromising who you are and in letting your passion and heart shine through in everything you do (even if your passion and heart include lazily laying on the kitchen floor, a la English Bulldog style).
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Style is about doing something distinctive, with substance, and in a manner or way that lets you be true to yourself. Science also has a strong need for the concept of style in what we do. And in reality a lot of what we do already HAS style: our work is distinctive by nature, we do it in such a way (replicates, validated methods, peer review, etc) that our results have substance, and we can let our passions for truth, knowledge, and making the world a better place come through in the way we present ourselves and our research. So why then do we never think about science and style in the same sentence?
A recent article by NPR nicely touched on how the skills we have outside of the facts we know are so important for success. But, the question becomes, what do we call this skillset? Terms like ‘soft skills’ make it seem like these things aren’t important, terms like ‘grit’ sound too American, ‘21st century skills’ isn’t quite accurate, since it’s not just about tweets and Powerpoint. Certainly there’s some other term that encompasses this vast array of life skills, everything from how to manage your time amidst emails and meetings and getting real work done, how to present a project in 5 minutes and convince a room of people it’s worth funding, how to talk about your research when a journalist has a microphone recorder to your face and with questions coming fast.
A lot of these skills can fit under the mantle of style, and it’s because of the importance of defining your personal style when it comes to making your research matter that I’ve started this blog. My goal is to use this blog as a forum for us to talk not just about doing science but in fostering Science with Style. This blog is here as a place for exchanging stories and experiences, talking about ways to better share and demonstrate the impact of our research, and to work towards helping everyone find their own style as they get ready for whatever comes next in their careers.
So often during grad school or our time as a post-doc, we focus on the small things: getting that assay to work, answering frantic emails from advisors about when our results will be ready, trying to figure out if we filled out the paperwork correctly for that DEA regulated drug that we need for one crucial experiment. These things are all important but can also distract us from the bigger picture. Why did I become a scientist? Why am I stressed? Why does my work matter? Why am I running this same stupid assay for the 14th time??
WHY SHOULD WE TALK ABOUT DOING SCIENCE WITH STYLE?
In this day and age, being a scientist means more than just doing science. But what does it mean to BE a scientist, and how can we go from just doing science to making science matter? In a recent study done by Princeton University, scientists as a group are seen as one of the most competent types of workers out there… but we’re far from being trusted. We work hard to make a difference in the world, be it with global climate change or air quality or cancer cures, but does the world understand what we do? How can we make a difference when the public trust the latest diet trend or journalistic scare tactic more than they do hard facts generated by the scientific method? Here lies the importance of doing science with style: We can work as hard as we can for our whole lives, but if no one understands, cares, or even knows what we do then it’s all for naught.
Our advisors and bosses aren’t here to be our style guides, they’re here to help us become good scientists. Style has no formal training these days, and my hope is that with this blog I can help you on the road towards figuring out what your style is. I’ll have posts on everything from giving presentations in a way that keeps people off their phones the whole time, promoting your research to your science icon when you meet them at a conference, finding an outlet to share your work and to let your passion for science shine, guest posts from scientists in different types of jobs talking about what their days look like, and some (hopefully) humorous insights into what life as a scientist is really like.
I hope that you enjoy this blog and I am looking forward to hearing from you about your science, your passion, your personality, and how you bring it all together as a Scientist with STYLE!