Archive for the ‘Scientific Presentations’ Category

Who Cares?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Another summer has come to an end, and we’re already two weeks deep into the fall semester. I spent part of my last day of summer freedom updating my calendar for the semester, and it was not pretty. So many classes, so many office hours, so many meetings.

I’ve seen a variety of approaches that professors take to the first day of class. Some just review the syllabus and call it a day. Some play icebreaking games and have students introduce themselves, while others dive right into the first chapter of the text. For me, I spend most of the first lecture addressing the question:

Why should I care about organic chemistry?

In broad strokes, we go over what we will learn in the class and why this information is important for scientists and health professionals. Here’s the opening slide from the deck:


If you can’t make a strong case why your class is important to students, why should they waste time studying it?

For me, the argument extends beyond why organic chemistry is important in and of itself. While I hope that some of my love of the subject rubs off, I am under no delusions that everyone will enjoy the class. Many students take it simply to fulfill a requirement for their degree or pre-health program. In these cases, I equate the class to Brussels sprouts. While the dish might be hard to stomach, eating it is good for you and necessary for mom to bring dessert. If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to have to do well in organic. So do it. If your career goal is what motivates you, let it motivate you to do well in orgo.

My view on “who cares?” or “why should I care?” extends to attendance. I don’t take attendance, because it’s irrelevant. My job as an instructor is to: (i) teach course material and (ii) judge student mastery of the material. If students see fit to invest their time in something other than my class, that’s just as likely a statement about the ineffectiveness of my lectures than a statement about their lack of motivation. The student is in the best position to judge my value to them as a teacher. If a student believes their time is better spent elsewhere, that’s fine. When grading, I’ll be calling balls and strikes the same way I would for all of the other students. Once again, attendance is irrelevant—except for mine.

Providing a compelling answer to “who cares?” is just as important outside of the classroom. When giving a talk, you need to invest a few minutes at the beginning to help your audience understand why your research is important. If you don’t, what’s going to stop people from checking their phones and tuning you out? If you find yourself having trouble explaining to your audience why your research is interesting or important, perhaps you should work on something else.

And when writing a paper, one of the first things you should address is why anyone should care about your work. If your reader doesn’t think your research is interesting or important, why should she read it? Why do so many papers in chemistry journals open with sentences like “Dullicin B is a toxin produced by the Ithacan slug, Limax cornellicus“?

Who cares?

Is your paper about the isolation of the compound? No. Do chemists care about mollusks? Not especially. So why would you waste prime real estate in your opening paragraph talking about these pieces of trivia? By all means, share these details, but do it later in the paper after you’ve already hooked the reader.

Journalists are taught this approach as the inverted pyramid, and they use it because readers are prone to move to the next story at any moment. Perhaps scientists would use a similar approach if anyone bothered to teach us about writing.

PowerPoint Peeves and Chemistry Arrows

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

ChemBark’s ongoing series on PowerPoint advice continues with a look at another one of my irrational pet peeves: the “fat” reaction arrow.

If you are writing reactions in a text box, chances are you’ll use the “rightwards arrow”, Unicode character 2192 (hex). You will probably also choose a font without serifs, because slide text (including atomic symbols) looks better without serifs. Unfortunately, this is how the rightwards arrow is rendered in many sans-serifs fonts:


I know this is a matter of personal taste, but there is something about that reaction arrow that turns me off. It’s too fat. The same character in Times New Roman looks much better. She has a graceful elegance relative to her Calibri cousin. Consequently, if you want to stick to Unicode characters for writing out reactions, I advocate writing everything in a sans-serif font, then changing the arrow to Times New Roman. You many also need to adjust its font size to make it look right:


And while we’re on the subject of arrows, there is no need to use the double-headed arrow symbol U+2194 (↔) to indicate an equilibrium. Remember, the double-headed arrow typically separates resonance structures. Instead, use U+21c4 (⇄) or U+21cc (⇌). These characters don’t always appear on the maps in Office, but you can copy and paste the symbols into your text. A full listing of arrow characters is here.

Chemical Nostalgia: My First Conference

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

The Capitals beat the Maple Leafs yesterday, which for some strange reason made me think about what a great time I had at my first scientific conference, in Toronto. It was a meeting of The Electrochemical Society, and my labmates and I gave talks in a session devoted to electron transfer in functionalized fullerenes.

Things seemed so pure to me back then, well before layers of skepticism and cynicism caked onto my core love of chemistry. I had just finished my sophomore year at NYU, and I was scared as hell about giving my first talk. You can see my slides here, but this all took place in the era before slide presentations on LCD projectors were standard. I had to print the file onto transparencies at Kinko’s and carry them along on the trip.

I can vividly remember giving my first practice talk in front of the guys in lab. I thought my pace was fine, but I had rushed through what was supposed to be a 20-minute presentation in less than 10 minutes. This compounded my fears, so in addition to two more practice runs at NYU, we all went into a speakers’ ready-room at the hotel in Toronto and practiced again on site. Our typical conversations that day focused on how many spare pairs of underpants we thought we’d need to bring along to our talks.

