The supporting cast

A PhD is, by definition, a lonely endeavour. My fellow students and I were taught the fundamentals of team work as part of our transferable skills training, only for one academic to comment that for a career in academia, they would have been better teaching you how to pretend to get on with each other and then turn around and stab each other in the back. You might be lucky enough to progress without any backstabbing. Nonetheless, when you pass the unofficial but significant milestone which is the moment when you come to realise that you know more about your topic than your supervisor, working life can become isolating very quickly indeed.

Because a PhD is to a large extent a solo journey, it is immensely helpful to have a support network around you. I had a great relationship with my supervisor, but for day-to-day support I remain indebted to my office-mates, with whom I shared an office with no windows for a large part of my PhD. We had this PhD comic stuck to the door.

Happening Outside

I’ve already thanked the folks at Occam’s T and beyond for their support whilst I was studying. As a computer-based researcher, sometimes social networks felt like a lifeline. I was chastised by my non-research friends for having my twitter client running in the background, and I did have to turn it off from time to time. But there is a substantial community of bioinformatics and statistics researchers on twitter, and somehow their background chat did make me feel less alone. Not to mention the more than one occasion I called on them for emergency help:

Solving problems using Twitter

Recent PhD graduates, in my own department and elsewhere, were immensely sympathetic when my motivation dwindled. The ones who smiled at the memory and reminisced oh, I quite enjoyed my PhD I found less helpful, but each to their own. Befriend the non-reserach staff, too, as they have seen it all before. One ran into me in my second year and commented

You’re in your second year now? Let me see…in the first year, you don’t have a clue what’s going on; in the second year, nothing works, and in the third year…you write up! 

Which proved remarkable prescient. I often recalled these words.

Beyond academia, I must thank my family, who were endlessly supportive, reassuring, and encouraging – and occasionally baffled: you don’t have to put yourself through this, you know. And my friends from outside of university were very patient when they asked how I was only for me to reply, for the third or fourth time in as many meetings, don’t do a PhD. When I received an invitation to our ten-years-since-we-left-school reunion, a few weeks before I submitted the thesis, I refused to buy a ticket until after the viva:

High School Reunion

At the reunion itself, I did proudly tell my old maths teacher that I was now Dr Cule. And my biology teacher was himself a PhD, so we reminisced about the trials of the process. Whilst the technologies have changed, the challenges of doctoral research seem to be remarkably robust over time.

Doing something as all-consuming as a PhD affects one’s relationships. When the boy held my hair back as I vomited into the toilet bowl of PhD depression, mopped up my tears, and passed me a glass of wine, I wondered whether any professional qualification would be this tough on a partnership. Does becoming a (medical) doctor, or a lawyer, or an accountant or an actuary or a teacher, draw its students in in such an emotional fashion? I often tell people that my doing a PhD was okay, because the boy was starting his own business, so we were both very busy. If one of us was working, the other wasn’t resentful – chances are, they were working too. It was during this time that I came up with the idea for the dedication page.

So I want to say is whilst the research is lonely, the rest of PhD life doesn’t have to be. I drew heavily on my support networks and I find it difficult to know how to thank you all.

Thanking the boy was easy though. We will marry in December. For Occam’s Typewriter, 2013 is turning out to be a good year.

Posted in Fun, Life, PhD | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Margaret McCartney at Skeptics in the Pub

xkcd 1131

Back in 2009, Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, said in an interview

I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians.

More recently, his review of Nate Silver‘s The Signal and the Noise, Larry Wasserman explained

I used to tell people at parties that I am an oil-fire fighter. Now I’ll say: “I’m a statistician. You know. Like that guy Nate Silver.”

If being a statistician makes you sexy, then surely someone who takes an interest in statistics and saves peoples lives as part of her job can assume she has a certain cachet. Earlier this year, I saw Dr Margaret McCartney, Glaswegian GP and outspoken proponent of evidence-based medicine, at Skeptics in the Pub.

