Archive for the ‘Scientific Presentations’ Category

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.

Poster Boy

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Going to an ACS national meeting is like going to Applebee’s—there’s an extensive menu that seems great at first glance, but when you’re actually inside, the experience is distinctly mediocre.  And if national meetings are the Applebee’s of conferences, then Thursdays at the ACS are like the 30 minutes before closing when the waitresses are vacuuming the carpet and giving you the stinkeye to leave.

Last week in Denver, I had the “pleasure” of giving a talk on Thursday at 3:30 PM.  There might have been ten people in the room; the tears welling in my eyes hindered my ability to get an accurate count.  Some of the previous speakers in the session didn’t bother sticking around, and I was so pathetic that the session chair couldn’t even muster a charity question.  Basically, thousands more people will read this blog post that is only tangentially about the talk than actually attended it.

So, I’m done with giving talks at ACS meetings.  They’re more trouble than they’re worth.  On the other hand, I had a great time giving a poster at Monday’s Sci Mix session.  This disparity seems strange, since I might have “only” talked to something like 15–20 people during the two-hour session, but those interactions were of much higher quality—actual conversations about science—than lecturing a sparsely populated room of seated cadavers.

Like many things in chemistry, I think poster presentations are undervalued (see also: non-Science/Nature/JACS/ACIE papers, public outreach, and IR spectroscopy).  There are more than a few people who believe that giving a poster instead of a talk is a sign of weakness or copping out, and when was the last time you saw a big-named chemist giving a poster at ACS?  I think it’s time to spit in the face of the establishment and make posters cool again.  Who’s with me?!

So, it’s time we get organized.  I’ll start by providing my set of tips for getting your poster printed at Kinko’s/FexEdOffice:

1. Don’t wait until the last minute.   I have never had an experience printing a poster at Kinko’s where everything went 100% right.  Either the plotter was broken and I had to drive 15 miles to a different store, or they were out of paper, or an image didn’t render, or the people on duty just had no idea what they were doing.  Give yourself at least a two-day buffer just in case you have to deal with some drama.

2. Don’t go during the graveyard shift.  Kinko’s has saved me many times by its virtue of never closing.  In high school, I recall several late night/early morning runs to make color printouts on their fancy $5/page printer.  I am a night owl, and I generally prefer going to 24-hour stores like gas stations and groceries late at night when there are no crowds.  Do not do this for printing your poster.  I find that the people on staff during the graveyard shift are often severely incompetent and/or stoned.  Go during the daytime when the best staff members are on duty.

3. Bring a CD or USB with two files: your source file and a high-resolution PDF.  Ideally, you want to print your poster from the source file, which is usually an Illustrator or PowerPoint file.  The people at Kinko’s should be able to open these files.  Where you get into trouble is if the staffers try to modify them, even a tiny amount.  If they do and you have something like a ChemDraw image embedded within the document, there is a good chance it will get messed up.  I’ve also seen staffers make a PDF from the source file and then print the PDF.  This is unnecessary and can create all sorts of problems, most commonly reduced resolution or uneven scaling of the poster’s dimensions.  Bottom line: get them to print the source file directly, without any modification.  If that doesn’t work, get them to print your hi-res PDF. 

4. Bring a printout of your poster on 8½×11″ paper.  Give the staffer a printed copy of your poster so she knows what it should look like.  Make sure the poster is printed to scale (and not stretched to fit the paper).  Write the dimensions of the poster in the margins so the staffer knows how big it should be.  If they mess up, you can then point to the printout and say “No…it should look like this.”

5. Go with the glossy paper instead of the matte.  As far as the paper goes, you’ve got two options: glossy or matte.  The glossy finish looks so much more professional: the way it reflects fluorescent lighting will make your poster seem radiant.  It is truly a thing of beauty.  The resolution also seems to be marginally higher than with the matte finish.  That said, the matte option is usually much cheaper—about two-thirds of the cost of the glossy.  But if you can afford it, go glossy.

6. Inspect the poster closely before paying for it.  Kinko’s is going to charge you ~$100 for the poster—you deserve a good product.  I have seen all sorts of printing errors, from messed up ChemDraw structures, to garbled jpgs, to stretched dimensions, to random lines from misfed paper, to odd patterns from the plotter’s running out of ink.  When it comes to approving the final product, don’t let the staffer hold the poster up from 10 feet away behind the counter.  Get up close and quickly inspect it. 

7. Get a plastic poster tube and bring it to the store.  Kinko’s gives you your poster in a plastic bag that neither protects the paper from physical bumps nor damage from rain.  If you’re travelling somewhere, you’re going to want to put the poster in a proper tube anyway, so why not just bring it to the store in the first place?  I recommend buying a hard plastic Ice Tube, as I have heard a couple of sad stories regarding air travel and “regular” cardboard mailing tubes.  And nothing says “cool scientist” like walking around an airport with a neon orange poster tube.