Friday, 7 March 2014

Why should I go to a seminar when I could be....

Research seminars are one of the most powerful means of presenting and discussing scientific data. They have been around for many years and as a conservative estimate I think I will have been to over 3000 since I started my career. Some have been given by undergraduate students, many by PhD students and the majority by academic visitors to the various Institution where I have worked, in Europe and the USA. At best a seminar can provide insight and inspiration, at worst a seminar can be shambolic, delivered in a rambling, disorganised manner based on poor quality data. Maybe it surprises you but both ends of the spectrum can provide equally valuable experiences. However, what is more important at this stage, is that everyone participates in the UTC seminar programmes, whether it is attendance at a Master Class, presenting your own project work, listening to your colleagues and most importantly, actively participating in the question and answer sessions.

We had the presentations on Thursday from the Unilever project, in which you were all asked to investigate the antibacterial activities of plant extracts of your choice. The project introduced you to methods of screening bacteria, methods of extracting water and ethanol soluble compounds from biological material ; it also incorporated a wide range of transferable lab skills and generic skills, including time management, sample labelling and storage (as discussed in an earlier blog). The presentations were all excellent and we (me and the teachers who were present) selected the Perutz and Hubble teams to go forward to present to the industry sponsors. It may sometimes seem unfair when presentations and posters are judged in this way, but that's how it is in the outside world! The successful award of research funding and the acceptance of published work in scientific journals is highly competitive and is typically judged by the process of "peer review". One of my jobs is to make sure that you leave the UTC fully aware of these issues and "match fit" for a career in the Life Sciences sector.

What made those two presentations the winners? The
overall quality of the presentation was an important factor, clear information and images on each slide, rather than large amounts of difficult-to-read text. We looked for imaginative ways to convey the significance of your results and the way in which methods and background research were explained. The final (and for me most important) criterion was data analysis and presentation. Your use of graphical methods to extract the significance of data and to quantify outcomes was a key aspect in the selection of the winners, but importantly compared with the last presentation session, I saw major improvements across the class, in your understanding of the Science that we are exploring.

How can you improve on the presentations? Apart from the issues of clarity of explanation on the slides, one simple way of improving is to practice! The use of unfamiliar technical terms can be overcome by asking me how to pronounce it, or alternatively listening to it being spoken through an online dictionary. The other thing to avoid is reading out text and facts etc that you do not understand. I listened to some nice explanations of some difficult concepts, but when I pushed you in the Q & A sessions, on occasions some of you were reading out lines with little understanding. I know that you are being stretched, but try and keep to what you know and anything you are unsure about explaining leave out.....for now!

Why is it not only important to give presentations but also important to attend those of others? First, we can all learn from others, at all stages in life. I have learned huge amounts from talking to students, staff and colleagues at all levels in my career and hope I continue to do so.  [I have really developed my understanding of molecular spectroscopy by having to prepare classes and field your questions on the properties of organic dyes.] A seminar may have an interesting presentation style, and may make use of novel ways to explain challenging phenomena. On the other and you can see how some things don't work and you can avoid them in your own talks. By attending seminars and presentations in the lab, you are not only being respectful to your colleagues, you are also giving your support! If you want them to listen to you and engage in questions (the added value of seminars), you should respect them too and come along to their presentations. Constructive criticism at the UTC in a supportive culture is, in my own view, one of the best ways to prepare you for your working life. In short, if you want to be a well rounded scientist, you must embrace the seminar culture wholeheartedly. 

Finally, for all of the above reasons, your commitment and performance at the UTC will include an assessment of your engagement in the seminar programme. 

1 comment:

  1. I'd agree that practising a presentation is essential for many reasons, not least getting a clear message into the time available. Most scientific meetings are ruthless when it comes to time, and stop you dead when your time is up. It's embarassing to watch, yet it happens time-and-time again. So, first essential is to stick to time. Have a beginning and conclusion, but cut introductory background to a minimum. Face the audience not the screen, and as Prof Hornby says, don't just read text from the screen. Smile and relax: no one knows everything, and if you don't know something under questioning, say so gracefully. We are all at meetings to learn.

    One of the joys of the internet is that you can learn from others. Many first rate courses are on-line, and I've been following one in my own discipline, and still learn new things! There are also some highly technical blogs, with high-quality comments. Even if you can't follow the argument (often I can't), you gain from seeing a way of thinking or approaching a problem.

    Try this video of Professor of Physics Emeritus Walter Lewin of MIT, giving a last public lecture. His lectures are classics of their kind, and yet despite his lifetime experience, he says at one point that he practises then meticulously.

    "For the Love of Physics (May 16, 2011)"

    Not molecular biology, but good teaching (and only 20 minutes). You'll find out why the sky is blue!