Margaret McCartney

Margaret McCartney

I read Dr McCartney’s book The Patient Paradox: Why sexed-up medicine is bad for your health soon after it was published last year. What impressed me about this book extended beyond eye-opening examples such as Edwina Currie’s admission that breast screening was attractive in political terms, with scant understanding of the impact of screening on the women pressured into undergoing it. Any sophisticated discussion of the benefits and costs of screening processes must incorporate some discussion of the numbers. Concepts such as sensitivity and specificity, statistical power, and false-positive and false-negative rates have the potential to confuse readers. But unlike some other popular science authors, Dr McCartney does not shy away from these ideas nor apologise to the reader for discussing them. Important concepts are presented using sometimes counter-intuitive examples to illustrate the impact on patients.
The Patient Paradox

Available from all good bookshops, or from the publisher’s website

If you have a chance to see Dr McCartney speak, then do. (If you don’t, then read the book.) Her talk at SITP included some material from the book. There were some updates that have arisen since the book was published, such as her thoughts on this emotive advertising campaign.

Importantly, Dr McCartney presented, the website she and some fellow doctors launched last October. The site was set up out of concern: the doctors view advertisements promoting private screening tests in the UK as unfair to those reading them. You can read why here. If you or anyone you know are thinking of paying for private screening tests, this website is a useful resource. The site was recently awarded a Good Thinking Society grant.

Compared to the book, the talk at SITP included somewhat more beer, and a lot more swearing. The talk was funny and engaging, and she handled insistent SITP hecklers with aplomb. An in-person explanation clarified several concepts for me, including the difference between screening and diagnostic tests, which I had not really thought about before.

In a discussion about risk with my GP, I mentioned Dr McCartney’s book. At my next visit, my GP said that they had read it, and now recommends to the trainee GPs at the practice. Doctors make decisions based on risk on a daily basis. If both doctors and their patients can become better acquainted with the harms as well as the benefits associated with screening, this knowledge will enable them to make more informed decisions about their health care.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment


Last week:

The ever-helpful @ crew are giving @ viva (thesis defense) tips & anecdotes via email. Hope we haven’t scared her too much…
Cath Ennis

@ @ @ vodka and red trousers. You know it makes sense.
Cath Ennis

Today: passed, with minor corrections. Although without vodka or red trousers.

Thanks again, guys.

Posted in Fun, Life, PhD | 8 Comments

Science Online 2013 without the carbon footprint


Science Online 2013 kicked off yesterday in North Carolina.

For those of us who are not able to make it to the conference in person, watch parties the world over facilitate virtual attendance. In the UK, Eva Amsen and I are co-hosting the London Science Online 2013 Watch Party this Saturday, 2nd February.

It’s going to be as good as being there. We’ve got a great day planned. All our events take place in and around South Kensington, with the Watch Party itself being held at Imperial College Union. The day will kick off with some fringe events of our own. We will start with a visit to the Turing exhibition at the Science Museum:

After touring Turning, before the Watch Party, we plan to have a group late lunch.

We have an awesome venue for the watch party itself, thanks to the kind folks at Imperial Cinema

Imperial College Cinema

We will try to move the dancers out of the way

…who are also handling AV for us.


You want to watch what???

During the Watch Party, we will watch and discuss some time-shifted sessions that were recorded live. We are taking a vote on which of these pre-recorded talks to watch. When you sign up for the Watch Party, do not forget to vote for the session that interests you the most. Mid-watch-party, We will link up live with conference attendees Laura and Lou for a live Q & A. If you are at the conference and want to chat to us too, get in touch with Laura as we’d love to say Hi!

It’s not too late to register for the London Watch Party. If you have any questions about the Watch Party, send us a tweet and we will help you out.

Spread the word, and we will see you there!

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Sacrifice and Submission

Narratives of sacrifice are woven into many stories about research. Nobel laureate Dr Barry Marshall famously drank a culture of Helicobacter pylori in order to demonstrate that the bacterium is indeed the causative agent of stomach ulcers. Closer to my home, one colleague who is now a postdoc took to sleeping in his office during the closing weeks of his PhD study:

I borrowed one of the benches from the common room to sleep on.

These two anecdotes, and a number of other urban myths, propagate a seductive culture of “more is better” when it comes to the hours scientists put in and the days we dedicate to our research. In science, commitment is a prerequisite for success, but notoriety might be obtained through extremes of dedication.

PhD students in particular might complain about or joke about their workload, describing their punishing schedules.

