Saturday, October 16, 2010

Talking Science

I want to share with you two science experiences I had in the last 10 days.

The first occurred at the recently held Biomedical Engineering Society meeting in Austin, Texas.  Though the highlight for me was seeing many of my friends from Rice and EPFL, I also enjoyed a number of the talks.  What occurred to me, though, as I was sitting in yet another talk, is how important communication is in science, particularly in the form of presentations (whether a conference talk, a department seminar, or a plenary), and how woefully inadequate we as scientists generally are at preparing and giving them.  Black font on dark backgrounds, tiny and unlabeled graphs, spelling mistakes...and these are just the distracting Powerpoint slides.  The students, at least, seem to practice their presentations, though their inexperience and nervousness shows through, but the more senior people often seem to just wing it.  And most are not good enough to do so.

For some time, I thought that maybe most of the science at conferences is just average, with a few superlative examples shining through.  That may be the case.  But I am starting to wonder if perhaps it is just that so few scientists succeed at presenting their work at conferences, and what I take for average science is actually just mediocre presentation skills.  Clearly I need to become better at separating the two, but I hope that as I move forward in my career, I make sure to spend a lot of time and energy on improving my scientific communication skills, and those of my students and post-docs.

The second science experience occurred yesterday, when I met with several other professors to discuss two grant proposals that we want to collectively submit.  I was surprised by how much each of us knew about our respective fields, how little each of us knew about each other's fields, and how much I enjoyed the exchange. This interaction of ideas and scientific viewpoints may become one of my favorite parts of this job.

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