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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 9, 2004

Meetings and Their Discontents

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Posted by Derek

I haven't been to any scientific conferences so far this year, and I have to admit that I in some ways I haven't felt the lack. There are a few meetings that I enjoy more than others (Gordon conferences and Keystone meetings come to mind), but there are others that I'd have to be paid extra to attend. Some of the really large ones have been out of control for years (Society for Neuroscience? I'm talking about you.)

You can pick up some good information at one of the better meetings, but even then it can be a strain. Scientific presentations can often be mistaken for a work of the devil: here, I have some important and interesting things to tell you. So I'm going to run it past you once, from fifty feet away, in the dark. Sound good? Or more like a technique to deliberately impair communication? Your best shot is a good poster session or a one-on-one talk, and the Gordon or Keystone type meetings I mentioned earlier are the best ones for that kind of contact.

It doesn't help that many scientists are such notorious speakers. I've had very bad times, there in the dark, watching someone who's clearly using his slides as mnenomic devices ("Next slide, please. . oh, yes, that's right, here's where we were trying to synthesize. . .") or someone who reads off every word on every slide, adding not a syllable of information along the way.

My patience for such things was never very well stocked, and I've run completely dry in the last few years. When I'm listening to a poorly delivered talk, or one on a subject that turns out not to interest me at all, I just sit there thinking of the time that's going to waste and what I could be doing.

At least I'm awake, though. I recall one seminar in graduate school where the visiting speaker pretty much put everyone into a vegetative state from about the second slide. The floor was thrown open to questions at the end, but an embarassing silence ensued. The faculty member who introduced the speaker caught on very quickly, and popped in with a question of his own: "Actually, one of your reactions reminds me of something one of my students is trying right now - right, Paul?" Dead air. "Paul? That addition to the acrylate?" Nothing. Elbows begin driving into Paul's ribs, waking him abruptly back in the next-to-the-last row: "Uh. . .what was the uh, question?"

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. John J. Coupal on May 10, 2004 2:41 PM writes...

In nuclear pharmacy and nuclear medicine, the "good stuff" is given at a podium presentation. Regardless of the speaker's ability, or lack thereof.

The poster session gets the "remainders", work judged not as good. However, I've always gotten more out of the posters, which I can view at my own pace and convenience. The technical quality of posters is getting a lot better, too. The cardboard segments of poster with 10-font print are fast becoming a thing of the past. Many posters now provide an 8X10 one-sheet copy of the entire poster that the viewer can take home. Really good idea!

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2. steve on May 10, 2004 8:25 PM writes...

Does it seem to you that the titles of natural science papers are not particularly helpful or informative? I recall Jared Diamond complaining once that Science, supposedly accessible to all with scientific training, featured articles in biochemistry and such where almost every word was a noun--all the adjectives were nouns, the verbs were converted to nouns, and so on--all stacked together in one long chain that was impossible to parse. if that kind of verbal sludge is used at your scientific meetings, it must be hard even to figure out which abstracts to read to decide where to go.

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3. Derek Lowe on May 11, 2004 9:37 AM writes...

It's true in chemistry, too, that the more important stuff usually is in the main presentations, and not the posters. But this doesn't always hold for stuff from the drug industry.

We often have to present our data in pieces, rather than waiting for a coherent 45-minute-talk to come together, so poster sessions have a disproportionate impact for us.

The titles of the talks aren't as bad as what you see in a Science paper, fortunately. That's a forum for big results, but space restrictions make people turn their material into telegraphese just to cram it all in. The big problem with the meeting abstracts is that the lead time for submissions can lead to very broad, general phrasing that makes it hard to tell what you're in for. That way, no matter what happens in the weeks/months before the meeting, you can fit it into the talk.

And too many people oversell their titles: "A Broad, Facile, Novel Method to Do Everything You Could Ever Want - Part Three"

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