PhD comics

For most of the duration of the PhD, despite the demands of a doctorate, I found it possible to maintain a sense of balance. I made an effort to continue with my hobbies and to keep in touch with my friends, who were a real source of both support and perspective. I am glad that I made this effort. But despite the importance of life in the work-life balance, I did feel troubled by a persistent sense that I was not working quite hard enough.

Having declared that doing a PhD does not have to mean three solid years locked in a garret, despite war-stories that might suggest otherwise, I did find that, sometimes, needs must. One colleague declare that he wrote up his PhD

in two months, but I don’t think I washed, slept or ate during that time.

Fortunately, for my office-mates, I started writing up sooner. During my writing-up stage I did at least had time to wash, if not to do a lot else that was not thesis-related. Of the many nuggets of advice I have been given over the past three years of my PhD, one which sticks with me is that, overall, a sense of balance is important to prevent burnout. But that sometimes, and not all the time, but just sometimes, you have to throw the concept of work-life balance out of the window and just knuckle down and work. Having emphasised the importance of work-life balance above, If any time during your PhD falls into this category, surely it is the run-up to submission of your thesis. During that time, the world beyond my work routine became difficult to imagine:

In the fortnight that has passed since I submitted, I have rediscovered rooibos tea, and sleep, and I have reconnected with friends and family. I have also started a new job, moved house, and somehow become embroiled in the organisation of the London Watch Party for Science Online 2013, which I am organising with Eva.

My examiners have received their copies of my thesis, and I have my copy to re-read. The viva has been scheduled. I am grateful to everyone in the Science Blogosphere who has helped me to get this far.

Bob O'Hara introducing Blogging the PhD

Bob O’Hara introduced Blogging the PhD to the readers of This Scientific Life when Occam’s T launched.

The below is an excerpt from the acknowledgements page of my thesis. Sincerely, guys: you made it much more fun. Thanks for all the cheers.

Thank you, OT.

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Impressions of ASHG 2012

Whilst most of the science blogosphere my science blogging colleagues were getting stuck in to Science Online London 2012, I was at the closing plenary of the 62nd meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. If solo12 is the home of science online in London, ASHG2012 was an example of science online in action: the use of social media to share and discuss cutting-edge genetics research.

ASHG 2012 app

The ASHG 2012 app contains the conference program and schedule, together with abstracts of all posters and talks.

Chris Gunter, @girlscientist, is a member of the ASHG 2012 Program Committee and chair of the ASHG Communications Committee. It is thanks to her drive that the infrastructure was in place for social media to be used to enhance the experience of the conference, both for attendees and for those who could not make it in person. The conference program detailed social media guidelines. Presentations were tweetable and shareable unless the speaker requested otherwise, and the conference hashtag, #ASHG2012, was a source of summaries of talks as they were delivered. Early in the conference, Daniel MacArthur, @dgmacarthur, tweeted his ten guidelines for tweeting at conferences. A social media workshop formed part of the program.

The conference app contains the schedule together with poster and presentation abstracts and space for taking notes. This was useful for planning and navigating a busy week. The Society twitter feed, @GeneticsSociety, kept attendees updated with program highlights and any changes, although it was not flawless and confused jetlagged geneticists further by tweeting to kick off the closing plenary in the wee small hours of the morning, in error.

ASHG scheduling mishap

Lesson: when scheduling tweets, use the twenty-four hour clock.

Mishaps aside, social media was a definite presence at this meeting, from the tweetup on the first night to the crowdsourced questions to the panel at the closing plenary. I hope that social medial continues to be integrated into future meetings, both at ASHG and beyond.

Registration count at ASHG 2012

The numbers crept up over the course of the week

The ASHG meeting is vast. This 62nd meeting was bigger by a factor of fifteen than the largest meeting I had attended previously. Registrants topped out at nearly seven thousand, a small town’s worth of geneticists and several hundred companies represented. As is often then way with conferences the highlights for me were the people I met. The quality of the talks was high, and the organisation of the conference was slick. I attended a variety of sessions.

Umbrella bag stand at ASHG

The Moscone Conference Centre catered to delegates’ every need. Wet mini umbrella bags appeared in the lobby as soon as it started to rain.

