Posts from the ‘Conferences’ Category

Justify your existance

I presume that a lot of scientists know how to pitch their work in a way that makes it sound useful to somebody, or else they never get any funding, right? This was also a huge part of my thesis preparation, as your committee likes to see that your research means something to somebody. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there’s some aspect of your work that might only be tangentially related but that, when Aunt Ruth asks you what you do all day, you can pull out of your back pocket so they feel like they actually know what you do (I personally find that “Well, Aunt Ruth, you know that “atomic clock” on your wall that updates itself automatically for daylight saving time? I work in the group that does that” is usually a lot more enthusiastically accepted than “I measure the amplitude-to-phase conversion of semiconductor photodiodes in the context of generating ultra-stable microwaves from optical signals”).

However, while I’m quite tired of all the things I’ve been doing, on occasion I do feel as if I’ve justified all the work I’ve done by the people who have genuinely expressed interest in it. I often have one or two people really quiz me at conferences about measurements I’ve done and the questions they have about similar things. However, I have on a number of occasions received emails out of the blue from people all over the world asking me specific questions, usually about very technical aspects of research I have published in papers. So in reality, some number of people have sought out my work to help them work out a problem they were having in their research, and a handful of them have gone so far as to contact me to ask questions about it. While I often still feel like a doofus about science and am constantly reminded about what I don’t know, once in a while I can feel good that I am actually an “expert” about some small sliver of scientific knowledge and that the work I’ve done has helped them accomplish research in even more areas that just what I’m doing. I guess that’s a pretty decent way to end a week.

Powerful points

Today I began putting together my oral presentation for the defense. In some ways I can just toss together some slides from previous talks and figures from the thesis, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in graduate school is the fine art of assembling graphics for Power Point slides. Now, I’m no expert of course, but I have spent many hours of my graduate career putting together slides for myself and others, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, sometimes you can’t avoid words and lists of things; however, it is in general preferred to have more pictorial representations of things. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. And if you can spend an extra few minutes adding a little color and even some depth and shading, your drawings really start to pop. There is a point of diminishing returns, though, so don’t waste too much time on tiny details unless it’s very important. 🙂

Graphs are a must-have for a scientist. Often, you will have multiple graphs to show on one plot, and it can get quite messy to look at. One of the greatest tricks I’ve learned is how to take multi-plot graphs from Excel and pick them apart in Power Point. Using custom animations, I can make a single plot appear at once, then gradually stack the multiple curves as I talk about each one individually. The visual difference when a new plot appears is enough to draw the attention of the audience to the present topic instead of trying to painstakingly point out an entire line with just words or a laser pointer.

Animations can also be great to demonstrate motion or change in a physical system or the progression of an experiment. However, it’s easy to get carried away, so keep it simple! Also, cartoon representations of physical systems can be quite powerful, especially when paired with some simple and well-placed animations.

Other than some tricks in preparing the slides, I’ve found that excessive and repetitive practicing is probably the number way for me to achieve a successful talk. Think about it–you wouldn’t take a leading role in a play without painstakingly learning your lines! Your presentation tells a story about your work, and while you don’t want to sound scripted or even read directly from notes (though it’s sure tempting sometimes), you do want to essentially memorize and practice presenting all the points you want to make. That also helps you stay on time, which is usually a major consideration for a scientific talk. Don’t get me started on presenters who just drone on and on at conferences!

I also try to keep the tone light, especially if I have a little bit of extra time (which I don’t usually). Sometimes you just have to power through with an all-business attitude, but depending on the audience you might do well with ever-so-slightly less formality. Portray yourself as a real human, not just a scientific drone (though I know some people who just are, hehe). A little humor usually doesn’t hurt, given the appropriate context, of course. But while I feel that I’m quite clever and witty, I find many people don’t quite get my puns and plays on words. :p In which case, I mostly just avoid outright humor altogether.

