Archive for the ‘Communicating Science’ Category

Warm Hearth, Trial By Fire

We have been learning about and exercising various small aspects of communication all class long.  Every little thing is set to add up on another to gain confidence and add to our abilities.  Most of them are not specific instructions about ‘always this’ or ‘never that’, but rather pieces of a larger puzzle that fit together as a larger presentation.  This was that presentation.  We have spent time together working on talking and being comfortable as speakers and audience members as a group.  A group of people who have come to find some mutual respect and admiration for each other and their respective research fields.  But now we face strangers, strangers of all types, people we have never met, people who are later on in life, who will ask any question they please.  They weren’t that late in life but we did go up in front of strangers.

Each of us had an introduction, likely a key thing to remember and serve as a distraction.  We all had to be prepared, without memorizing, but with some trial runs.  We went to a retirement community and plied all of our accumulated skills to get our audience to hear and to care about the crazy, complicated things that we research right next door to them.  It went well.  You could see afterwards just how different things were from our first introductory ramblings in the beginning of the semester.  Granted, we were in a much different setting than our first recording, but we still had the same subject.  We had to break something out of the specific vernacular we have to prove that we have mastered on the way to break throughs in our research fields, down to a level that anyone could pick up.  We did not cause any riots but we got their attention.  Afterwards we got to think about it.  No advisors, no grant board reviews, just peers and ourselves going through the actual footage of our talks.  It was very useful.  Most of the time after a talk, I get feedback that I can’t really trust.  “Oh yeah. You did great,” or “you didn’t look nervous at all.”  There are way too many variables involved to get something relevant from someone I know, much less an honest review.  Without having any consequences to how the talk went, and reviewing it with people familiar with the same exercises I had just gone through, gave me a much more useful level of feedback.

Having a willing audience that was mine to loose was great.  I have had others but I don’t know how I could have broken the ice with them because of the value they might expect from me.  It wasn’t really a trial by fire but it was a definite step up from the in-class exercises that we went through before.

In the improv elevator of your life, I’ve been shafted

The man in black was talking about getting dumped but that’s sort of what class felt like, observationally of course.  Early in the semester we talked about relying on positive responses and how that related to being a good audience.  If there are reluctant audiences or negative responding improv “participants” then the back and forth of communication breaks down.  Our exercise was to get into a simulated elevator and through our interactions figure out how to work in our own research.  Many groups had some awkward and humorous interactions in the process.  The best were the ones where people just ran with it.  One thing led to another and they all played well with others.  The objective was tough and almost selfish.  You could see those who were typically more outgoing succeeding because they led, while more introverted people played along.  That was all well and good until my elevator door opened…

I stepped from my floor into a cat fight.  You thought a negative response was bad?  Try that repeated with accompanying body language.  I wanted to disarm it a little bit.  Selfishly I charged in and provoked a round of high fives, a good excuse to individually get a positive response from everyone there.  Then we opened things up a little.  The conflict remained though.  It sort of cut everything short and was difficult to manage.  Instead of engaging the conflict directly I worked with the other, more receptive folks.  Much like I would if I were dealing with a less receptive audience member.  It’s not that everyone in the elevator was negative, just a few.  So the participating audience was not lost.  It got interesting.  There was no big risk for me so I think I was able to react reasonably well.  I don’t how I would do in a more high risk situation like a conference symposium.  Maybe I’ll have a flash back and pull it off.  Once we got the elevator fixed we all breathed a sigh of relief and parted ways, some more positively than others.

A Week Out Of Class

Last week I was not in class.  Not because I wanted to skip but because I was at a conference.  Our group went to a regional meeting in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  I  was there to give a ten minute presentation, compete in the intercollegiate quiz bowl competition, act as a symposium moderator, and go to some of the talks.  I have been going to meetings like this for a few years now and I noticed a few different things this time, maybe even because of this class.

There is usually an address by the President of the National society while there is a cash bar and heavy snacks.   The way they did it this year had people bustling, eating, looking for drinks and moving in and out of the room.  The president demanded that people eat but the crowd never calmed down.  They went from a reluctant audience to an entirely uncooperative audience.  By this time the President had already addressed several other regional branches so you would think he would have found a way to engage the audience, but no.  It was challenging to pay attention while the crowd was so unsettled.

