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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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October 25, 2010

If You're Not Excited, Sit Down

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Posted by Derek

Mat Todd of the University of Sydney looks over the SciFoo conference that we both attended during the summer, and contrasts that to an ACS meeting. The comparison isn't kind, as you'd imagine:

. . .with a few very notable exceptions the talks I saw were a) presented in a dull Powerpoint-heavy series of slides with verbal commentary about what was on the slides where even the presenter was visibly bored with what they were saying and b) on published material that was c) way too predictable and incremental. So both the presentational style and the content were disappointing. So many talks at the ACS would have been more interesting if the speaker had simply given out paper copies of their latest paper and given us 10 minutes to read it in silence then 10 minutes to talk about it. Now of course specialism necessitates incrementalism in content, but it’s no good if the meeting becomes a chore to sit and listen to. Nor is it good if the talks come out of the Powerpoint Machine (the genius of the “Chicken Talk” is that you can kind of follow the talk structure without listening to the content – it sounds exactly like most academic talks right up to the last supplementary slide in response to the second question at the end). In maybe 80% of the talks I attended nobody asked questions, or nobody was allowed to, or people asked “pity questions” just to break the awkward silence, but which were in no way interesting in themselves.

"A chore" is exactly what I find too many presentations and conferences to be, unfortunately. If we limited presentations, as Mat suggests, to people who are excited about their results, we'd have a lot of short meetings in this field. . .

Comments (18) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Antony Williams on October 25, 2010 9:28 AM writes...

I give a lot of talks in a year....probably 30 or 40. The most exciting ones, for me, are those that are open dialogs with the audience...those where I am not running from Powerpoint but rather real time demos of what I do. Curveballs challenging me are the most stimulating and at a recent ACS meeting we took a room and chatted about access to chemical structure data online for about 3 hours. It was terrific. I gave 2 presentations at that meeting that were short and succinct and fortunately drew people to the more engaging discussion later in the week. I'm all for the "let the audience speak sooner rather than later" makes for more fun for the speaker and the attendees. But it can certainly knock an intended presentation off of its trajectory and needs to be managed!

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2. opsomath on October 25, 2010 9:32 AM writes...

And here I was thinking that short meetings were a good thing.

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3. 殺馬特の疾颩 on October 25, 2010 9:50 AM writes...

Man, I don't even mind the monotounous voice or reading exactly what's on the slides, but at least try to pretty up the slides for god's sake.

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4. GC on October 25, 2010 10:12 AM writes...

Here at [large s/w co] we rip 'em a new one if they try to be "powerpoint cowboys"

You can put up slides, but if your talk consists of simply repeating what they say, you'll never live it down, even if it's something standard, like how to code AJAX. I even know a couple of managers that'll ding you on your review.

Life is too short to have people read web pages to you. A meeting is to get people working on solving some problem, or a USEFUL way to get information out there. Reading off a bunch of slides that folks can do at their desk is not useful.

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5. emjeff on October 25, 2010 10:14 AM writes...

Funny, I just read this after attending a symposium on Huntington's, where when I wasn't falling asleep I was struggling to follow every talk. These questions came to mind: Why do molecular biologists speak in alphabet language? Why do they assume everyone knows all about the obscure little proteins that they are studying? Why is there an inverse relationship between the itellectual brilliance of the speaker and his/her ability to form a coherent sentence?

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6. petros on October 25, 2010 11:25 AM writes...

The British Pharmacology Society doesn't (or at least didn't) allow presenters to read from their slides

Communications were normally published so failure to comply was an automatic disqualification from publication.

It is also very bad presenting style since it tends to lead to the speaker looking at the screen rather than engaging with the audience.

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7. clinicalpharmacologist on October 25, 2010 11:51 AM writes...

The BPS also doesn't (or at least didn't) permit the use of notes when presenting. Any infraction (real or imagined)led to the unfortunate presenter publically humiliated by vigilant and psychopathic professors.

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8. Anonymous on October 25, 2010 11:57 AM writes...

Let's be completely honest here, it's not like all of these speakers are chomping at the bit to give these "predictable and incremental" talks. The reality is that many of the bad talks you see at a conference are grad students and postdocs who feel like they have to do it in order to pad their CV. Most of them know how good/bad their talk is, but ultimately it doesn't matter because usually you present to a room that consists of 1) your friends 2) your labmates (maybe) 3) the people presenting directly after you. Hardly an honor considering registration alone is nearly $200 for a grad student and almost $500 for a postdoc.

Why don't all of you people complaining about bad conference talks figure out a way to convince hiring managers that they aren't important? I guarantee the quality of ACS conferences will immediately improve. Correspondingly, attendance will almost certainly decline (a lot).

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9. D.J. on October 25, 2010 12:38 PM writes...

The ACS just tried to recruit me as a graduate student member.

Only problem: I'm going for an M.Sci. in math, not chemistry....haven't had a chem course--ever.

If they can't get their targeting correct for potential recruits, how will they hold a good conference?

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10. Thomas McEntee on October 25, 2010 1:16 PM writes...