For this presentation, in order to make sure I am sharp and brilliant regarding every possible question about every possible nuance of my project, I really have to do more than just prepare the talk. I have to carefully study the fine points and concepts. I mean, let’s face it…this is essentially an oral examination! You wouldn’t go into a test without studying, and I can’t stand before my committee unprepared either. The problem is that I’m so wiped out from writing my thesis that studying takes a lot of will-power; my body and brain feel a lot more like resting. It’s particularly challenging to do something purely cerebral when there isn’t an actual physical item to produce, something tangible with visible evidence of completion. I can’t neglect this, though. At least a couple of practice talks with my group will keep me accountable.

Two weeks from tomorrow–in a way I wish it were sooner, though I know the full two weeks will be beneficial for my preparation. I am still feeling the calm, as if I really have passed through the storm and am walking slowly back into the light of day. Yet I must stay steadfast still toward the final goal.

Summer research programs

Nothing doing on Saturday (as predicted), so I’m back to work today. Today our annual crop of undergraduate summer research students is getting settled in various groups throughout the building. Our group will be hosting one student, although she is working with someone else in our group, not me. The students will work on projects for about three months during their summer college break and share their research in a final presentation before they leave. I did a couple of these kinds of programs when I was an undergrad, and they can be awesome opportunities for getting research experience before going off to grad school. They look great on a grad school application, too!

While the summer program here is quite elite and prestigious for an undergrad, the programs that I got into were really just average as far as physics goes. The first one I did was at my undergraduate school, so I didn’t even have to move anywhere. It was alright, but I spent all summer in a small office programming visual basic on a teal-blue iMac (remember those??). While kind of light on the physics, I am incredibly grateful for programming experience and learning how to make a poster for presenting my research. However, this was actually the summer when I started hanging out with DH a lot before we started dating… and that totally eclipses anything I could get from any science program anywhere!

The next year I didn’t get accepted anywhere, and I was desperately trying to find something else to do for the summer. I had been offered some weird job selling kitchen knives to poor, unsuspecting folks in their own homes when finally my last-ditch application came through. I was excited that something worked out (I wasn’t excited about being a kitchen knife salesman), but instead of a serious scientific pursuit the program turned out to be one huge party for science and engineering kids for five weeks during the summer. I sat through a lot if interesting talks, but I didn’t get a lot of lab experience, and I spent most of my time talking on the phone with the future-DH and avoiding unwanted attention from other boys.

But overall I’m glad that I got to do two summer programs, regardless of their efficacy. For one, I got a pretty decent stipend, but I did also gain some professional insight as well as life experience from being out on my own. Probably the things I remember most are the relationships I built from being with new people…and isn’t that really what most of the best things in life boil down to?

Since it’s Monday, I do owe you a goal of the week. Probably this week I will be helping my colleague prepare an abstract to submit to a conference this fall. I’d like to go to this conference, but most likely he will be the one going, probably in large part due to the fact that I just went to one and he didn’t. But since he’s presenting our joint work, I will, of course, help him get everything ready! At home, my only real aspiration for the week is to slow cook a pork roast for barbecue sandwiches one day. That’s it. If I do that, I will find the whole week to be a success.

Follow the leader

When at a conference with your fellow lab-mates, you typically get to spend a lot of time with them. Aside from the time in the conference, this primarily involves meals, like lunch between sessions or dinner after the conference is over for the day. Being stuck in a city with no car, this also means lots of walking to restaurants and randomly picking places to eat and hoping you didn’t choose poorly. You hate to waste your per diem!

For some reason, I have been elected the leader of our meal excursions. I suppose that it’s obvious that I don’t want to be in charge and largely prefer to acquiesce to the preference of others, since I usually don’t have strong preferences myself. I’m always happy to share my strong preferences if I have them, but I usually don’t. However, it was determined for me by another grad student that I was to be the fearless leader so as to “build character” in my weak area. Gee, thanks.