The data presented in the session on pharmacogenomics represented the first steps on the road towards personalised medicine. The session opened with a discuss of the topics of ancestry and genetic variation that I had discussed earlier in the meeting. Edward Ramos gave an overview, including a quotation found in a paper by him and his colleague Charles Rotimi, which forms a coherent answer to the debate that I took part in a few days before:

If we use genomic information correctly, we will simultaneously describe our similarities and differences without reaffirming old prejudices. More importantly, the careful unbiased study and interpretation of the human story coded in our DNA will enable us to appreciate the fact that individuals cannot be treated as a representative for all those who physically resemble them or who share some of their ancestry. The human genome is a mosaic of our experiences, past and present.

Cell colouring book

Yes, it is a Cell Colouring Book in the tradition of the anatomy colouring book aimed at medical students. With thanks to Cell Press for quality swag.

The session continued with a focus on clinical applications. Genetic mutations, often in drug-metabolising genes, can result in large variation in how patients react to a drug. A drug that is otherwise beneficial could cause severe side-effects, or even death, in patients carrying those mutations. Being able to identify the relevant variants means that dosage could be adjusted, or an alternative treatment found, for affected individuals. Examples were presented from a clinical trial where this principal was used to demonstrate that genotyping patients and giving tailored treatment advice reduced side effects in mutant individuals.

At ASHG2012’s closing plenary, attendees reflected on progress in human genetics research in recent years. Wordclouds of the abstracts presented at meetings past and present showed the subtle but meaningful shifts, for example from genome-wide association studies to whole genome sequencing. The meeting was summarised by a quotation that resonates with the research I have been doing as part of my PhD, and which implicitly describes the important challenges in human genetics research for for the coming years. As a statistical geneticist, I was reassured that I will be kept busy in the future. The meeting concluded:

Ability to identify variation is no longer the limiting step in our field.

Discarded posters after ASHG2012

Post-conference posters post-ASHG2012.

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An unexpected delight in the form of careers advice

Jenny Rohn's novel The Honest Look on sale at ASHG2012

Fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger
Jenny Rohn
‘s book on sale at ASHG 2012.

This week I am attending the 62nd meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics here in San Francisco. Being a PhD student, I registered for several of the events aimed at Trainees.

As well as attending talks, visiting posters, and blogger star spotting, I attended the Trainee-Mentor luncheon. This informal lunch was described as a “wonderful opportunity for trainees…to meet and talk…with senior members of Society about career options, goals, and professional opportunities.” As I will describe, the group of trainees I sat with touched on career options and goals only briefly. Instead, over lunch we were exposed to the value of informal, interdisciplinary discussion, which it became apparent is important to the society member who hosted us.

Attendees were provided with a box lunch and the room was laid out as 23 tables, each hosted by a senior member of ASHG. I was fashionably slightly late for lunch, and by the time I arrived whilst there were plenty of roast beef sandwiches to be had, the tables hosted by academics who listed my area, statistical genetics among their interests were fully occupied. Deciding to take pot luck, I took a vacant seat at table 22, where the host was introducing herself. The Interest Areas associated with this table were “genetics and race; ancestry; social issues and policy”.

As I took my seat, Charmaine Royal, Associate Research Professor in the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy and the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University, was introducing herself. Her web pages gives a brief biography, a paragraph that does not do justice to the colourful story that was weaved for us. Describing her career to date, Dr Royal described the difficult decisions she had faced as well as the chance opportunities she had been offered. It was interesting, and useful for those of us at the beginning of our careers to hear how she had combined her training with her own values and interests in order to carve out her own path.

After both Dr. Royal and the trainees seated at the table had introduced themselves, the floor table was thrown open for questions. Luca Pagani, registered in a PhD program at the Division of Biological AnthropologyUniversity of Cambridge UK opened the discussion by asking how he could usefully discuss the meaningful patters that he saw in the relationships between genetic markers and geographical or ancestral differences, when the concept of race was such a loaded one. This debate is at the core of Dr Royal’s work. At Duke, she teaches the course Race, Genomics and Society, so she was interested in what we had to say.