Let's face it...running professional societies and conferences has largely become a money-making business. If you believe what has been posted here before about declining numbers of jobs for chemists in the US, the ACS position on journal access, use of data including CASRNs, and that case in Ohio, and rumors about the salaries that ACS pays its leadership, you'll appreciate the need to expand the membership to any one off the street and to keep attendance up at the National Meetings.

Running these behemoths does cost money but having done the math on what it costs to run conferences as a *.org organization, I know that someone's making money here. When I had to cancel my attendance at the Spring 2009 Salt Lake meeting two days before it started because my mother's botched surgery and near-death experience, do you think ACS would refund my registration fee? Not a chance. Do you think they'd apply it to the Washington DC meeting later that year? Not a chance. Did my e-mail to ACS HQ about this travesty elicit a reply from ACS? Nope.

This said (I feel much better now), there are some good sessions at ACS meetings. The mass spectrometry sessions at the Washington DC meeting run by Catherine Fenslau were very good. Catherine has high standards and obviously had some say as to what presentations made it into her sessions. Some of the sessions on detection of toxic chemicals were very good with great talks from Tim Swager (MIT), Mike Sailor, (UCSD) and several energetic post-docs from the Naval Research Labs. There's lots that ACS could be doing to get with the times but I fear the management is too comfortable and too removed from reality to get the message.

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11. Joe on October 25, 2010 3:05 PM writes...

This is well-trodden territory for acolytes of Edward Tufte. He favors (as Mat suggests) handing out an illustrated text not unlike a journal article to the audience prior to the presentation. Unfortunately, we've become so beholden to the tyranny of powerpoint that I worry if I did this in a presentation to a review committee at my company, I'd be fired. What to do?

As for scientific conferences, if you want to have an interactive discussion, go to a small conference. We shouldn't expect any international meetings with >10,000 attendees to be anything other than what they are.

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12. CR on October 25, 2010 3:33 PM writes...

Nobody should even think about handing out a paper version of the presentation - what an absolute waste of resources (printing, trees, etc).

To Joe--why would you "hand out" a copy of your presentation to a review committee at your company when you could just send an electronic copy beforehand?

I've given many, many presentations to review committees at my previous big pharma employer and each time the committee had my presentation (and background) prior to me presenting so that there were many questions already in the queue.

So why would you be fired by giving the committee information for them to "review" prior to the review? That might be a clue as to how well that committee functions...

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13. skatesailor on October 25, 2010 4:42 PM writes...

@ emjeff: Like molecular biology, immunology is the science of creating, translating,transposing, and destroying acronyms in one or more slides. I once asked a practitioner what form of matter one of his subalphabets represented -- a protein, for example -- and he did not know.

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14. Mat Todd on October 25, 2010 7:14 PM writes...

@8 - I totally agree. In the post I hinted at this: "[at unconferences] There are no conference proceedings, and since you don’t actually present a series of slides, there’s nothing to put on your CV"

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15. Anonymous on October 26, 2010 7:23 AM writes...

I hadn't realised how the SciFoo meeting was organised, and I must say I'm impressed it sounds superb. Over the last couple of years I've been attending both the big MRS and ACS meetings and have been disappointed. As Thomas said, there are undoubtedly a few good sessions, but sadly these are 'drowned' out by the rest (ie the vast majority).

One incident sums this up perfectly for me. I made a real effort to get to a session pretty much directly from the plane at one MRS. When I arrived (hot, bothered and jet-lagged) I was greeted by about 10 people sat in a massive room listening to the first presentation. I snuck in, sat down near the back. 2 seconds later I regretted that decision as a chap sat ~3 metres away was snoring. Very loudly. I felt this was pretty damn rude, so woke him up and let him know he was snoring. It was only after listening to the presentation for 2 minutes myself that I realised why he'd fallen asleep.

I found this experience very depressing. The presentation style was awful, the attendance was awful, the science was mediocre. Surely it should be better than this?

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16. Virgil on October 26, 2010 9:55 AM writes...

One of our best faculty recruiting tools (large private university) is the "Chalk Talk". The logic goes that any dumb monkey from a decent lab can string together a powerpoint talk. What really sorts the wheat from the chaff, is an unscripted hour in front of a chalkboard (actually its a whiteboard), no notes allowed, no laptops allowed, to discuss your future research and what you find exciting. Many people who give an excellent powerpoint simply fall to pieces on this simple task. The ones who do well tend to have clear ideas and be good communicators, and make strong faculty members.

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17. Virgil on October 26, 2010 9:57 AM writes...

One of our best faculty recruiting tools (large private university) is the "Chalk Talk". The logic goes that any dumb monkey from a decent lab can string together a powerpoint talk. What really sorts the wheat from the chaff, is an unscripted hour in front of a chalkboard (actually its a whiteboard), no notes allowed, no laptops allowed, to discuss your future research and what you find exciting. Many people who give an excellent powerpoint simply fall to pieces on this simple task. The ones who do well tend to have clear ideas and be good communicators, and make strong faculty members.

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18. bluefoot on October 27, 2010 10:49 AM writes...

One of my favorite interviews ended up being almost entirely in front of a whiteboard, both describing my work (and its problems) and showing how I'd design an experiment to solve a problem posed to me by my potential future boss. It ended up a brainstorming session. They got to see what I know, and I got to see how well I'd work with them. Win-win all around.

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