At the session, I can remember my friends and I smacking each other to point out famous chemists. Fame is a relative term, but these people were all famous to us because we’d read so many papers about porphyrins and fullerenes. They were the titans of our world. “Oh my God…that’s Jean-Francois Nierengarten!” Dirk Guldi, another prolific author in our field, presented in a three-piece suit. Fred Wudl was there, and I believe Luis Echegoyen, too. It was like sitting in the front row of a rock concert. “Hey man! I read your papers!”

I can remember nothing of my presentation besides having to peel each transparency out of my purple three-ring binder before laying the sheet down on the blindingly bright projector. I made it through in great time, and mercifully, the questions focused more on the synthesis than the photophysics. I was much more comfortable with the former. I chuckled when I went back through the presentation and saw this slide:


Those columns were my life. You’d run reactions that would turn dark, then you’d add a bunch of DDQ and they’d turn even darker—jet black. At this point, you’d have to fish out your miserable (sub-10%) yield of porphyrin from amongst grams and grams of crap. I’m sure none of the PIs cared about how much these columns sucked, but Little Me cared deeply enough to use my nifty digital camera to snap a pic and make a slide out of it.

Also in hindsight, I can’t believe I omitted the hydrogens on my aldehyde functional groups. I hate it when people draw naked carbonyls:


The conference was much easier to enjoy once our presentations were done. I can remember several of the other talks and getting excited about some of the supramolecular chemistry being done. My friends and I also got to see a bit of the city, including the CN Tower and a Blue Jays’ game where Pedro Martinez was the starter. We sat on the first-base line, and the movement on his pitches was unbelievable.

Perhaps inspired by the night out—and since we were able to finally place faces/bodies with the names we’d seen in papers—my labmates and I decided to have a bit of fun. We drew a baseball diamond on a piece of paper and slotted the professors into positions and a batting order based on how athletic we thought they were. We then anonymously posted the sheet on the bulletin board outside the presentation room. I can remember the bosses crowding around it and complaining about their assignments.

And, perhaps this was the first time that I saw how these “adults” were not much different from the rest of us. I’ve never been as excited about a conference as that one, and I don’t think I ever will be.

Godspeed, Mr. Baum

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

If you haven’t heard, Rudy Baumis retiring as editor-in-chief of C&EN. Today, at the ACS meeting in Philadelphia, his tenure at the magazine was celebrated with a special symposium on “Communicating Controversial Science”. That’s a fascinating subject, and I would have loved to attend. My interest is especially piqued by William Schulz’s talk billed as “a reporter’s notebook of stories that have covered a wide range of ethical violations, including one of the worst cases of scientific fraud ever.” That’s got to be Sames-Sezen, right? Anybody have the scoop?

The symposium also featured talks from chemical superstars like Dick Zare, Nate Lewis, and George Whitesides. And look who made an appearance in George’s talk:

Credit: Carmen Drahl, C&EN

Uhhh…me?! That C&EN cover is one of the fakes I designed way back in a post from 2007. I can’t tell whether it is the “chemistry bloggers” edition here or a similar one I used in a group meeting on thioesters. The title of George’s slide was “C&EN is What?”, and I have no idea whether C&EN is or is not my fake cover. Anybody willing to fill us in?

I hope the remarks regarding me/blogs were kind, but regardless, I was tickled to see that photo appear in my Twitter feed. I’m glad I can say that I was a (small) part of Rudy’s celebration. As I’ve stated here before, I am a big fan of Rudy Baum’s leadership at C&EN. I think it is great that he has the stones to write on controversial subjects, that he regularly publishes letters critical of his positions, that he has pursued coverage of “negative” stories such as safety mishaps, and that he has embraced new media. I hope C&EN‘s new skipper, Maureen Rouhi, expands on these developments…especially with more investigative reporting. Best wishes to her and the mag.


I shamelessly stole the above picture from Carmen Drahl. You can follow news from the meeting on her feed (@carmendrahl) or by following the #ACSPhilly hashtag.

A Quick Programming Note: “Communicating Chemistry”

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

While the experience probably won’t be as meta as a seminar on how to give seminars or a paper on how to write papers, I am stoked that Stuart Cantrill will be visiting Caltech this Friday to give a talk on “Communicating Chemistry.” It is lamentable that graduate students receive no formal training in this subject, because a number of people in our field could use it. Stu is the chief editor of Nature Chemistry, and I imagine he has seen his fair share of excellent examples of prose and figures, as well as numerous examples of what not to do.

For those of you at Caltech—ChemBark’s top school in terms of traffic—Stu’s talk will start at 2:30 pm in 153 Noyes. And since I don’t think this announcement made it on to the grad student listserv, those interested in learning (in general) about careers at chemical journals/publications are invited to come out to 318 Schlinger at 5 pm and meet Stu for a Q&A on the subject. Please spread the word and/or spam the listserv. There will be cookies.