Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Monday, November 27, 2006

How to Answer Conference Questions

I received two comments on the last post from Amelie and Anonymous about how to field questions at conference presentations.

I wish I had a better answer and invite other conference presenters to jump in with their experiences, but here is my crack at it.

What to do when someone asks a valid question and you don't know the answer.

My advisor always told me the first thing to do is flatter the questioner. Something like "Great question." From there it is important to tell the truth. If you try to fake your way through an answer you will lose credibility. It is much better to tell the truth, most people understand that you are a student and you aren't expected to know everything.If you truly have no idea you can say things like
(a) "we hadn't thought of that before. I would love to talk with you after."
(b) "these are preliminary data, that is something we plan to look into in the future"
(c) "I'm not sure I understand your question, can we talk about it after the session."

What to do when the questioner asks a disinterested, self-flattering question. i.e. What about my work or the work of my buddy Dr. X
Again you can't go wrong with flattering the questioner, even if it is through gritted teeth.
(a) If you have enough knowledge you can try to explain why so and so's work is not related or only tangentially related to your own while of course lauding so and so. For example, "I am very familiar with the work of Dr. X on topic A. Dr. X's discovery of important point Y and Z have been pivotal in the field of A. However , most of my work is focused on topic B, which is only cursorly related to topic A through relationship Z. Therefore Dr. X's work, while brillant, has not impacted my field strongly."
(b)If you don't have enough knowledge to explain the differences between your work and Dr. X you have to handle the situation more delicately. "I am not that familiar with Dr. X's work. It sounds like Dr. X is working on topic A. I am working on topic B, which I believe is related through relationship Z, and therefore haven't come across this concept before in my reading. However, I am always interested in new approaches and ideas. Could you please tell me more about topic A after the session?"

What to do when the questioner asks a completely stupid question.
So you just spent the last 30 minutes intricately proving that leaves are green and the questioner says, "well obviously leaves are blue." [Actually happened to my sister, well not leaves are blue but you get the idea.] How do you respond to this? One approach [and what my sister did] is to say "you need to familiarize yourself with the work of Dr. A and Dr.B who showed that leaves are green. If you talk to me after the session I can recommend some of their papers for you." Another approach: "perhaps you had trouble understanding my talk. I'm sorry. If you meet with me after the session I would be happy to go over my data showing leaves are green with you."

What to do when the questioner is hostile or just plain rude.
At one conference I actually saw a questioner get up and tell the presenter that their work was not of the quality that belonged in the conference and that they needed to go back to their supervisor and tell them that they shouldn't be sending them to a conference with so little and low quality data. Kicker was the questioner didn't read the abstract well enough to notice that the talk only had one presenter so it had to be the PI. Gotta love that. So what would you do? Besides run to the bathroom and cry. Well in this case the session chair jumped in and said wow we're running late time to move to the next talk. Thank you session chair. But if you find yourself in a similarly unfortunate situation with no help from session chair...please remember that the questioner is embarrassing themselves by saying this in public. If you respond with equal hostility, you will carry that embarrassment to yourself. The best approach is to be as polite as possible and shut down conversation quickly. "I'm sorry that you feel that way. Perhaps you didn't understand my data, let's talk about it after the session." I guess if you really couldn't hold it back you might add "Wow that was rude!" but I would recommend against it. Everyone else knows this already and the person has done more to discredit themselves simply by making the statement than anything you say ever would.

Hope this helps..and I'm very interested in how you handle questions and any conference horror stories you might have.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

How to give a good conference talk.

Oh my. I just finished chairing a session at a conference and decided this would be a good time to share some advice about giving conference talks.

General comments:

When I first started giving talks as a grad student, I was really afraid and nervous. I thought of the audience as a hostile entity that I had to prove myself to. I thought that they all new a lot more about the topic than me and that I had to demonstrate my knowledge and mastery of esoteric points in the research to show that I "belonged" in this group.

This is NOT true. About half of the audience in a conference talk are the other speakers and/or their advisors. The other half are people that have an interest in the area or that know little but would like to move into research in that area. The chances of finding an expert in your talk are low. You might have 1 person who works in an area close enough to yours to offer true criticism. If you give a highly technical talk, you are speaking to that one person to the detriment of the rest of your audience.

Most people in your talk just want to be entertained. They want to understand what you are doing and more importantly why you are doing it. If you start to think of your talks as teaching a class to your peers or giving a group meeting, your talks will improve drastically. And even if there are serious technical questions, your audience will remember you as a good speaker. The key here being they will remember you, which is the reason that we give talks in the first place anyway.

Specific Comments
1. DO NOT run over your allotted time. The most riveting speaker ever will be reviled for running long. Generally, the suggestion is 1 minute per slide. I find that about 75% of this is better. So for a 25 minute talk I would have about 18 slides. This gives you time to really explain the material and not fly through data.

2. Corollary of this is that you do not have to present every last piece of data that you collected between this talk and last year's. It is perfectly reasonable to present data that has never been seen before as "previous data" so that you can focus on one interesting aspect of your results. In fact this is preferred.

3. Get rid of the words. The best way to explain is to show. That's why you're doing a presentation and not simply a speech. Most of my talks now consist of pictures and captions only, except for the conclusions and acknowledgements page. This means that when I do use words they are that much more meaningful. So I might use words to highlight a key experimental question that we are trying to address.