Next up, my talk in the 10 minute PhD student oral presentation competition.  I had a lovely spot in the line up since my co-advisor organized the program, 16th of 18 talks in one afternoon.  Luckily by the time I got there, the ac had been figured out.  I went into the competition thinking about how I could make my agricultural project interesting to a general entomological audience.  I had nice pictures, a very brief outline of the talk, two short videos, and a great attitude.  Of course by the time I got up there dry mouth set in and I thought I boggled a whole bunch of words.  My lab mates told me they didn’t even notice.  I guess that my brain was processing way faster than my pace of speech.  I had practiced the talk before we left for the conference and got some great feedback.  Unfortunately I had to come up with a title months ago for the conference and everything started with a different focus insect.  I figured this out in the talk right before mine.  I started out telling them that this would not be like the other presentations and the research was in progress, more on that later.  It was a good set up, I ran with it and was able to maintain the logic of my research in an applied manner.  Tying back my data to the potentially more sustainable practices.  I gave them a natural enemy, with a fantastic picture, a video of them at work, survey information, and even some toxicity screening of my own.  In the end I tied all of it back to working with bees and my questions slide was a video of bees landing almost on the camera at the hive entrance.  My slides were colorful, coordinated, and clear, and I was able to do more than just read what I had written.  The audience looked attentive, interested and comfortable.  Then came “I would be more than happy to answer any questions that you may have.”  Clapping, then nothing, at all.  Not crushing, a little disappointed though.


I mentioned that my results and everything are a work in progress.  I had a stat here and there and I did a boatload of work.  Despite getting that clearly into the presentation and across to my audience, it was evidently not what the competition was looking for from a PhD student presentation.  Judging information and criteria are generally not available to the participants.  I found out later that the Judges were looking for the most boring IMRAD format of a presentation possible.  Not only that, but the projects and the participants were all but done with every aspect of their research.  Some had already defended.  I felt kind of naive and a little defeated.  I guess I will just have to beat everyone my way next year when I have more data!  Consequently the quiz bowl team that I captain swept the two rounds of competition later that night!


I hope this isn’t too boring.  The last part of the conference involved me acting as a moderator for a symposium of general submitted papers.  I have moderated a symposium before but it was one that I organized for the students, and was less formal.  This started out with introducing the student award winner, my girlfriend, and rolling into talk after talk 13 minutes at the time.  I bring this up because I had to capitalize on body language.  It turns out that when a 6’6″ guy in a dark gray suit stands up in the front of the room during your talk, you take notice.  Even if you have an impressive lab of your own back home.  This is one of those situations where people will make a hand motion to let the speaker know that they are running out of time.  This met with all kinds of reactions.  People were scanning the audience and looking back to their right to check their slides and would either flinch, nod, or look like something was horribly wrong.  Typically though by the time I stood up they had been pressured enough to wrap things up.  A point of pride during my presentation was how I handled my time warning with only a slight nod and kept rolling.  I guess practice kept me on pace there.  While I did miss class I was observing and reflecting the whole time.

Awkward Circles

Well that went better.  Last week we did an exercise that I had a preview of in Dean DePauw’s class.  Last time it was just a little too awkward for me.  In the exercise we form a circle and get taught some noise and motion, almost always some complex and silly thing.  It gets awkward fast, but this time it was a little easier for me.  I think it’s because we know each other in this class.  Looking at it from a teaching or training perspective is interesting.  Even the most silly series of gestures and noises requires interaction and training to get someone else to “master” it.  Some people are really in tune to their teacher and pick up the cues with enthusiasm.  Others are too weirded out or embarrassed to embrace things, a reluctant audience.  Persistence on the part of the teacher is required here.  Some will break their movement and noises into components of a sequence until the student can begin to pick up on it.  Others will simply repeat their sequence albeit slower than normal.

Maybe I could have done something like that with the undergraduates yesterday.  I had to give a talk about my research and how it ties in to some management techniques related to the class’ focus.  I think I was off of my game when I had to sit for an hour and a half before I just had to pop up and talk.  If I had been in on the planning I would liked to have introduced some of the techniques that my advisor did through the lecture.  Introducing them through my research would have been much more effective and entertaining than a vocabulary lesson.  Either way I got a chance to see where the talk stands before I tweak it for the upcoming competition.  I don’t know why, but when I recycle material things get stale for me.  Which is unfortunate since I will talk about this research for the next couple of years.


P.S. -The next week we did it again.  I still got the uncomfortable feelings but I did find myself smiling at the silliness and that helped to make me less reluctant.

Valued Here

We were asked to reflect on the things that we value.  I value integrity, love, and family.  To that end I seek to challenge myself and have fun doing so.

