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July 18, 2002
Talk, Cheap and Otherwise
Chad Orzel over at Uncertain Principles has a couple of long posts on giving public presentations as a scientist. My experiences parallel his: a 45-minute talk to your peers isn't too hard to put together, while a 15-minute talk is. And a talk to a lay audience can be harder than either one! (I haven't had to give teaching lectures, so I can't rank those.)
Despite the time it takes to get a good talk together, over the years I've spoken to a lot of school audiences, from kindergarten to high school seniors. By now, I have a couple of standard talks that I use, depending on the audience, where I try to get across a realistic picture of what a medicinal chemist does all day. One thing I've found is that most people I've met are actually interested in the stuff, probably because most people don't know much about it. Those experiences are one of the factors that led to me starting this site, actually.
Research being such a weird job, by the usual standards, doesn't hurt, either. It's something for every working scientist to keep in mind: most jobs are more predictable than what we do. And most jobs don't revolve around turning over rocks in search of truths that no one's ever learned before, either. One thing that I find really throws people is when I tell them that I spend all my time in the lab making chemicals that have never been made or seen before, that if they've been made before we usually don't want them.
At my former company, they let school groups into the lab on tours, and mine was one of the regular stops. As I mentioned once here a few months ago, we kept right on working, and didn't spend any time cleaning up. "You folks have heard about the drug pipeline today, right?" I'd ask them. "Well, there's no pipeline here. This is where the water comes out of the bare rock." It's a weird job sometimes, I'd tell them - but if you like this sort of thing, there's not much else that'll satisfy you.
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