Anyone who has been following my posts knows that I have a huge weakness for sci-fi and science, and if someone was to marry the two of those together, I’d be there immediately. Especially if it involved Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars or Middle Earth.
Well, it happened.
The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is currently hosting Star Wars: Identities. Star Wars: Identities is a travelling exhibit that highlights human development using the mythos of the Star Wars universe. I had been keeping an eye on this exhibit as a few years ago I had been to the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit in Montreal, which was excellent, and the same organization (X3 Productions) was responsible for this one. And when I found out they were using Star Wars to teach people about psychology, I knew I had to go.
You see, we all have questions about how and why people turn out the way they do. Even people raised under the same roof can have wildly disparate personalities, and can view the world through very different lenses. The exhibit highlights the difference between Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and how, despite coming from the same planet and having (similar) genetic makeup, their lives take two very different trajectories based on their experiences and the environments they are exposed to.
Public speaking is something that terrifies many people, and is one of the most common fears people have. The combination of nervousness, wondering if people will understand you and finally just having everyone focused on you is not a relaxing experience.
As adults who have passed their early twenties, there are two places you’ll be invited to speak: At a wedding, or at conferences. Both are high stress situations. In both cases, you’ve been selected to talk to a group of people you’re unfamiliar with. But, despite their superficial differences, they have a lot in common. To aid you with your next wedding toast/academic presentation, I’ve come up with the following five tips.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #1: Be brief
How much time do you have? 10 minutes? Cut off two minutes. Always aim to be shorter rather than longer. Three key reasons why: 1) This gives you a few minutes as a cushion in case you lose your train of thought/start crying, 2 ) if the moderator holds up signs when you have 2 minutes to go, you know that you’ll be done before then (wedding analogue: when the MC starts edging towards you slowly) and 3) you’re less likely to lose people’s attention if you’re short. Keep things short, keep things precise. Get up, make your point, sit down.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #2: Be prepared
I once heard that the best public speakers aren’t naturally gifted; they’re the best prepared. Run through your talk multiple times before to ensure that you have your timing down. Be comfortable with your talk. Present to your friends and get them to critique you – does your talk make sense? Is the pacing okay? Read it out loud to yourself to see how it flows. These are all structural problems that can be fixed before your talk and will help you wow your audience.
Now, there are exceptions to this. Bill Clinton adlibbed a large chunk of his speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and it was well recieved. However, not only is he a talented speaker, he has also spent years perfecting this skill. Your best friend’s wedding is not the place to practice. Practice takes time and effort. You may have to start working on your presentation further in advance to ensure you have it done and have enough time to rehearse. No more last minute presentations. But that’s the difference between the presenter who gets up there and looks professional, in control, and organized and the presenter who gets up there and says “Oh. I didn’t know this slide was coming up next.”
Wedding/Presentation Tip #3: Know your audience
If your talking at a wedding and you know the in-laws are very conservative/religious, you have to tone down your jokes to be appropriate. Similarly, if you’re giving a talk to a room full of students, or researchers in your field, or the general public, you have to change your talk accordingly. Know your audience and what their background is when preparing your talk. For weddings this means introduce yourself and your relationship with the couple as not everyone knows you and ensuring you add enough backstory to your speech so that you don’t lose your audience. For academic presentations, take a step back and start by explaining your research in broad terms, rather than jumping directly into the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #4: Inside jokes/Jargon
One of the worst things to hear at a wedding is 10 minutes of insides jokes that no one else in understands. No one wants to hear you drone on about that one time you guys had a burrito at 3am. Analogously, no one wants to hear a sentence full of acronyms at a presentation. However, this does play into point #3 – if the audience is one that knows the jargon in your field (at which it’s no longer jargon), then you’re fine. But if the audience is not, then avoid any unnecessary technical language, or if you do use it, make sure you define it clearly up front. KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #5: Enjoy yourself
Have fun with it! If you know what you’re going to say, and if you have practiced that will go a long way to alleviating any stress you might be feeling leading up to the big day. Being prepared will allow you to have a presentation that feels comfortable and one that is true to you, and that confidence will come through in your demeanor, approach and body language. This isn’t something that will improve overnight, but with every talk you give, you’ll get better.
Good luck to you, and here’s hoping the lucky couple/your supervisors love your talk!