Interestingly, I have actually risen to the challenge, and I have found myself assuming an assertive and confident role in leading us to and choosing our daily cuisine. I’m sure you’ve also experienced picking a place to eat with two or more people. Unless there is a strong personality with a definite desire in the group, it’s mostly like herding cats to try to ferret a decision out of a group of people. At first, as leader, I entertained suggestions from my minions; hearing silence or incoherent mumblings time after time, I finally decided to pick a place and march us there. If someone wants to whine about it, let them make a better suggestion and we’ll do it!

So, this has been an interesting “experiment” this week. I suppose it’s good to have leadership experience, even if I can’t exactly put this on my resume. 😉 Maybe I will for real learn a few nuggets of wisdom I can use in similar situations in the future.

Conference Day One

This conference is big, bigger than any conference I’ve been to before. It has 15 concurrent sessions running four times a day. The funny thing is that it’s just like cable TV…there may be 400 channels, but there’s still nothing on. The conference is aimed more toward optics, and I am not an expert on optics; therefore, I have a hard time picking talks to hear, especially since most will be more technical than broad. Now, I do need to learn more about optics, so it is a learning opportunity, but I happen to be the person who doesn’t learn as well when being lectured at. But even my friends, the optics experts, also find it hard to find interesting, accessible talks here, so at least it’s not just me. 😉

There is a huge technical expo here, basically a huge trade show with vendors enticing the scientists with their state-of-the-art products. I wandered around with my friend; he actually knew some people with the different companies, so we spent some time talking. That was great, actually, as I do like to meet new people in the community.

One very surprising item is that, despite being two time zones ahead, I haven’t been completely exhausted and sleepy all day. Granted, I did “sleep in” just a little, but I was still relatively early getting up. Usually I can hardly keep my eyes open during these conference talks, but I was very thankful today. Hopefully this will continue through the rest of the week.

So, that’s my first impression of the conference. Time to check the schedule for tomorrow to find some interesting talks to go to, and hopefully none of them will be before 9:00 a.m. 😉

Public Speaking

As you know, I will be attending a conference next week where I will give a talk about some of the research going on in our lab. The talk will only be about twelve minutes long with three minutes for questions. While I’m glad that I don’t have to fill up a whole hour or anything, it’s actually rather difficult to prune down a whole experiment’s worth of details while still filling in enough details for the audience to follow. And, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I can be a bit verbose at times! So, sometimes it takes almost as much time to whittle everything down as it does to describe all the details.

I am no stranger to giving talks. Yesterday I counted that I have given about a dozen oral and poster presentations at conferences and seminars, not counting talks given to my group at work and various academic committees for my degree program. I actually enjoy talking in front of people. When I say this to my friends, I get odd stares because I am a rather quiet and shy person. However, for some strange reason I don’t mind being up in front of people, in principle at least. Maybe years of orchestra concerts and piano recitals have numbed me to complete and utter stage fright. What does make me uncomfortable is talking to a group of experts about something they are very familiar with and I am not as sure about. Being a graduate student, part of my professional education is building knowledge in the general scope around my specific project. This is a slow process, as the body of collective scientific knowledge around a certain subject is quite large. And quite often, the people who have written most of the papers in said body of collective scientific knowledge are sitting in the audience and listening to your talk, sometimes waiting to see if you’ve cited their work, too.

Of course, not all of them are lions waiting to pounce upon a victim when the first sign of weakness is sensed (maybe some, but definitely not all). In fact, many of them have become my colleagues and friends as I go through my graduate school career. While these more experienced scientists have been around longer and know a whole lot more than me, I have to remember that I am the expert and ultimate authority on the experiments I myself have done, and what I know about it they do not know. And since my particular project often features new, never-before-seen results, they are eager to actually learn from me, what little tidbits it may be.

I am still building my confidence in this area, and while I still don’t mind public speaking on a subject I am very comfortable with, I can get quite nervous about these professional talks. Hopefully I can put a good amount of preparation into this talk now so that I feel confident later, but I’m sure no amount of practice will totally ease my nerves. But every new talk is an opportunity to become more comfortable and confident as a scientist.