From Pagane et al 2012 AJHG

Genetic distances between Nilotic and Omotic Ethiopians (red star) and a set of worldwide populations (filled black circles).
From Pagani et al. (2012)

The discussion was robust loud passionate and lively. Each of us brought both our professional training and ourselves to the table. As a statistical geneticist, I was concerned about noisy data and about artefacts that introduce signal where there might be none, and about what we can meaningfully take from the results that we find. The results of Luca’s work have received press attention, and he has won the C. W. Cotterman Award here at ASHG2012 for his research. Congratulations Luca!. However, he was grappling with how best to present his science, in particular to the undergraduate students whom he supervised. Other trainees had backgrounds in ranging from genetics to social sciences and law, and we all had our points of view on how to discuss the intersection of ancestry, race and genetics.

All too soon we noticed that the room was clearing. In the throes of debate we had lost track of the time. Our luncheon had to come to a close – some trainees had posters to present that afternoon. One trainee pointed out that whilst the discussion had been great, the aim of the luncheon was to obtain careers advice, and we would appreciate what wisdom Dr Royal could bestow.

As is often the way with careers advice, Dr Royal’s suggestions were general. She emphasised how useful it was, for your own career and for the scientific endeavour, to take thorough training in one area and apply it to another. In her case a research background in genetics came with her to other areas such as bioethics. Among the trainees, a law student agreed that her previous studies, a degree in genetics, revealed the value of having a scientific perspective on the legal issues at stake. I recognised this student’s description of lawyers and scientists speaking as if in different languages. This perspective mirrors my own, as I brought my background in biochemistry with me as I moved to statistical genetics. I see both the rewards and the challenges, particularly surrounding communication, when statisticians and biologists work together.

I for one found this luncheon to be an unexpected delight. By joining researchers from diverse backgrounds I saw first-hand how much we all learnt in a brief hour of lively discussion. I would like to express my thanks to Dr Royal for giving her time to support trainees, and my fellow students and postdocs for being generous in sharing their knowledge and experiences. I would also like to encourage other trainees to seize opportunities like this, and to nudge any mentors who may be reading to consider offering their time in sessions like this. I had the impression that Dr Royal enjoyed her time with us as much as we did.

Posted in Life, PhD | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Listen while you work

I feel sorry for PhD students who prefer to work in silence. Most students (and postdocs) will be assigned a desk in a shared office. Lab-dwelling students cannot realistically expect a quiet working environment. Jenny describes the sounds of science:

Sounds in my lab right now: stir-bars tinkling, music playing, fume hood roaring, centrifuge just coming down from a fast spin
Jennifer L. Rohn

However, at your desk it is reasonable to expect to be able to concentrate amid the conversations, comings and goings that are inevitable even with the most considerate of colleagues. Fortunately (for me) I have always preferred working with background noise. I never mastered doing my homework in front of the television, but I did used to work with half an ear on the UK top 40 counting down as I finished my weekend assignments on a Sunday afternoon.

Sharing a busy office, it is easier to focus on my work without distractions by plugging myself into my headphones. After Sylvia tweeted her preferred music grant-writing album

Grant writin’ music Springsteen Nebraska – what do you listen to when writing? #curious
Sylvia McLain

I thought about my own listening and whether, too, prefer particular music for specific tasks. If I am working in the evening, I sometimes turn to classic FM to calm my mind and help me focus,  but during the day I prefer the idiosyncrasies of Radio 4 to keep me entertained. Podcasts are useful too, I have followed Simon Mayo’s film review show for a number of years, and can be caught barely suppressing laughter if I am listening to the Friday Night Comedy Podcast.  If I am feeling low, I have been known to seek comfort in the local radio station from my hometown. A number of science podcasts are available – see here for a somewhat outdated list, and here for a list with an emphasis on technology.

Do you prefer to work in silence (and if so, how do you deal with distractions)? If you do prefer to listen while you work, what do you choose to listen to?

Posted in Fun, PhD | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Londoners by Craig Taylor and the A to Z

I moved to London in 2005. After a few weeks living here I concluded that the two most useful things to give a new visitor to the capital would be an Oyster card and a London A to Z.

An Oyster card

An Oyster card

A battered London street map

My London street map

Now, having read it, I add to that list a copy of Criag Taylor‘s Londoners.

Craig Taylor's Londoners

This is the hardback, but the paperback is lighter to carry for reading on the Tube.

I moved to London in 2005. I had visited before, of course. I grew up in a commuter town about half an hour away by train.

