28 February 2006

Reaching your audience

There are a few things that authors live for. One is finding out that someone you actually don't know personally has read something of yours. And today, I got a very nice email from a researcher in Australia who read my recent article on shovel nosed lobsters in the Journal of Crustacean Biology. He had done his doctorate on a related species, so he was one of the few people who would actually care about the topic! It made me smile.

Meanwhile, my new manuscript is getting pretty close to ready for submission. Hopefully no later than next week. I will have no excuses after next week, because it's our break. No classes to get in the way!

27 February 2006

The Zen of Presentations, Part 4: Titles slides are a crutch

I first became aware of this particular presentation tic at grad seminars at UVic. The symposium moderator would get up, thank the previous speaker, then introduce the next speaker and tell the audience the title of the talk. The speaker would walk to the podium and put up their first slide which, more often than not, showed the title of the talk -- the one that the moderator had just read. Not content with that, the speaker would then to look at their slide and, very earnestly and deliberately, proceed to read the title out loud.

So we get that blasted title three times over.

It drove me bonkers then, and drives me bonkers now. I really only need to know a title once. Unfortunately, title slides are emblamatic of a presentation style that is not beaten out of presenters anywhere near often enough: that is, reading directly from slides verbatim.

There are several reasons to avoid having a title slide. First, it burns up time. Particularly in science, I often have to present talks where I summararize complex information that took months or years to gather and analyze, and I have to do it in 15 minutes. Including time for questions. I have to focus on what I need to say as directly and memorably and efficiently as possible.

Second, it can be a little distancing for the audience. You get up, and barely before the audience can look at your face, the lights are going down and people don't know whether to look at the slide, or look at you. Give yourself at least a few second to get up, let people see who you are. Maybe smile, if that's appropriate (not recommended if you're giving a talk about, say, deaths in sub-Saharan Africa from AIDS).

I think people like having a title slide, because it gives them a safe and easy way to start off a talk. Instead of worrying about "What will I say?", you just have to read the title, thereby putting off the problem of whether you really have anything of substance to say by... oh... a good ten to fifteen seconds or so.

A title slide is a useful crutch to deal with that initial moment of the talk. Some people need a simple way to overcome that initial hesitation -- and that's fine. I am in no way bashing crutches here; they're useful things. But the goal should always be to get rid of the crutch, rather than relying on it.

If you want to leave a title in, there are some alternatives to the title slide. Let the moderator read your title. Or, if you feel you must have a title slide, don't read it out directly -- just talk about your subject. Alternately, if you want to tell people the title because there is no moderator, just tell them -- but don't make a text slide of it. I am convinced, though, that the best solution is to forget about introducing a title and just tell people your story in most cases. And leave the lights up for a few seconds so that your audience can see your face.


You Are 54% Evil
You are evil, but you haven't yet mastered the dark side.
Fear not though - you are on your way to world domination.

26 February 2006

Unexpected linkages

Amazon.com sagely suggests that because I'd like the upcoming Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire DVD, that I would probably also like a power razor with a storage case. Marvellous.

Was a bit of an odd week. Finally had some long-overdue time to work on a manuscript that has been almost ready to ship out for some months. It's getting even closer now, and another big push to get this manuscript out the door was that the editor of my upcoming paper emailed me to tell me that it should be out around May. Nothing in the publication pipeline is bad.

My editor for that article also emailed to say that the page charges was three months overdue. And why are they three months overdue? Could it possibly be because my institution is apparently nigh incapable of handling money? Nah, couldn't be.

Also had a birthday in there. Rather low key affair. Good, but not as extravagantly celebratory as I had thought.

19 February 2006

More rejection, please

I just got word on one of my last grant applications, this one to the SOMAS program, and it was rejected. I suck.

It has been unusually chilly the last few days, and it's quite cold in my office, so I think I'm just going to go home and work there.

18 February 2006

Professor in disguise

I went to an early morning meeting on Thursday to meet a couple of people who came to our campus to evaluate our Honor's program. It was an interesting meeting. Sometimes, it's nice to hear people from outside remind you that you're not crazy for thinking that the way certain things are set up are not functional...

Anyway, the funny part was that I came in and sat down and one of them asked if I was a student.


11 February 2006

The Zen of Presentations, Part 3: Can you do it on the radio?

Late last year, science lost a real treasure: Ted Bullock died at the age of 90. He was a neurobiologist of the first water. I somewhat selfishly took it upon myself to write a short obituary for the International Society for Neuroethology, for which Ted was the founding president. I was fortunate enough to meet Ted several times. In some ways, the first meeting was the most memorable. He came to the University of Victoria to give the last seminar of the academic year, at the invitation of Dorothy Paul, my Ph.D. supervisor. There were many remarkable things about his visit. For instance, when I had just driven him to campus from the airport, he walked into Dorothy's neurobiology class just as some undergraduate students got some microelectrodes into slug brains and were recordings neurons' action potentials. After giving Dorothy a brief hug, Ted immediately doffed his coat, and grabbed a chair to sit and work with the students and talk about the recordings they were getting.

