We're a little crazy, about science!

Presentations in a pandemic

Today was the first in person presentation I’ve done in years. Literally years thanks to the pandemic. I’ve been avoiding large gatherings and will continue to do so, but this was a special case since it was a hospital event. We’re all vaccinated, masks were required, and we were distanced in a well ventilated area, so it was the first time I’ve really felt comfortable attending an event like that. Before we get into the talk, let me just say it feels weird wearing dress clothes for the first time in years. I don’t know that I mind the sweatpants lifestyle so much (okay I definitely don’t mind it), but it was fun to mix it up a bit and shave, which I also stopped doing since the pandemic because, why not?

A lot has changed in two years, luckily my dress clothes size has not changed. It was an honest worry, you hang up clothes for a long time and they shrink. It’s a known science proven phenomenon. For the first year of the pandemic I thought it would be funny to grow my hair out. I didn’t shave or cut my hair and it was good for a laugh as time went on, but one day I had to get a replacement hospital ID and suddenly it wasn’t so funny. I mean it was fine I guess, I just have a commemorative badge marking the occasion. The next day I cut my hair and trimmed my beard and since then I’ve kept it short, but didn’t do anything fancy. Today was the first time I pulled out a razor and I don’t really miss it. Side note, I absolutely hate hair, if I could magically remove all the hair from my body I would, but I can’t. I would shave regularly, but my life feels stressful enough so I trim my facial hair once a week and call it good. I’ve learned that it’s the little things that you do (or in this case don’t do) that help you survive.

So let’s talk about the talk. Being around people like that felt very alien to me. Since the pandemic hit I’ve avoided people and going out like the… well, plague. I wouldn’t say I love public speaking, but I don’t hate it. I’m not normally a nervous speaker, but man did my nerves get the best of me today. I was told after the fact that it went well by the people that spoke to me about it afterwards, but I know for a fact I was shaking as I was going, which was a first for me. Guess I’m a little out of practice.

For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, I was awarded a three minute presentation slot (here). There were roughly 60 or so posters and 20(ish) talks so it was (to me anyway) surprisingly competitive. I had assumed if you wanted a presentation slot you would get it, but that turned out not to be the case based on what everyone was saying. I have a very fancy (no it really is fancy) award certificate to commemorate the fact that I was selected, which was kind of cool.

If you’re about to give a talk yourself or you are interested to hear how I structure mine, it’s pretty straightforward. In my opinion people use their time wrong, mostly. You’re given a chance to sell people on your work so they will come visit your poster, not give a three minute breakdown of everything you’ve been doing. There just isn’t enough time to give context to the work you’re doing so talks that get too technical leave everyone else who’s not in the field outside wondering what you’re saying. That was the case for at least a small handful of the talks that I saw.

For me, when I give a talk I try to focus more on the problem. I want people to care about what I’m doing. They don’t need to see that I care about it, I’m doing the work so it’s obvious that I care. Instead I spend the first minute or so making sure they know why they should care. The second minute of my talk was devoted to how we solved the problem (IE, the experimental setup). Then the last minute was dedicated to some of the results. A select portion of results was shown, I explained why the results were important, then finish with a, “to find out more visit poster XX.”

Easy, or at least it would’ve been if I hadn’t been so nervous. The first minute went smoothly, but I stumbled on the transition to what we did and why it was important. I recovered a bit, but I sort of lost the momentum midway. Apparently I still sounded confident, so that was good and at least that didn’t go too horribly, but that’s how these things go sometimes. We didn’t get judged on the talk or anything, it was just supposed to be fun and I really enjoyed it (despite the anxiety, which I still can’t figure out why I was so anxious). I had a few laughs and the entire group got to see the cool projects I get to do.

In fact one of the people who was in the audience really liked my talk and wants to work in our lab now, so that’s a win in my book. They were working on a tangentially related project in an animal model and much like me before I made the jump to the hospital, felt like the work they were doing wasn’t going to help soon/at all, so they wanted to move to a clinical setting. They asked me a bunch of questions, I explained what it’s like working with people, it was great.

Our lab is hiring a couple of postdocs and while they are fourth year like me, they still wanted to build a connection. It was good too because I got to brag about hospital-PI, which I did. Despite the drama with my three-PI’s (three now, I mean come on…) they are all amazing so when someone wants to work with one of them I let them know it’s a good choice.

So yeah, besides having to get up far too early, it wasn’t a bad day. I’ll be happy when the pandemic ends — and I really do hope we can get our shit together long enough that it does end — but it was nice to have a safe, scaled down version of our normal conferences. It will probably be the last one I attend for awhile (stupid pandemic), but I feel good about the choice to go and I’m happy with how they took the proper precautions (like several reminders to keep masks on during the event, not that I saw anyone without one, but it did feel nice that they cared enough to remind people).

Oh quick reminder that yes I’m vaccinated, so I’m probably safe, probably (technically I’m high risk) if I caught COVID. However, I work with a very vulnerable population and if it was just me and didn’t care if I died because I was being stupid I wouldn’t be so stressed out about not getting sick. That’s not the case though and if I caught it and passed it to one of our participants I would be very upset with myself. It’s sad that line of thinking doesn’t seem to be the default considering how many people you need to interact with on the average day.


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