Something that confounded me about my trips to London as a teen was that I would ask my dad, say,

Dad, I need to meet some friends at Kings Cross.

And he would say, well, that’s easy, take the Bakerloo line northbound, change at Oxford Circus for the Victoria Line.

He could do this for every journey. I was astounded. Did he really have the entire of that tube map, mapped out in his mind?

I was similarly shocked when, after an afternoon shopping with a friend and her brother, a Londoner, in Covent Garden, my friend and I decided to catch the train home. The brother started walking, and within twenty minutes we had crossed the bridge and were at the station. All those years, I had been buying my travel card, taking the tube, dutifully changing at Picadilly, when I could have strolled there above ground in just as much time. Something you don’t learn about London, until you spend a lot of time there, is how close to each other many of the central sights really are.

So when I moved to London, I bought my Oyster card, and my A to Z, and little by little I learnt the city myself. My well-loved London street map is now, sadly, used less frequently – for that we can thank online maps rather than my subliminal assimilation of The Knowledge. Nonetheless, my copy remains a history of my time in London. Far from maintaining it in pristine condition, I annotated it, scrawling in the margins when I looked up an address I was going to visit.

An excerpt from my London street map

Not everywhere I visited was as scholarly as this.

Over time, my map because a history of my time in the city. As I explored further, my annotations became helpful. They aided orienting myself in London’s sprawl – I could look up a new address and realise to my surprise that I had been somewhere a few streets away just a few months before.

In seven short years my map has become outdated. The Westfield shopping centre, for example, does not feature, and nor does the Olympic Park – at the time I moved to London, we had only just won the bid for the 2012 games.

London now

London then:
I wonder what happened to that racquet club?

London now

London now:
Map from

I was reminded of my now outdated map by Craig Taylor describing his arrival in London from his native Canada. He moved to London in 2000, and was given a copy of the map by a friend who had left the city:

I soon learned that for many the A-Z is an article of faith…Printed in the Nineties, my A-Z showed the demolished South Eastern Gas Works where the Millennium Dome now stands. Most A-Zs are half dead, because documenting a city as alive as London will be an impossible task.

The introduction to Londoners is the only extended passage of this book written in Taylor’s voice. The rest is a collection of interviews with Londoners past and present: born-and-bred Londoners and immigrants, visitors and those departing, from students to pensioners and all in between. Taylor interjects occasionally but most of the voices are their own, discussing, rambling, complaining and reminiscing.

What surprised me most was the number of comments that I identified with. The anonymity the city affords, and the extent to which it shapes its transient population, and they, in turn, shape each other. In living here, I have transformed, from tourist to Londoner. When I first moved to London, I lived in university halls of residence, and my local supermarket was on Tottenham Court Road! Like on the Monopoly board, and everything!

TCR now forms part of my commute. I am somewhat less enchanted.

I have come to realise that my dad’s mental map of the tube network was not complete. It covered the most frequent routes out of Waterloo. These days, my knowledge rivals his – I can keep track of a game of Mornington Crescent as well as anybody.

Taylor’s Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It might make a Londonophile* sentimental. In reading it, a stranger it will get a flavour of what it is to be a Londoner. The Olympics do get a mention in this book, but it is not an official London 2012 souvenir. However, I cannot think of a book that would make a better memento of the capital.


* You can find M@’s gushing praise for Londoners here.

Posted in Book Reviews, Fun, Life | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Talkin’ ’bout my PhD-work

Pete Townshend gave memorable performances. However I am not sure that smashing up my equipment would be a good idea.

Smashing up your equipment on stage (as done by Pete Townshend) is one way to make your performance memorable, but may not be recommended for academic presentations.

For many (most?) PhD students, there comes a time when they must present their work at a conference, meeting or workshop. The student may have already spoken about their work within their department, for example at a departmental seminar. I gave such a presentation as part of my MPhil-to-PhD-student status upgrade exam.

In April, my time came to give a talk outside of Imperial. The abstract I had submitted had been accepted at the 22nd Annual Workshop on Mathematical and Statistical Aspects of Molecular Biology (MASAMB 2012) in Berlin. In the pub with Stephen and Bob I disclosed how nervous I was. With their wealth of knowledge and experience on the subject of giving a talk, they were both reassuring. However I felt I needed some practical pointers on the presenting itself.