Last year, I had a chance to speak at TEDxQueensu (embedded above). My basic premise is this: Science is awesome, but science needs to do a better job of communicating that awesomeness to non-scientists. We’re sitting on the frontiers of human knowledge, and yet we cannot get others as excited about this issue that we’re very, very passionate about. It’s something I’ve touched upon within the world of science fiction, by having celebrity spokepeople for science and even by using humour to engage non-scientists. After reading up on inspirational leadership, I realized that the way we can communicate science more effectively is to cast off the typical way we view science for academic purposes (ie the peer reviewed manuscript/IMRaD) and consider it as part of a whole.
We need to tell the story of science – the background, ie. why your research happened, and then the consequences, ie. why your research matters. An academic presentation works very well when your audience knows the background to the area, but when talking to non-scientists, or even those outside of your immediate area of study, you have to take a step back and tell them why the research even matters before delving into your specific study.
Those of you who know PLOS know that PLOS is a big advocate of Open Access – making research and findings available to everyone. To support Open Access work, and to highlight innovative and creative uses of OA, PLOS recently announced the new Accelerating Science Award Program (ASAP), three $30,000 award aimed at highlighting three exceptional ways that individuals have used OA research in fields as diverse as science and medicine, technology or even at the societal level.
Nominees can be individuals, teams or cross-disciplinary groups – as long as the Program Rules are met, it’s all fair game! I wanted to highlight this award for our readers, as I’m sure there are some of you using OA research in innovative ways, and I strongly encourage all of you to consider nominating yourself (or others) for this award.
I also ask that you spread the word through your institutions, organizations and other connections – this is a great initiative and can help promote excellent Open Access work that is occurring worldwide.
The deadline for ASAP nominations is June 15, 2013, using an online form located on the ASAP website.
Some specific details about the award: The project/idea must be based on research articles or content published through Open Access before May 1st, 2013 in a peer-reviewed journal or in a repository recognized in the Open Access community. If the use results in a publication, the publication must be Open Access. For those interested, there are details available on the Program Rules.
From the ASAP FAQ, here are some examples. These are for illustrative purposes only and don’t refer to anyone in particular, and there are other projects that would fit the ASAP requirements. If you are unsure, you can contact ASAP[at]plos.org to check.
The health minister of a low income country was able to confidently and quickly change cancer treatment protocols based on an oncology research article detailing successful uses of a repurposed cancer drug published by a peer reviewed, Open Access journal, which had been translated into multiple languages by a group of retired language teachers.
A climate policy expert took original figures and examples from a recent Open Access climate change research paper — correlating temperature increases with rises in ocean depth — and repurposed these findings in a policy-focused presentation at a conference of experts from 25 Asian and Oceanic countries – leading to the adoption of stricter emissions standards by several participating countries.
A technologist used the APIs provided by Open Access publishers and aggregators to chart trending topics in environmental science research. He then mapped these research priorities against NSF and RCUK grants to show how grant monies impact what areas researchers pursue.
A team of bioinformatics researchers utilized tissue samples from an Open Access repository to obtain tumor DNA sequence abnormality data, which they repurposed to create a new web-based app for oncologists to analyze a new patient’s tumor cells – thus facilitating personalized cancer treatment.
I’m excited to see the nominees for this award, and I can’t wait to see how people have used OA research in new and creative ways. Good luck to all the nominees!
I’m a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy. There are few feelings quite as impressive as when an author crafts a world that draws you in (See: Arrakis, Middle Earth, Westeros, LV-246, Hogwarts etc). Perhaps what I find most fascinating though, is how quickly science fiction can turn into real life. For example, the tricorder from Star Trek was a fictional device that could scan different aspects of the environment depending on the requirement, ranging from geological, such as mineral content of rocks, to metereological, such as air pressure and temperature, to biological, such as heart rate and blood pressure. While this sounded like a great dream in the 1960s (when The Original Series aired), we’re now, within a single generation (pun *totally* intended), able to turn this into reality. The new Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, is slated to be released with a suite of health apps (dubbed S Health), including apps to measure heart rate, blood pressure as well as track caloric expenditure. Even things as simple as being able to communicate without needing a bulky cellphone have now become a reality.
As teachers and educators, we suffer from a very real limitation when it comes to teaching. Either due to time, lack of equipment or other constraints we cannot teach some issues the way we would like. But even in the most well-equipped lab, sometimes we can’t teach a concept because the technology doesn’t exist. In those situations, we can use outlandish examples to discuss a concept, and then work backwards from there to discuss the limitations we currently face, a concept called a Thought Experiment. By imagining a scenario, we can push the boundaries of our understanding, discussing the issue from a “what about if X happened,” or “Would Y still occur if A and B happened.” There are many types of thought experiments, and it means different things to different disciplines. I’m going to be using it to refer the use of a metaphor to explain a concept, which corresponds to the “prefactual” type of thought experiment, ie. what outcome would we expect if we had conditions A, B and C.