4. As part of this, don't be afraid to deviate from the powerpoint slide template. In fact, I never use them. Every side I make including the title slide starts out as a blank slate. I add each text box and figure without predetermined boxes telling me where they should go.

5. Related to these ideas, be like Feynman. Okay I love Feynman. He was a great scientist and a great teacher and it doesn't get better than that. One of the key points that he emphasized was trying to distill knowledge down to its simplest unit. You don't want to belittle your audience, but make everything as simply as possible. When you finish your slides, go back and ask yourself if there is any better way to explain what you are trying to say. Make it as easy as possible to understand.

6. If you have a short time slot (< 1 hour) do NOT present an outline of what you are going to talk about. This just wastes precious minutes in an already short talk.

7. It is pretty rude to only attend a session for the talk that you are giving. If you are the speaker you should stay for all the talks in that session unless you have a very good reason for not being there (another talk in another session). Of course bathroom breaks are fine and you might bump into someone and have a short conversation, but to gather up your things and walk out right after you finish is inexcusable.

8. Make graphs readable and explain them. Saying I know this slide is busy or I know that there is a lot of data here does not change the initial shock that viewers experience upon seeing a busy slide. Graph axes should be large enough that people in the back row can read them, and even if you are showing a graph that uses a common method that your audience probably knows (like an NMR or FTIR profile) you should explain what each axis is and FULLY interpret the data to your audience. There is nothing worse that a speaker saying, "as you can clearly see..." when we have no idea how to interpret the data.

9. Talk slowly. It can be very hard to follow a speaker who is talking rapidly. This problem is worse if English is not your native language. Please, please, practice talking slowly. A rushed presentation of lots of data impresses no one. Your audience will tune out before you get to the third slide and starting praying that you won't run over.

10. Give context for your work. The most important part of your talk is explaining what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it relates to the work of others. Cite others liberally and often, you never know when they will be in the audience. Nothing makes me angrier than someone who talks about a particular technique but doesn't cite the very well known source.

Well hope this helps, and the most important advice is to RELAX!!! Remember that most of the audience is probably sitting around being nervous about their talk, or just tyring to pass the day. They are not out to get you.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Conference Blogging

Well, as you can tell from the title. I am at a conference this week. I have a love/hate relationship with these things. I love seeing all my friends. I love hearing about all the cool stuff going on. I hate that I have to be away from my family, and for some reason I always develop migranes by the end of the day when I go to conferences.

This conference in particular is unusual. It is at the same place as it was the year that I interviewed and the deja vu is strong. I can look at a sofa and say hey that's where so and so tried to recruit me. The weirdest thing is that the tables have turned completely now and I feel so different. I am not really nervous. I have given my talks tons of times. I'm not trying to get a job. I am not going up for tenure for ages, and I know lots of other faculty either as class-peers or from interviewing.

There are a few foibles. Many people still mistake me for a graduate student. They are usually pretty embarrassed when they find out that I am faculty. Some of my other friends say they get this as well, but I haven't asked my male colleagues. I would be interested to see if it is a gender thing or just an age thing.

I miss my kids. It is tough to be away for a whole week. In some ways it is nice. I can definitely use the break, but it is hard to talk to them over the phone. I mean even in person I have to pry out information from them with pliers, over the phone I rarely get more than hi. Although I did find out that Daddy brought them to Chuck E' Cheese yesterday. [Go dad. That was brave.]

Well I should really go to some sessions or something. More later...

Friday, November 10, 2006

More from MIT neuroscience

As if you needed another reason not to work at MIT...

Now it appears that MIT is admitting that there may have been problems in the recruitment of jr. scientist Alla Karpova, but the commission just can't decide what to do about this. Combine this with the typical fight that women just can't cut it in science and it's no wonder that young girls don't want to go into the field.

Well here's hoping that we can change perceptions and attititudes over the coming years...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Childrearing Makes Men (and Women?) Smarter

I came across an interesting blurb in Popular Science recently (Nov 2006, p. 46):

So, parenting boosts mental activity? What a shock.

When comparing myself to other researchers who are not parents, I see dramatic differences. Most notably in the way that I manage my time. Anyone with a toddler knows how difficult it can be to complete a task without interruption. [Mommy I have to go to the potty. I'm hungry. Help.] And so as parents, we learn and adapt. We learn to plan important tasks like showering and bubble baths for the evening when said toddler is asleep. We learn that other tasks like laundry can be accomplished in bits and spurts in between toddler requests. As the kids get older we learn how to work on a proposal to the last possible minute before racing across town to enthusiastically cheer on the preschooler's soccer performance. We learn how to bring the preschooler to religious school, violin lesson, and go grocery shopping with the previously mentioned toddler every single Sunday while not going insane (this has a lot to do with putting a DVD player in your car.)

Yet, all of this experience translates directly to my ability to run a lab. I can handle it when my students constantly interrupt me, they are far less troublesome than the toddler at home. I have no problem working on papers and proposals 30 minutes at a time, that is probably a more solid block than I get when my kids are awake. I don't sweat the deadlines. I know that things always seem to work out somehow, someway, and that I can plan for them.

I think that parenting makes me a better scientist. Now if I could only find a way to link that to my tenure application...Fabulous scientist with lots of pubs AND managed to raise two decent (okay debatable) kids.

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