When Dorothy asked if he had any slides so that she might load up a slide carousel, Ted said he didn't have any. He said that the clearer the story was in his head, the fewer slides he needed. No slides was his definition of "nirvana."

The seminar he gave was extraordinary. I think it's still the only academic seminar I've seen where the speaker got up, talked for about 50 minutes or so, without a single slide, a single overhead, without writing a single word on a blackboard. Yet it was absolutely clear, and you never lost sight of the story he was telling. As Dorothy would later put it, "Even the plant physiologists were enthralled." (She wasn't implying that plant physiologists are a hard to please lot, but Ted was talking about neurobiology, which is rather off the beaten path for plant researchers.)

I saw Ted give talks at other meetings. A couple of other times, including the last time I saw him, at Western Nerve Net a couple of years ago, he presented it without slides, but those were much shorter talks.

I think anyone giving a talk should be ready to give a talk using the "Bullock method": be able to do the whole thing without slides.

Having said that, I have a confession to make: I've never had the guts to do an academic talk without some sort of slides. In fact, I put a lot of thought and effort into my slides. For my SICB talk in Janaury, I had started working on my PowerPoint files in mid-November. But I would like to think that I could have given the talk on the radio, if I had to, and it would hopefully be understandable. I always aspire to have the story so clear in my head that I could go right to zero slides.

There's another reason to aspire to be able to give a talk without visual aids. There are two types of speakers: those who have had slide or visual aide disasters and those who haven't had one yet. Not only does preparing give a talk on the radio force you to really think about what you're saying, it gives you valuable insurance.

While I was at the SICB meeting, there were several student paper competitions. I was in the audience for one, in which the speaker was going along reasonably well. He tried to show a video -- and froze the computer instead. Completely. During a juried presentation competition. He ultimately finished the talk, but the long pause while he tried to get the computer going was agonizing. You pretty have to think that cost him any chance he had in the competition.

My other favourite disaster story was at a Western Nerve Net meeting, where the first speaker for the regular presentations was an undergraduate giving her first talk. She was already nervous. And the slide carousel got upended, and put all her slides in a jumble.

Heck, my own seminar for my own job talk was almost derailed for lack of a cable to connect my computer to a projection system. Though because I am gutless, I was steadily filling a carousel with 35 mm film slides rather than "going Bullock" at the last second.

08 February 2006

Science on TV

Some time ago, I mused about a television science reality show about grad students. A writer in the journal Nature expresses doubts. And the always witty Jorge Cham also weighed in on the idea over at Ph.D. Comics.

06 February 2006

Latest work

My latest masterpiece -- er, research paper, "Digging mechanisms and substrate preferences of shovel nosed lobsters, Ibacus peronii (Decapoda: Scyllaridae)", has now been published online, and is available in Journal of Crustacean Biology. You can read the abstract here or here. If you're a subscriber to the journal, the first link will let you go whole hog and get the PDF of the paper, too. Please do. Spread among friends and enemies alike. Everyone loves lobster research papers, don't they?

The one thing I will always wonder about this paper is whether I could have got this published with the title I wanted to give it. I thought long and hard about calling it, "Do shovel nosed lobsters shovel with their noses?" I chickened out, and used for my talk on this subject at the SICB meeting last month instead.

05 February 2006

Invertebrates and psychology

My first degree was in psychology, so when I began working with crustaceans, I was somewhat surprised to learn that Sigmund Freud worked on crayfish nervous systems early in his career, before producing the theories on the unconscious for which he would become famous. And the crayfish work was not trivial, either.

When I mentioned this to Jennifer Mather, my undergraduate supervisor, she immediately informed me that Jean Piaget, who work kick-started the field of developmental psychology, did many experiments with snails, particularly Lymnaea stagnalis, which is still widely used in neurobiology research. She like to get a rise out of her psychology colleagues by saying that they'd lost a damn fine malacologist when Piaget started studying psychology.

Today I learned, from the ABC Radio National show Ockham's Razor, that a third highly influential psychologist also worked with invertebrates: Alfred Binet. Binet's doctoral dissertation was titled, A contribution to the study of the subintestinal nervous system of insects. But if Binet's name sounds familiar, it's probably because you heard it as the second half of the name of the Stanford-Binet test. "Stanford" was a late addition to the test. Binet, with co-author Theodore Simon, developed it first, and published it as "New Methods for the diagnosis of the intellectual level of subnormals" in 1905. It was effectively the first IQ test. This was perhaps as influential as any invention (idea? concept?) in psychology. Despite horrendous misuse of IQ tests, I'm among those who count it as an important scientific advance.

So three of the most influential psychologists of all time started their careers studying inveterate behaviour and nervous systems. Coincidence? Probably. But a sweet and interesting one nevertheless.

04 February 2006

Core values

Strange convergence of events got me thinking. The MSI conference that I've been writing about has had a lot of high powered American politicians, who, as particularly American politicians seem wont to do, go on about "American values," "core values," "the values that make America great." Considering that we've had a keynote from the secretary of the army, a big lunch sponsored by the Department of Defense, such rhetoric gets pretty thick pretty quick.