Think about the most recent message you heard on TV. If you’re like me and watch a lot of sports it probably had something to do with going “All in for Week 1.” Alternatively, maybe you’re thinking about Importing from Detroit. Or maybe you want to see a day in the life of LeBron’s Samsung Note II. But how often do we see effective marketing of public health messages?
When it comes to public health, how much time do we spend promoting our message? Perhaps the only “public health” messages people see relate to two things: 1) phamarceuticals (although this varies by region) and 2) seasonal vaccination programs. The way advertisers think about messaging is markedly different to the way public health professionals think and thus how we convey information. Rather than talk about how to “communicate a health risk” maybe we should think about how to “market a message.” It’s a simple, but seismic shift.
We exist in a strange society these days. Jenny McCarthy is viewed as an authority on vaccines and people listen to the opinions of Ben Affleck and Sean Penn when it comes to politics. Yet people who study and have dedicated their lives to these causes remain out of the limelight and hidden from the public. While everyone knows about celebrities who campaign on issues, how many people can name a researcher who study them? One problem facing scientists is the lack of communication between science and the public: we’re perceived as living in the ivory tower of academia and are totally out of touch, or worse, we’re in the pocket of Big Pharma/Food/The Umbrella Corporation/Evil Faceless Corporate Interest.
But in reality, scientists are just regular people with an interest in one specific part of our world, and we want nothing more than for everyone else to find out work as fascinating as we do. It’s something that Jorge Cham of PhD Comics discusses in his TEDxUCLA talk, where he highlights how he was hired to create a video (that you may have seen) about the Higgs Boson.
There’s a definite gap between scientists and the public, and three questions immediately come to mind: 1) Why do scientists not engage, 2) How can scientists engage and 3) How do we find a celebrity to endorse “science”?
My Grade 9 math teacher was a jolly British man, and probably taught me one of the most useful things I ever learnt in high school: how to do basic math in my head (or, since I was in the British educational system, it was Grammar School). Every so often we’d go into our math class and find little bits of paper on every desk. This was a harbinger of doom – it meant we were having a 20 question surprise quiz. And not just any quiz, a mental arithmetic quiz. He would read a question out loud twice, and then we’d have to do the math. He’d give us some leeway (you didn’t have to be exact), but man did I ever hate those quizzes. At the time, they seemed impractical and a colossal waste of time. In retrospect, they were incredibly useful.
Now, being on the other side of the divide, I see something that concerns me. I regularly TA undergraduate and graduate students in statistics, and I notice that many of them, while they have all the skills to do math, are absolutely terrified of it. And as soon as you fear a subject, or don’t want to learn it, you won’t. Your mind will shut down and every instinct you have will prevent you from engaging in the material. As a result, I spend the first hour of any class I’m teaching talking to the students and determining what it is they don’t understand to tailor my sessions accordingly. But the comments generally involve variations on:
“I just don’t get math.”
“I’ve never been any good at math.”
“I don’t like it.”
Of these, the first two concern me. The third I can’t help – I don’t need my students to love math, but I do want them to understand enough to pass the course and feel comfortable interpreting statistical analyses. There’s a culture among schoolkids to dislike math and the perception that it’s largely useless. While in chemistry you can see stuff blow up, and in biology you can dissect animals, math is a largely abstract concept. That perception then manifests as a lack of interest, which results in poorer performance, and that puts people off math.
Science has an awkward relationship with the public. There’s a perception that we exist in an ivory tower, and the common media perception (as is evident by shows like The Big Bang Theory) is that we’re somewhat socially inept, with a lack of people skills and an inability to talk about our work in a way that others can understand.
So I was thrilled when #overlyhonestmethods became a thing. There have been many little science in-jokes floating around the twittersphere; one of my favourite was the hashtag #middleearthpublichealth which came out right before The Hobbit released in theatres. Tweets like “Craving the ‘Precious’: Gollum, a case study of the public health impact of severe ring addiction, Lancet 2010” abounded, and they illustrated public health rather nicely (for more, check out Brett Keller’s blogpost). However, they only catered to a niche audience: public health professionals, and public health professionals who got the Lord of the Rings references.