Integrity sounds cheesy.  I value integrity because it brings honor and value to the work that I do, the education I seek, and to the family that supports me.  Love nourishes.  When someone loves me as a person that seeks challenge because of curiosity, I know that they are in large part, identifying with me and my values.  This love is enduring, supporting, and is what I value.  I find this love in my family, and when I start my own, I will do everything that I can to bring and share that love with my new family.  I have to challenge myself to learn more, to discover, and to satisfy my curiosity.  This whole process can be fun.  When it is not fun, I have to engage myself in other ways to even things out.  I miss working with my hands like when I was a mechanic, so I occupy myself with crafting hobbies.  Desk and lab work can break me down physically so I look to sports to involve my body enough to allow my brain to focus on my other pursuits.  Although it has always been largely elusive, I value balance, and I strive to keep these other values in a healthy balance that helps me to be myself.

It’s All About Me (2/17/15)

Or so it seemed!  We had to do some more difficult exercises today.  We grouped up and spent three minutes talking only about ourselves, starting each sentence with “I am”.  Not like the cute middle school poems, but more like looking into the mirror with someone standing behind you as you vocalize what you see.  While it was difficult to think of me me me, it was harder to watch the others struggle.  I was listening  and I wanted to engage them about what they were saying but the exercise was supposed to be one sided.  One thing I was able to do was relate something about me to the similarities that I heard from my group members.  We talked about filters afterwards, not the kind that keep you from cussing out loud, but more filtering things out for simplicity sake.

We talked more about jargon in communication.  I brought in an abstract from the fellowship application that I just submitted.  The application directions stated that abstract should be approachable for scientifically literate lay people.  I tried to avoid jargon and if I had to use it, I explained it in the text.  My partner had some difficulty reading it but some of that may have been because english is not their native tongue.

Soapbox of Jargon:  I don’t know, I get a little annoyed when the burden of poorly executed science education is shifted to the scientists only.  I understand eliminating words that can be misguiding, complicating, or coarse, but at some point we have to write to an appropriate audience.  I don’t think that my dissertation should be on a level that everyone that is literate should get it (not that I would ever intend to hide any of it from anyone).  I do think that, given the occasion, I should be capable of discussing my dissertation research with anyone that is interested.  The difference is that the dissertation is a treatise from one scientist to another, written in an effort to allow sufficient testing of the phenomena observed within.  I think my disappointment in the accessibility argument stems from the blatant abuse and “Spin” that we see in public media and idiotically self-exposed, social media.  Its when the rigors of science that are worded to be adversarial in nature, and conservative in their claims, are used to the detriment of scientific literacy.  While this is likely not an issue for authors trying to eliminate jargon, it does seem like simplification for communication’s sake can oversimplify to the point that anyone can pass judgement on the result.  This rings all too true when political leaders try to impart their will on the methods of science in an effort to support their own opinion.  Instead of just complaining I will offer a glimpse of an alternative.  We, (educators, scientists, and members of society), can try to promote more critical consumption of media and science.  Identifying a news source with its underlying political bias is not enough.  We have to do something more.  If we start early, when we first teach children about news, history, and literature.  It’s just an idea, but looking at who runs this place, it seems like it is needed.

Hello Hal (2/10/15)

I’m starting this back up for my new “Communicating Science” class.  I had a preview of it last year in Dean DePauw’s class.    It’s not as scary as the Space Odyssey computer but it can get a little intimidating.  I know my science, and I can usually get a point across to a captive audience.  The challenge for me is doing so without having to double back.  Many of the talks I give are in small settings on farms.  I am not the main attraction so I usually get thrown in after all of the extension specialists give their talks.  I have cool stories about the work I do and how it can affect the work that they do, but it can be a real challenge to keep their attention.  I think that one of the goals I have here is to figure out how I can get the “VA___ Society” to pay attention long enough to think about what we are doing with my research.  Of course talking to them after a long-winded extension specialist, and having to give a pesticide update doesn’t really help me out at all.  They might be a little bit of a lost cause but maybe I can get them to read my bug blog as an alternative.

Today I got to get up and give a quick synopsis of what I do.  I went for brief, jargon light, and food specific to try and connect with my audience.  I thought I made decent eye contact but I couldn’t remember afterwards.  I never really dove into the real meat of the research I do, instead I tried to make very clear connections with my area of focus and how it impacts the audience members.  Given the chance again I’m not sure what I would change.  We’ll see when we watch it at the end of the semester.

Listening to others give their talks was interesting.  Every time I heard something familiar my brain cranked up like we were in a conversation.  There was one presenter who got so heavy into the jargon I could not actually place what they studied!  The class should be good if I can keep my energy up.  Next week.