FiO/LS 2011 - Personal Experiences

    Today, I gave my first Real Conference Talk. For those of you from a non-science background, a conference talk is essentially a 12 minute window (25 minutes if you're a big-shot) during which you present your cutting edge research to others in your field. You then have 3 (5 for the bigwigs) minutes for questions. Why is this important? Because this is one of those rare times that Ideas get generated. Most of the time you're working in the lab, trying to solve the problem of why your image is out of focus, or unevenly lit, or why you have chirp and where did it come from anyway...? But at a conference the point is to present your research, listen to others talk about their research, look for cool ideas that you could do in your lab, and figure out a way you could do it better, or in a way no-one else could. It's a period of pure thinking and flexing your intellectual muscle. At least that's how I view conferences.

    I lied though, this actually isn't my first first Real Conference Talk. I gave a talk at the 10th International Conference on Non-linear Dynamics. That was back in high-school, and while I took the data and came up with the analysis, the talk was actually handed to me as we were driving to the conference. This talk is still special though, because it's my third year in graduate school, and yet my first conference talk. My research for the last year has not gone quite as well as I planned, but it went, and I have solid (if perhaps somewhat simplistic) data and a solid model to back it up with.

    So I gave a good talk. I know this because I practiced it before hand, tried it out on several members of my group (sometimes multiple times, thank you by the way), thought about the graphical layout of my slides (really this is important, the last thing you want is someone thinking 'oh, great' and pulling out the conference proceedings because he can't read your title from the front row (true story from today)), I thought about the content on the slides and tried to ask myself what was a) wrong with it, b) confusing about it, c) what it could lead to and imply, and d) what does it mean anyway? And then I thought of how to answer those questions.

    I've taught recitation sections and lab sections by now, so I know the look on people's faces when they don't understand something and as I was giving my talk I was seeing (mostly) the opposite of that. I know my message made it through and not just the people in my group complemented me afterwards. So I know it was a good talk.

    Yet I feel as though I just got handed a C. Why? Because despite all the thinking I did beforehand I flubbed the first question. Okay, so I get seriously nervous giving talks, and while my leg no-longer twitches like it used to (although I did do a lap around the conference center afterwards, during the coffee break, thankfully), my heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket whenever I give talks, especially for the question and answer sessions - I can't help it. Back to the story - despite all my thinking about my slides and going over questions and reasoning in my head, when I get that first question I stall. Wait, what? He just said something that I thought I knew how it worked, but apparently I don't, how does it apply here? Does it really apply here, can he clarify, oh yeah sure, go on a tangent... wait... that didn't actually help OR answer the question... stumble... um... anyway.....

    I knew I was going to get this question too. How did I know I was going to get it you ask? Well I just put up a picture the size of the projector screen with a fairly obvious imaging artifact* tiled all over it, duh someone was going to spot it.

    So I had seen this artifact the first time I displayed the image, but at the time I thought, 'hey cool, this is a pretty awesome image!' Then about a couple of days later I thought it could be a mis-alignment of my imaging system (which was mis-aligned, the blasted thing can't stay on straight) which could be causing a preferential direction to emerge. Despite having these two rational arguments I stopped dead in my tracks and flopped like a fish out of water for a minute or so until someone saved me and got in another question.

    So, it was a good talk. It might not have been a Great Talk, but I have a few more years to work on that one. Yeah, I flubbed one question, but I answered the others reasonably well, and the question got some others thinking, and they gave me some great experiments to try, so I really learned a new experimental method from it. Plus it pointed out a hole in my knowledge, I assumed I knew what a certain method was, but apparently not, so I'm now inspired (shamed?) into going back and reading over the methods of my field so I don't get caught off-balance again. I may have hated it, but I'll likely be a better scientist for it. And that's what conferences really are for - making better science.

* It might not be an artifact, I don't think it is, and I realized while I'm out here that I can do a quick experimental check for this when I get back, but for the point of the story it doesn't matter, artifact describes what it looks like.

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