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.
Side Projects, The Blog!
A blog for all things non-dissertation.