Saturday, May 28, 2011

PALS 2011 - Check!

PALS (Paleolimnology Symposium) was held at McGill in Montreal this year - or an 8 hour drive from Waterloo - even if by distance it seems like it would only take 6 - especially if you get caught speeding... or get stuck in traffic at 1 am due to a huge accident, narrowly escaping an accident of your own.

Diatoms: a type of algae that produces a silica casing which is preserved in the sediment so paleolimnologists (the crazy people who jump around in mud, look at it under microscopes, put it in various machines to measure different periodic elements, oh and I guess it's all for the purpose of studying lakes/ponds through time - but we all know it's for the mud!) can infer what the environment was like in the lake hundreds of years ago (or however old the core of sediment from the lake bottom is) by knowing the preferred environments that each species of diatom live in. Phew! That's the overview anyway!

Yep, the driving was fun, as always. Luckily, I was able to pass myself off as an established passenger and got to read and sleep. And, I got to put in some work. Which brings me to the first tip of the post:
  • Prepare the presentation early. I'm proud that I was able to prepare a week in advance, powerpoint in hand with an expected duration from practicing the talk, so that was good. The problem was not having the meeting time with my supervisors, who have different opinions of what should be presented and in what order, which are valid, of course, but a bit difficult to implement when I met with one the day before leaving for Montreal and met with the other during the car ride up.
So I was able to put something fun together, trying to incorporate some of those techniques for good presentations - very little text on the slides, a lot of space around figures, simple figures, application of home slides to remind the audience of the overall picture, structuring the talk by big picture overview, importance of the study, detailed methods, inferred results relating back to big picture, and conclusions in case they had fallen asleep during the whole middle part of the talk. Unfortunately, because of the last minute changes that were required after the car ride, that inspired tip two:
  • Balance the social with the academic. At my first conference, I learned that this is the one opportunity for profs who had studied together in grad school and now teach at universities around Canada/world could come back together and catch up, typically over a couple pitchers of beer - or in Montreal, over a "metre of beer". It also begins that lifelong bonding in the current grad students. More professionally, this would probably be called networking, but really, it's about having fun, talking science and research, and seeing the city. All good! Except when I had to present the next day with a yet to be modified presentation. See the first tip for best practice, but here I just want to add the importance of waking up early to go over the presentation or trying hard to get enough sleep to stay awake during the presentations of the day. Overall, conferences are for both, the academics and the social, so investing in both is important to personal enjoyment, for getting new ideas and feedback on the research, finding a potential supervisor, and beginning collaborations with other students. There's a lot to do, but make the most out of all of it.
Day of the presentation, I woke up early to revise and practice my presentation. I was probably relying a bit too heavily on my notes and learned a few things about presenting science from listening to other students talk.
  • Plan it out as a story. The best presentations were presented by storytellers. They were told by students who seemed to be talking to friends, casual and relaxed, well organized from main purpose to conclusions, and not reading from the slides. There are a lot of good reference sites for how to give a good scientific presentation, and looking at those helped.
  • Cite. I didn't realize how powerful it is to cite during the presentation, especially during the background. The talks that did this explicitly had so much more credibility than the ones that didn't. I had references, but I didn't say them out loud. I'm really bad at remembering the names of authors on papers, but because this is the primary way that science is communicated and referenced - as my Analysis of Communities professor stressed, I really ought to learn papers by author names. During the question period, the audience sometimes asked if the presenter had read so-and-so's paper and implemented that idea. I was amazed when the presenter would reply by saying, "yes, I considered so-and-so's method, however, using (detailed part of method) had (specific shortcomings) in the context of my study." That is credibility. I need to get better at that.
  • Know the exact numbers in the data. This goes along with being credible, but I think it also goes along with knowing who your audience is. If the audience is a general group of interested public, then the detailed numbers will just bore them. But if the audience is a highly educated group of professors and grad students who all specialize in the same field, know the numbers, exactly. For example, the C/N ratios around 20 verses around 10 indicate very important things about the source of the organic material (Meyers and Teranes, 2001) (see tip above). But even better is presenting that the average C/N ratio was 22.4 parts per thousand, which, according to Meyers and Teranes (2001), is a signature of terrestrial organic matter or alternatively could be an indication of nitrogen limitation due to very low %N (average of 2.7%) compared to carbon. This sounds so much more credible than what I actually said.
  • Practice. The worst presentations are the ones that go over time. It is truly mentally exhausting to listen to presentations all day and that 15 minute block is just about enough to handle at a time. Plus, it just goes smoother. This is probably one of those tips that everyone knows, but everyone gets too busy to implement, but it is really hard to present well without practice. Really hard. Practice also helps to get over the public speaking fright. As a friend informed me, I have 15 minutes that the audience has to listen to me, 15 minutes when I am the centre of their mental concentrations. Make the most out of it! It's my story, my research, and I want to share it, so to be courteous to the audience about not going overtime, and organizing and practicing so I can be proud of my work.
  • Avoid silence. If you do everything above, you shouldn't have that dreaded silent question period where bleary, blank eyes stare at you from the audience, waiting for you to leave the podium so they can go get the coffee - black in the deepest mug they can find - and stare into the murky depths while trying to wake up. So engage the audience, be enthusiastic about what you are presenting, and maybe have a question you can ask the audience, especially in a more laid back setting like PALS, where asking a question about further methods can be really valuable to your research. If you get the silence, smile and blame it on the late night at the bar. Alternatively, avoiding the silence could mean not knowing how to answer a question. In that case, be honest about what you know and don't know, saying "I don't know" and "Good point, I will look into it," are viable responses and can stimulate later discussion with the questioner for the benefit of both the presenter and the questioner. Mostly, don't get defensive. I have yet to go to a conference where the questioner is attacking the presenter's work, but I have heard some horror stories like that. I would think that taking the highroad during those situations is the best bet, but I will let you know if I ever encounter it, so stay tuned!
Final thoughts about the conference...
  • Go! It's kinda a lot of work to prepare the presentation, but it is so valuable on CVs, gives great experience in presenting, and it's just fun! If you have an opportunity, take it (this applies to many aspects of life)!
  • Be a tourist! If you have any extra time, try and get out a bit. Some conferences include options to tour the city the day before or after, do a bit of the tourist things. If you are already there doing work, staying an extra day to experience travel is advised - though I have yet to take that option. But I have taken the wake up at 6 am to walk the city option. In Montreal, I climbed Mont Royal at 6 am during a thunder storm. Got completely soaked! But it was an amazing view at the top and it was so nice to be in a refuge from the city.
So I didn't actually present any information here about my study, but I think this post is long enough. There are hints that I may be presenting my study again when I'm in Churchill, so maybe I'll save that science for then.

Churchill in 3 days!!!

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