Thursday, February 28, 2008

Seminar thoughts

RPM had a delightful post about the people you’d see at a departmental seminar. A good part of any academic’s life would have been spent listening to someone give a seminar on some topic. RPM clearly enjoys observing the people in the seminar, instead of paying attention to whatever was being said by the speakers. But it is just as entertaining to observe and form (exaggerated, biased or irrelevant) opinions of the seminar speaker. There are different types of speakers and most of them probably fall somewhere in one of these categories.

Animatedly excited (a.k.a. “This is so cool”) speaker : Lets face it. Most scientists are inordinately fond of their research. Everything else in the world (global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, Paris Hilton) is less important. But while giving a seminar, they try to control their excitement. Not so the “This is so cool” speaker. Every sentence of theirs ends with an exclamation! Every little gel they run or PCR they do is fantastic! Good lord, why are we even listening to their talk?! We should just give them that Nobel!

Data? Pshaw! Here’s a schematic: There are some speakers who think actual data isn’t worth showing. So their talks are filled with impressive conclusions, schematics (called “cartoons”, not to be confused with Bugs Bunny), predictive models, and an animated PowerPoint movie with impressively shaped molecules flying around. They would have completed an entire one hour seminar showing only one real graph/gel/microscopic image/structure. An argument could be made that the work is already published so we can go and look up their papers to read about it. But why would I sit in a seminar if I wanted to read about something? If the work is still unpublished, all I have to do is go back to my computer and spend the next 6 months searching PubMed everyday hoping those grand models have some data behind them.

You want more data? Here you go: In stark contrast is the data masochist. This speaker decides to smack the audience with every published, publishable and unpublishable result his/her lab would ever get. This means you are subjected to six slides showing the same result tested in a dozen ways. At the end of the seminar you have no idea what the big idea behind the work was. But you might have caught up on your sleep.

I’m so good I can fit four seminars in one: This is data masochist version II. In this case he/she doesn’t talk about fifty ways to do one experiment, but decides to talk about every single project going on in his/her lab. Since the audience typically consists of rookie grad students who want to learn but have attention deficit disorder, veteran grad students who come only for the free food, a scattering of students, postdocs and faculty who just want to hear one cool story, and precisely 2.1 diehards who want to know everything, their effort only serves to annoy. Half the audience is comatose after story number three (at 40 minutes) and will willingly part with their firstborn when the speaker starts story number four, just to get him/her to stop. When the final story (number six) starts, at breakneck speed, there is almost an audible sigh of relief from the audience as the slides whiz by fast enough to make Roddick’s serve look geriatric. Sometimes, somewhere in between the seminar, the irritable grand old scientist of the department walks out, leading to a massive audience efflux and much embarrassment to the speaker and his/her host.

My other job is singing lullabies: This is the speaker who probably dreamt of being an NPR radio host, but ended up in academia instead (every one knows the surest way of putting a baby to sleep is turning on National Public Radio). You enter the seminar hall, the lights are dimmed, and then the soothing monotone starts. There isn’t the slightest hint of emotion, the slightest blemish or stammer. The volume is just perfect. You fight to stay up but the force is too strong. You leave the seminar hall and your red-eyed colleague asks you what you thought of the seminar. You’re forced to answer “It was pretty good….what did you think”, and aforementioned colleague will be forced to answer “Oh yeah” and then look at his watch and pretend to have to be elsewhere.

We discovered everything: Seminar speaker gives long introduction. Seminar speaker cites earlier known work, ALL of which was done in his/her lab. Seminar speaker gives talk about the great breakthroughs that are currently coming out of lab. Heck, as far as seminar speaker goes, his/her area of research has just one lab doing research on it. No one else exists. When questions are asked at the end of the seminar, all answers begin with “we’ve shown that….blah….” and end with “….we are currently doing that…blah.” The rest of us should just roll over and become technicians. The speaker probably discovered gravity and the moon as well.

I’m so famous I can make up anything: This kind of seminar speaker is sometimes outrageously entertaining. They show a little piece of data (or sometimes hypothesize that data), and then draw a very long line to an outrageous claim. Something that just about everyone in the audience (except some naïve, gullible, wet-behind-the-ears first year graduate student) knows is bovine excreta but no one calls it, because speaker is “Mr. famous scientist”. Then naïve, gullible first year graduate student writes a qualifier proposal based on “Mr. famous scientist’s” BS, and his/her committee rips it to shreds, leaving the kid in tears.

Any more speaker types?


Anonymous said...


You have not included those who say precisely what they want to say and little else, the Dirac types. There are also those rare ones who create a symphony, the Chandrashekhar types (have you read Aesthetic and Motivation by him? Amazingly enough, those were all talks he gave). There is another category where people can actually create a mood for the audience and deepen or lighten it according to their wish, the Bergman or Hitchcock types. But I would guess that for each speaker, there is probably one talk when he achieves one of these rarer effects. Of course, your post was supposed to be funny and forgive me for the trait of looking at everything from all possible angles.


Bryan said...

A well-written post. Agree with you, but did you know that attention deficit disorder can be cured? I had this problem (some time ago) and then i seeked advices from websites like . And presto! I think I can see an imporvement in my condition. It's almost magical. You should try it too.

CuriousCat said...

Ok I will confess, I am type one. And I hate type 2 speakers for I feel they are talking down to me. Now, what type are you?

Fëanor said...

What about the seminar speaker who writes paragraphs on each slide and mumbles his way through the presentation? He looks only at the screen and his eyes get a hunted look when he is asked a question by the audience. In response, he re-reads the relevant paragraph from his slide.

Btw, have you seen this classification of the powers-that-be at a faculty?

Sunil said...

Aniket, your more serious thoughts are most welcome.

curiouscat....I think I used to be type one....but have stopped being overanimated :-). I don't like type 2 too much myself. Show me some data.

feanor, yes of course, the mumbler! Good one. And thanks for that hilarious link.