MASAMB 2012 Group Photo - where's Erika?

MASAMB 2012 Group Photo - where's Erika?

My brother, Ant Cule (Hi Ant!), has an MA in Theatre Directing from UEA, and now spends his time, among other things, doing stand-up comedy and directing undergraduates in award-winning productions. I figured he knew a thing or two about making a good impression in front of an audience. When I ran through my talk with Ant, his advice was so helpful, I wanted to share it here to aid other scientists preparing to present for the first time. If you also find Ant’s advice helpful, you can get in touch with him on Twitter – as well as helping me out, he has experience coaching presentation skills in a professional capacity.

Ant, you saw my talk, which was a typical scientific talk. It had an introduction, some methods, and then some results. Some of the most memorable scientific talks I have seen retained this structure but had the spirit of a performance about them. What tricks from theatre could someone presenting a factual talk use to make their talk more lively and hence memorable? (We’re not talking explosives or a costume-change here!)

It’s likely the most memorable scientific talks have had the ‘spirit of performance’ about them because they address the audience. This means making eye contact, asking questions, and giving the audience time to digest the information you’re giving them. I’ve found that performers, and particularly young students, try their best to forget the audience – to try and block out the fact that they’re on stage with everyone looking at them and listening to them.

Yes, this definitely sounds familiar!

Well, whilst this may seem a safe place to be, you must remember that an audience wants you to succeed. Why would they spend their money or time if they didn’t? So much of theatre seems to me to actively avoid acknowledging the existence of the people watching: etymologically, the word ‘audience’ has the same root as ‘audio’ – ‘audire’ meaning ‘to listen’, whereas ‘spectators’, for example at a sporting event, come from the Latin ‘spectare’ – to watch, same as ‘spectacles’. But, as far as I can see, there’s no getting away from the fact that a play is performed or a talk given in front of people, so why not acknowledge them?

That’s a good point – when preparing a talk I am so focused on how to best present my results that it is easy to forget the importance of the other participants at the presentation.

In terms of practical advice: if you have to have notes with you, make sure you don’t bury your head in them – look up and give your audience a smile. Move around, give them something to look at. You want them to engage with what you’re saying, so engage them. Generally an audience will want to work, to engage with you, but you can’t expect them to do all that work for themselves. You will be presenting material you’ve read, rehearsed and studied a trillion times, and in all likelihood it will have lost a lot of its sparkle for you. Remember, this is the first time your audience has heard or seen this particular material. Recall and reconnect with what it was that first drew you to the material. Find what it is that excites you about the material and share that with the audience. Connect with what you’re saying as you say it. As long as you’re interested you will be interesting (and this is an important distinction: be interested, but do not under any circumstances be interesting, it will invariably be tedious and painful). Let them take in every point: I know you will probably want to get it over and done with, but take your time. If you give off the impression you want to get it over and done with, you will give off the impression that what you’re saying isn’t worth taking in.

I think that most scientists will have seen their fair share of `tedious and painful’ talks, and you are right that one common feature of good talks is that the speaker is genuinely excited by their research.

Exactly! It is worth watching carefully what others do, and noting what works. You can feel when everyone in the room is hearing what is being said, and when everyone switches off.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing what’s safe. If everyone at the conference has started at the lectern, then start on the other side. Start in a chair. Start in the audience. Do whatever it takes to snap people out of ‘audience mode’ – sitting back in their chairs, tapping their feet, shuffling about. Audiences will only do this if you’re giving them what they’re used to. Cruel though it may seem, note when your peers bore you – look at what they’re doing, and don’t do it.

To conclude, remember there are people watching you, and they want you to succeed; stay interested in what you’re saying; take your time; watch others; and finally, don’t let them be an audience. Make them spectators.

I was very nervous about giving my first talk, as you saw when I ran through it. This had a big effect on my presenting style. What exercises can a nervous speaker use to prevent their anxieties from affecting the communication of their work?

When people are tense they usually hold their breath, and this impacts on the audience. Watch this example,  from one of my favourite movies, Jurassic Park, and see how the actors’ breathing has an effect on your own. (I’m told this is a family friendly blog – but this is still a tense scene!)

