I just came from a productive and fun lab meeting that involved everything from celebrating a labmate's research highlight, learning about python config files, talking about parallel evolution, eating pita chips, and hearing a fascinating story about how metapopulation sequencing was used to solve the 2001 anthrax mystery.
But aside from the pita chips, lab meetings vary from week to week and lab to lab. I have a small sample size, -- and this Ph.D. Comic is part of that sample -- so I made a poll (choose up to 3):
My objective for this post is to address the presenter's block voice that cries out "Nothing to present!" and seems to happen to many grad students in the week leading up to lab meetings and other informal presentations. (At MSU, these include BEACON, MMG's GSW, and the "Bad Bug Club.") I hope these ideas will encourage optimism and confidence, which make us better scientists and help us feel better as people.
I like Dynamic Ecology’s list of lab meeting ideas, especially popcorn meetings, ethics, elevator pitches, non-academic careers, the publishing process, and classic papers. I also like round tables and in-depth research discussions. For cultivating lab culture -- no, not E. coli -- during lab meetings, this short guide from Lena Ting has useful tips.
Here are topics that I think work well when one person is in charge of presenting or leading a discussion:
New literature: Presenting a paper is a great way to get some presentation practice, try out assertion-evidence slide design, and/or to begin thinking about a new research area. I’ve seen this method used in at least one journal club, a lab group I’ve been part of, and two of my ecology courses.
Paper/proposal drafts: I like the idea of sharing progress on written work, but I don't think that group reading sessions are the most efficient way to communicate. Instead, I suggest turning a written proposal into an oral presentation, using figures of previously published work, diagrams of experiments, hypothetical results, etc. For manuscripts, consider making a conceptual diagram or graphical abstract that summarizes your findings.
Everyday results: These include what’s working and what isn’t working. They include protocol development, preliminary results, surprising observations, and many other things. Even if I haven’t stepped in lab yet, I may have new insights from a BLAST search or genome alignment. Some of my projects have started with simple observations, like some phage genotypes decaying faster than others during stock storage. I may or may not have an interpretation for these types of observations yet, nor a clear idea of how they might turn into an avenue of research, but I can usually come up with a couple of concrete ideas to start a discussion. Also, scientists (your labmates) like weird results and puzzles.
Experimental design: There are times I wish I had sat down for 30 minutes to plan out my approach for lab work or computing and then run my plan by my lab group. Best-case scenario: the plan is sound and the lab agrees. Another great scenario: There are ways the plan could be better, and the lab catches them before I waste a lot of time.
Practice talks: My first practice talk was to be my first committee meeting presentation. The practice round didn’t go well, mostly because I didn’t realize that the presentation should be a well-organized narrative, not just bits and pieces of data and ideas. But, I took the feedback from my lab and flipped the presentation, resulting in a happy committee and my P.I. noting that I did a great job during the quick revision process.
Practice (parts of) talks: I also think it’s great to begin practicing parts of talks – for example, by preparing two or three intro slides for whatever bits of research-in-progress data you might have.
Side projects and course projects: Research is research, whether it's a main dish, side, or snack. My program has several courses that involve independent research projects. In one, I reanalyzed data from a previous publication from the lab. In another, I made an analytical model of host-parasite interactions. When I'm unsure whether or how these types of projects could be further developed and published, I consider them good candidate topics for lab meeting.
Computation demo: Labmates have shared demos of useful tools, including Github and software developed internally. I think this works well for tools in development, as it's an easy way to get feedback on features, priorities, tips on how to code something, and volunteers to help review. That lab meeting I mentioned at the top of this post was one of these.
Research results: If the above practices work and we do ours, eventually we end up with results. These likely include the final outcome of a well-developed protocol with a well-planned experiment. Even at this point, there’s work to do. Maybe the results could be represented in different graphical form, interpreted in another way, or put in the context of the literature -- that’s where your labmates are again useful.
