Archive for the ‘Scientific Presentations’ Category

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.

Nomadic Professors and Other Thoughts from Anaheim

Monday, April 11th, 2011

I jotted down a couple of things from the recent ACS conference in Anaheim, where on the whole, I had a good—but not great—time.  I think there is one big thing that is missing from ACS conferences, but that will be the subject of a future post.  In the meantime…

Giving Total Synthesis a Fair Shake

I decided the program was a good opportunity to reassess my disdain of total synthesis.  There is good total synthesis, and there is bad total synthesis; both were on display in Anaheim.  Baran gave an excellent talk on palau’amine and some interesting chemistry that followed.  At a later session, I sat through a 45-minute talk (by a huge name in synthesis) that was easily the most dull presentation (on insipid work) that I experienced during the entire conference.  The student talks in total synthesis did a good job of framing the common trials and tribulations associated with the sport…in which I have no desire (or ability) to compete.

Dreadful Attendance

I attended most of a session on reaction methodology that comprised talks from grad students and postdocs.  At one point, the room contained 14 people—yes, I counted.  Why pay hundreds of dollars to travel to California when more people would hear your talk if you opened your office door and shouted down the hallway?  And it’s not like this was one of those late Thursday sessions…it was on Monday afternoon.  Yes yes, these students are gaining valuable experience in public speaking and they get to attend the other talks at the conference, but still…14 people?  That is just sad.

Nomadic Professors

Aside from the science he presented, Stephen Buchwald‘s talk contained two interesting tidbits of information which were not necessarily new, but were new to me.  First, I was unaware that his ligand RuPhos was named after his cat Rufus.  Second, Buchwald casually mentioned during his talk that John Hartwig is moving from Illinois to Berkeley.  That struck me as peculiar, since it seems just like yesterday that Hartwig moved from Yale to Illinois.  Perhaps it was fitting that Buchwald’s talk was in a symposium honoring David MacMillan, whose career saw him move from Berkeley to Caltech to Princeton in a span of 7 years.  On one hand, you can’t fault someone for working his way up in the world (Illinois is an upgrade over Yale, Berkeley is an upgrade over Urbana-Champaign).  Also, sometimes tenure, promotions, and lab upgrades play a role.  On the other hand, such rapid movement has got to wreak havoc on all of the students/postdocs/families caught in the wave.  I imagine there could also be frayed nerves among the faculties of the spurned schools, who probably went to great lengths to recruit the jumpy professors in the first place.  When you live by the sword, you die by the sword, I suppose.  Perhaps the most interesting case of professorial movement is that of Jonas Peters, who moved from Caltech to MIT in 2007, then back to Caltech again in 2010.  And yes, I know of at least one student who made *both* moves.

The Unwritten Rules of Chemistry Seminars

Friday, February 11th, 2011

In the discussion that followed the arsenic-for-lunch post, commenter CR and I got into a spirited debate about the rules of etiquette for scientific presentations.  It was my contention that it is considered socially unacceptable to ask long strings of questions during seminars, while CR insisted that there’s nothing wrong with it.  I think there are many unwritten rules that pertain to seminars, and I promised to get back to the subject in due course.  Earlier this week, a post by The Unlikely Grad Student (TUGS) titled “Notes to Seminar Speakers” reminded me to finish what I started.

I’m going to focus on social norms and questions of etiquette rather than how to prepare and deliver a scientific talk.  This guide on how to give a research presentation is a good start, and I particularly like UIUC chemist Ken Suslick’s seminar on seminars.  Moving on…

There are at least four types of stakeholders in attendance at your typical chemistry seminar: the speaker, the host, the professors in the audience, and the rest of the audience.  Each set of stakeholders has its own responsibilities and expectations.

Rules for…

…the Speaker 

Give the host a title for your presentation so that people can judge whether they want to attend.  This courtesy is especially important if your research program is littered across many disciplines.  While “TBA” is acceptable if the talk is several months away, you should update the host when you’ve decided what it is you want to talk about.

Actually talk about the subject billed on your seminar flyer.  Don’t change your mind and surprise everyone.

Dress well.  Don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt.  It’s a matter of respect, and people do judge books by their covers.

If you notice a build up of people standing after your seminar starts, consider halting your talk to invite the latecomers to fill vacant seats.

TUGS brings up an excellent point that you should learn the name of your host—particularly if it is a difficult one to pronounce—so you don’t look like an idiot when you thank the person who has kindly spent her day shepherding you around the department.

Find out how long seminars are supposed to last and plan accordingly.  If everyone likes to get out within an hour, that does not mean your talk should last an hour.  You should stop 10 minutes early so that there will be time for questions.  Remember, people have seldom complained that a seminar was too short.

If you say you’ve got one more slide, make sure you have only one more slide.  Don’t go on for five more slides.  Putting up a slide that is titled “Future Directions” or “Conclusions” is the equivalent of saying that the talk is almost over. 

….the Host

Don’t get carried away with your introduction.  People are there to hear the seminar, not you.  Your intro should not take more than 3 minutes.  If you’re reading lines off of the speaker’s CV, you’re doing it wrong.  If you have a funny story to tell, make sure it is actually funny.

Ideally, the host will moderate the question session.  After the audience applauds, you should get up, stand to the side, and formally open the floor to questions.  You should select questioners and identify them by name.

It is the moderator’s job to make sure that question time does not carry on.  Be merciful.  Don’t let question time drag on forever.  Know when to apply the coup de grâce.  The classic line to use is “we can finish this discussion later on, let’s all thank Professor X once again…” 

In uncomfortable situations, such as language barriers between the speaker and questioners, it is your job to attempt to rephrase or translate the question.