Now, as it happens, yesterday in our regular journal club meeting, we were talking about the stem cell and cloning debacle in Korea with Woo-Suk Hwang. It was an interesting conversation -- a chance to talk about ethics rather than data, exactly.

These two things together got me thinking about what the core value of a scientist are. I thought of these three. Of course, there are other virtues that are probably widespread among scientists. But those three came particularly quickly and easily to my mind.

Reason. Honesty. Equality.

Reason could be "Rationality" if you wanted all three to rhyme. Science holds as a fundamental assumption that the universe is lawful and understandable. Reason, rationality, logic are the tools we have for going about understanding things.

Honesty. You don't fake data. You admit when you are wrong. This one is probably leapt lose to the top of my list because of the discussions we've been having about scientific fraud and misconduct and such.

Equality is there because I believe science is fundamentally an enterprise conducted by peers. Anyone can have a good idea and test it and subject it to scientific scrutiny. By this I don't mean that there is nobody who can justifiably gain respect as an authority on a subject, or a particularly distinguished scholar, but that is a respect gained among peers.

From time to time, people have suggested that scientists should have an equivalent to the Hippocratic oath that doctors take. While I don't believe that the Hippocratic oath in particular deters much morally suspect behaviour in doctors, and I'm not sure that such an institution as a researcher's oath could be created now, it is interesting to consider what it might contain.

Link of the moment

As I've been talking and thinking about presentations lately, I must send you to this entry over at my namesake PresentationZen. It made me laugh.

03 February 2006

The things I'll do for half a merit point and the promise of a cookie<

The MSIRP conference continued today. I wasn't planning on taking part in it too much, because today was a teaching day (three lectures in four hours). So I went in early enough to have breakfast, talked to a very nice woman in the semi-conductor(?) industry, then went off to teach my lectures.

Then something strange happened. In my one hour break between classes, Mohammed, my department chair, walked into my office and asked if I could phone over to one of the MSIRP organizers. They were looking for judges of student posters. I blinked a couple of times, and more or less said, "Okay." I had no idea what was going on, because I would have thought I would have heard about it in advance. The person on the other end of the phone didn't quite know what was going on, either. But she said they needed judges, and wanted a judges from a fairly wide range of disciplines.

I said I might do it if they gave me a cookie.

I went back off to my last lecture of the day, they off to yet more really great food for the MSIRP lunch (this one sponsored by the Department of Defense), then back to where I unexpectedly found myself judging five student posters instead of going to sessions. One of the organizers apologized, said they were out of cookies, and offered me a muffin. I took the muffin, and said, "But I won't try to conceal my disappointment." Being a judge for a conference is worth something like a third or a half of a merit point at the end of the year. Although they do cap the number of points you can claim, and I'm way, way over, so I suppose I really did it for the broken promise of a cookie and for fun. It was good talking to the students.

After that, back to the biology journal club for a very interesting session on some of the ethical issues raised in the recent Korean stem cell research scandal. Then back yet again to the MSI conference for -- you guessed it -- more really excellent food(*) at a local museum. This time, I had dinner with a fellow from Washington state, a NASA official, and a woman in the Research office of the university (Eastern Washington University) that our Provost is taking over on 1 April. I joke to someone else that I was warning her, but in actual fact I was good and said nothing. Since our Provost was somewhere in the room and all.

I got to see yet another high ranking U.S. government official giving a talk. She said her name is on the money now, so she's treasurer -- though I haven't pulled out a new bill and looked for her name. She was the most effective speaker I've seen so far this conference. No slides and a near letter perfect delivery.

She also mentioned that new US$10 bills are coming out 2 March. I like the new $20s much more than the old, so I'm hoping the new $10s will also be an improvement.

So one more half day of this MSI stuff and then... um... I'm not sure what.

(*) Wendy, our VP for Research, stopped me in the morning and asked if I'd gained anything from the conference so far. I told her, "Weight."

02 February 2006

The perfect strawberry

This has been an odd week. Tuesday I was finally able to go out and collect animals, which I'd been meaning to do for a while. Excellent conditions: warm, low tide, little swell -- I could have picked up huge numbers of shrimp.

Wednesday was a bit of a panicky day. My students had their first weekly online quiz, which always tends to result in a few people who freak out a little, because they've never taken a test this way before. While they were doing that and I was dealing with lots of little first time questions, my student Sandra walked into my office and I said, "Hey, remember that Woods Hole course we were talking about? We'd better start thinking about that, because the deadline's sometime in February." Surf over to the website to find the deadline is... February 1st. Today. Yipes!

You can imagine how I spend the afternoon.

Luckily, we were able to pull it together, since we had worked to put together an NSF application for Sandra late last year. It's out, so fingers crossed. There's another application in two weeks. At least this time we have a couple of days to think about it.

Today I was in and out of the MSIRP conference. I'm not convinced I've advanced my research or created any new opportunities at all yet. And I am again perplexed that experienced, powerful people don't give better talks. But the food has been good. Tonight I had conference dinner held at an old mansion once owned by a wealthy citrus farmer; the secretary of the army was speaking. And while there was lots to like about the food, I happened upon a perfect strawberry on one of the plates. You bit into it and knew this was what strawberries were supposed to be like. Sublime.