You can see how the manipulation of the actors’ breath heightens the tension.  At around the 23 second mark we get our first encounter with the humans, and note how as the camera pans to them they’re speaking in whispers, holding their breath and their shoulders are up.  If you pause on 29 seconds, you can see this especially in the young boy. At around 50 seconds the girl sees the velociraptors which is followed by a sharp intake of breath, which she doesn’t release.  Subconsciously audiences will tend to hold their breath with the girl, which heightens that indefinable sense of tension. As the scene goes on you can notice the actors only breathing being extremely shallow, particularly in close ups.  Your breathing will probably follow suit.  Note also, how the breath is released along with some of the tension at the 1:25 mark, when the raptor sweeps a load of cook-wear onto the kids.  Then the tension is ramped back up with the holding of breath, until it’s all released in the breathless climax of that scene – which is delivered through a series of screams, which are exhalations, and thus releasing the tension.

You are right – it’s very difficult to watch this scene without being caught up in it yourself. But, how can a speaker use this to their advantage? 

Just having an awareness of how you’re holding your shoulders on stage can have a profound effect. For a useful exercise, try this:

Take a deep breath, feel the tension in the upper body and head. Then, let the breath out through your mouth, and feel that release and relaxation. Keeping your shoulders down and relaxed and throat and head nice and relaxed, breathe in again – you should feel the breath arrives somewhere deeper, somewhere near your stomach (you may find you resist this; just relax your stomach muscles and let it all hang out – it’s just your diaphragm squishing stuff down). The breath sits very comfortably down there. Practise getting your breath down there and keeping it there. I say ‘keeping it’ rather than ‘holding it’, because holding it has all those associations we want to get away from. ‘Holding your breath’ implies tension and struggle. ‘Keeping your breath’ implies control on your part, and comfort. To keep your breath in your stomach, relax your shoulders and stand up tall. Your throat will probably constrict because it’s used to this, but be aware of this, and relax your throat. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe when you can keep your breath in your stomach. Imagine your stomach is a balloon, and you don’t have to do a lot to inflate it. Once you’ve found you can keep your breath in this ‘balloon’, you’ll notice your shoulders, throat and jaw are relaxed. This is perfect; you’re able to breathe comfortably whilst staying relaxed. You will instantly look at home in front of an audience.

Tension will also manifest itself in speed. This links to my earlier point about giving the audience time to take in what you’re saying. A simple way to help yourself if you find yourself talking too quickly is to, after every sentence, stop and take a reasonably big breath in and out. When you rehearse, it’s worth doing for the whole talk, because it will get you to relax regularly throughout, and will encourage you to think about what you’ve just said and what you’re going to say. Remember, if you seem to be rushing, it will be assumed what you’re saying isn’t worth paying attention to.

If you want to explore the power of breathing in performance further, I strongly recommend Cicely Berry’s Voice and the Actor.

Lastly, there is some discussion among scientists of Impostor Syndrome – see this article at Nature Careers and, closer to home, this blog post by my fellow OT blogger Athene.

Does impostor syndrome occur among actors? (If so, in that case do you call it impostor impostor syndrome?) Because acting involves “being other people”, are there techniques from acting that impostor syndrome sufferers can use to inhabit the successful persona they far from feel?

Oh yes, of course it occurs with actors. When you’re on stage there’s always a voice in your head saying ‘You don’t know your next line, by the way…’. The same in stand up: ‘They won’t laugh at this, by the way…’. The main thing, really, is knowing that you do belong there, and you deserve to be there. You know, really, how hard you’ve worked to be in that position.

Truth be told, there’s no quick-fix for stage fright or imposter syndrome. Having said that, if you have an awareness of yourself on stage and can connect with your audience, then you will perform better and the audience will listen to you, and you can sense when that’s happening. This will in turn give you more confidence to talk to your audience, which will give them more confidence in you, which will give you more confidence, and so on…

Thanks Ant! It sounds like thinking about your audience at both the writing and the presenting stages of a talk could yield improvements in both your confidence and the clarity of your presentation.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I hope these have answered the questions, and please do get in touch with me to clarify stuff if it doesn’t make sense. I hope that my input is useful to you, and your fellow PhD students, and I look forward to seeing your next talk!  

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