If a questioner becomes too aggressive, it is your job to try to diffuse the situation and move past it.  The speaker is a guest of the department and should not be badgered.

…the Audience (in General)

If you enter the lecture hall more than five minutes or so past the start of the talk, find an empty seat towards the back or stand.  Don’t disrupt the talk by climbing through the audience to reach an empty seat, unless the speaker invites you to do so.

If people look at you when you’re talking to the person next to you, you’re speaking too loudly.  Shut up and pass notes instead.

If your boss invited the speaker, you should probably show up to the seminar…even if you’re going to be miserable.

It is perfectly acceptable to read a paper or check your e-mail if the talk stinks, but not in the very front of the lecture hall.  If you plan on multitasking, sit in the wings or at the back of the room.

Don’t ask questions that you know the answers to.  If you believe the speaker is unaware of a particular fact, state the fact outright and immediately follow it with your point.  Seminars are not quiz shows, and you are not Alex Trebek.  (This rule does not apply to professors when grad students are giving talks in their own department)

Don’t ask more than two questions in a row.  Give other people a chance.  Remember, you can always approach the speaker after the meeting has adjourned.

If you are not a professor yet you ask a question at every single seminar, people will think you are a tool.  Yes, this is irrational, but that’s just the way it is.

…the Professors in the Audience

In the event that there is a lull during question time, the responsibility of asking questions falls to the professors present.  That’s just the way it is.  If you are a professor, you need to have a couple of rounds in the chamber by the end of the talk.  A pause of anything more than five seconds is uncomfortable and rude.

Pitiful attendance at a seminar is embarrassing to the speaker and to the department.  If attendence is typically a problem at your seminars, the faculty needs to explore ways to put butts in the seats.

If the lecture hall is routinely less than one-third full for weekly seminars, the seminars should be held in a smaller room.

Try to encourage students to ask questions by not necessarily jumping at the speaker from the very start of question time.  A more timid member of the audience (i.e., everyone) won’t want to be third man in.

While you won’t get punished for breaking any of these rules, you won’t be doing yourself any favors, either.

Chemistry Cards: Breathing Life into a Lame Idea

Monday, February 7th, 2011

One question that people always ask me is: “Paul, what is your best blog post ever?”

Actually, no one has ever asked me that question.  But if someone did, my clear-cut winner would be this post I submitted to C&EN’s blog from a super-secret bunker during my long, dark blogging hiatus.  Rudy Baum and company are using the post to draw hundreds of millions of hits per year to the ACS Pubs Web site, and I’m getting bupkis for it.

For those of you too apathetic to click the link, the post covered my greatest idea ever: improved business cards for chemists.  The cards are the size of standard baseball cards and feature an action shot of the chemist on the front and assorted chemistry stats on the back:

The idea was so far ahead of its time that only this past week did Jorge Cham make a Ph.D. Comic about it.

To be honest, the trading card idea was a flop.  Exactly two of these cards were ever printed, and I still have both.  Never have I felt compelled to give a business card to anyone, and never has anybody ever asked for one, either.  So, what the hell are these things good for?

Acknowledgments.  That’s it.  Nothing else.  Here is the acknowledgments slide from my Ph.D. defense:

I call on all chemists at the upcoming ACS meeting in Anaheim to eschew boring lists of names, and in their stead, use chemical baseball cards on acknowledgments slides.  Insipidity—on any slide—will not be tolerated in the land of Walt Disney.  Just do it.  I’ll be at your talk, watching you.

Thanks for reading.

I am stealing R. Baum’s catchphrase in retaliation.

(H/T to @NeilWithers for tweeting the comic)

PowerPoint Shortcuts That’ll Make You Less Annoying

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

There is no feeling of helplessness quite like that of being stuck in a terrible presentation with no possibility of escape.  While the standard cause of this misery is insipid material, the misuse of PowerPoint by ostensibly intelligent scientists can also be maddening.  With this in mind, I ask—nay, implore—you to do me a big favor and learn a few of PowerPoint’s shortcut functions:

1)  Jumping slides.  I rarely use animated transitions, but when used judiciously, I think they can be effective.  What really bugs the hell out of me is when someone in the audience asks to go a couple of slides back, and the presenter ends up clicking the back arrow fifty times in order to retreat through all of the layers of animation.  That. is. annoying.

Not only is it annoying, it is completely unnecessary.  PowerPoint allows you to advance directly to any slide in your presentation by typing the slide number and hitting enter.  Remember, if someone asks you to bring up a slide that has animations on it, you might want to jump one slide forward of it and then hit the back arrow so you don’t have to re-execute all of the animations.

2)  Restarting presentations.  How many times have you seen someone exit a presentation to start a video, then end up restarting the presentation from the beginning?  The next ten seconds (or two minutes, if the guy loves animations) are then spent scrolling forward to get back to where the person left off.

Don’t do this.  You can restart your presentation from where you left off by hitting SHIFT+F5.  Hitting F5 will start the presentation from the beginning.

3)  Blanking the screen.  I once saw a presenter raise the screen to use the chalkboard while comically squinting under the intense illumination of the projector.  If you need to use the board, you need not make a fool of yourself or shut down the projector.  Simply, type “B” during your presentation to black out the projected image.  Hitting “B” again toggles back to your slide.  And just so you know, hitting “W” toggles a white screen on and off.

So…in the words of the great Judge Reinhold: learn it, know it, live it.