Overall, I think it’s probably pretty rare when we have absolutely nothing to present, or that we have nothing interesting we could come up with to turn into an informal oral presentation. I suggest envisioning what you see as a successful lab meeting, trying not to worry about whether X, Y, and Z are enough or whether you'll be able to fill 90 minutes (or whatever amount of time your meetings usually run). In my experience, less can be more, except in the case of pita chips.
While preparing for my department's Hsiung-Kimball award seminar, I learned a lot about the award’s two namesake scientists. Inspired by their stories, I share them here.
Dr. Gueh-Djen (Edith) Hsiung (1918-2006) and Dr. Margaret Everett Kimball (1924-2011) attended Michigan State University together in the late 1940s. The Hsiung-Kimball award was endowed by Hsiung, who named the it for Kimball and her family. The two women were friends and roommates during their time at State, ~1947-1951, and their careers highlight biology’s 20th century triumph over infectious disease.
I found Dr. Hsiung's obituary from Yale, where she spent most of her career on the faculty as a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine. As far as obituaries go, it’s the most lively and inspiring one I’ve read. Here's an excerpt with one of my favorite stories about Dr. Hsiung, a vaccine, and a goat:
“Gueh-Djen (Edith) Hsiung, an internationally recognized virologist and professor emeritus of laboratory medicine, died of cancer on Aug. 20 at Connecticut Hospice in Branford. She was 87.
I had only 10 minutes for my awards seminar, but I took a minute to share the great goat story and highlight Dr. Hsiung's career. After all, she graduated with Ph.D. in microbiology, from MSU (the degree I'm seeking) in 1951, which was the year Ester Lederberg discovered virus phage Lambda (my Ph.D. study organism) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where I earned my undergrad degree), making the award especially meaningful to me. And, the audience loved the goat.
The other half of the award’s namesake is Dr. Kimball, who graduated from MSU in 1949 with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. She went on to test cattle for tuberculosis across the state of Michigan, practice veterinary medicine, and work as a meat processing plant inspector. She also made it to all 50 states! The MMG website says that “Dr. Kimball's family hosted Dr. Hsiung during her graduate career, and the two became close friends,” and Dr. Kimball’s obituary specifically mentions a trip to China with Dr. Hsiung, so it seems the friendship was a long and meaningful one.
I’d love more details about Hsiung and Kimball’s friendship, perhaps because as I’m mid-grad school myself and have a hunch that grad school friendships are much the same now as they were 70 years ago. I would guess that then, as now, the academic environment forges lifelong friendships. Did these women talk about their research and emerging diseases over drinks? Did they review one another’s manuscripts? Did they go on autumn walks through the Baker woodlot? Did they celebrate with dinners out when they had a success?
Maybe friends or family of Dr. Hsiung and Dr. Kimball will have stories or pictures to share. As I write my thank-you letter simply to “whom it may concern,” I would guess that some of those people include Dr. Hsiung’s nieces and nephews and their children, as well as Dr. Kimball’s children and their children. To all of you: your aunt and mother were two cool women I look up to and gain inspiration of as I walk across Michigan State’s campus today. Thank you for the award named in their honor!
Arrowsmith: The Classic Microbiologist Hero
Arrowsmith (Sinclair Lewis, 1925) tells the story of an academic microbiologist and his research in early 20th-century middle America. The tale contains one of my favorite passages of academic fiction, encompassing math, imposter syndrome, late nights, and friendship all against a backdrop of phage research. I thought of this passage often as I relearned calculus in graduate school, coded differential equations into Mathematica, and read phage modeling papers. In the story (excerpt abridged below), Max Gottlieb is the senior scientist (think PI), Martin Arrowsmith is the new scientist (think grad student/postdoc/associate professor), and Terry Wickett is the guy working down the hall.
I share these quotes here for educational use, mostly to encourage those of us going through similar challenges. Behold the new scientist grappling with math and imposter syndrome while trying to invent phage therapy and making a friend along the way...
Gottlieb observed, “Martin, I haf taken the privilege of talking you over with Terry, and we concluded that you haf done well enough now so it is time you stop puttering and go to work.”
Side Projects, The Blog!
A blog for all things non-dissertation.