An imposter with a pen—part two

Rather than respond one by one to all of the kind wishes and wise words in response to “Imposter with a pen”, I thought that I’d add a brief blog to let you all know that I “survived” the book signing without being “unmasked”. In fact, as is usually the case in my day-job lectures and what-not, after the initial jitters, I felt fine and actually enjoyed myself. I was able to get in a few good words for Lablit (the genre, website, and authors), and of course, Occam’s Typewriter. I even sold 20 books or so.

However, just prior to the start of the book signing, I was reminded of a (true) little story that took place way back (shortly after Richard’s ammonite died…) when I was an undergraduate student in Jerusalem.

In our third and final year of the very condensed biology program in which I was enrolled, we finally had a range of elective courses. I was thrilled to be able to escape from botany, zoology and ecology courses (no condescension intended—just not my forte) and immerse myself in the more biochemical and molecular-based ones. One course that was mandatory was the scary “undergraduate seminar”.

Although Hebrew was (and still is) a second language to me, I was not especially concerned; after all, I had the advantage of reading the papers in English. However, many of the students seemed to be very frightened. I chose an immunological topic related to bone marrow transplants and set out to prepare.

Finally, after weeks of preparation, came the fateful day. Not only did we students have to stand up in front of the class (at least in front of those of us who had chosen immunological-based topics), but also in front of a cluster of professors (can anyone help me out—is there a term for a group of professors like a “gander of geese”?) who were involved in guiding the students through their readings and preparations.

Well, I did fine. But this story isn’t about me. It’s about another student who—reports had it—was extremely stressed and hadn’t eaten much in the 24 hours before his seminar. His name was Simon, and when his turn came he stood up and slowly walked to the front of the classroom/lecture hall. Now these were of course the pre-power point days, so Simon, like everyone else, had a pile of transparencies that he had prepared for the overhead projector.

After laying the first transparency in place, Simon turned on the projector, moved to the side and began his first sentence. He was somewhat pale, and his voice shook. From the back of the room, I did not like where this was headed. In his second sentence, Simon said (no, it wasn’t put your hands on your head!), “I think I need a drink of water”. He walked to the side of the room, took a long drink, and came back to the center. He began his third sentence, wavered back and forth like a pendulum, and promptly passed out.

Poor Simon! It took over two minutes to revive him. Fortunately, this was a medical center, and a doctor arrived on the scene promptly. Simon was fine, and eventually did a private seminar at a later date for his examining professors (they weren’t taking any chances!).

A few years later, Simon and I found ourselves both as graduate students in the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology. One of the requirements for the entire department was to occasionally deliver a weekly journal club. When it was Simon’s turn, there was a lot of whispering in the room before the journal club started. After all, a number of the students and professors in the room had witnessed “the event” a few years earlier, and for those who hadn’t, the rumors spread to them rapidly.

Simon got up and introduced the paper. He then smiled and said in a bold voice: “For safety sake, I suggest that those of you sitting in the front row move to the back; the overhead projector is heavy and I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.” He went on and did a great job. All’s well that ends well…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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18 Responses to An imposter with a pen—part two

  1. ricardipus says:

    Excellent story, Steve, and congratulations on the book signing. I heard a tale once of a (male) student giving a departmental seminar who was, apparently, a bit more, er, “excited” at it than one might expect. I have to admit, this story was at least second-hand by the time it reached me, so it may be apocryphal.

    Also, congrats on migrating over to Occam’s Typewriter “full time”. I missed any announcements (I will plead grantwriting as an excuse), so it seems like someone waved a magic wand and “poof”, your blog appeared. ;)

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thank you, Ricardipus. I have to wonder what that seminar you allude to was about! I doubt it was female tears…
      With regards to “full time” at OT–truthfully I was thrilled at being an “irregular”. One day I was reading the “about” section and saw (as Richard noted and you responded) that the OT bloggers are supporting the maintenance of the OT site. So I wrote to Richard and asked, and he told me that he only asks the regulars to chip in. One thing led to another and then… wait a minute… did I just discover why I became a regular?

  2. Frank says:

    Nice photo! I’m struggling to identify any books on the shelves behind, but it is nice to see a wall of books.

    I haven’t ordered your book yet but will do that this week.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thank you! I much prefer fiction to biography, but it is nice to see a shelf full of actual physical books. The only one I can pick out from the photo is Condaleeza Rice’s bio…

  3. steffi suhr says:

    Urgh, it must be awful for people who can’t overcome this kind of stage fright..

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I would have never believed that he could overcome that, but one would have never been able to guess. On the other hand, occasionally I see students and postdocs whose talks are probably severely impacted by by fear every time they stand up to give a talk. Probably they are in the wrong profession, and have hidden masochistic tendencies.

  4. cromercrox says:

    I know someone (I can’t be too specific in case they are reading this) who is fun, outgoing and lively, and just the sort of person whom you’d think would be a natural at presentation and lecturing. But no. This person still remembers the trauma of a public thesis defense and hasn’t gotten over it…

  5. Frank says:

    I’ve not seen anyone faint, but have seen people breakdown a couple of times. One was a business presentation and the person was a bit jet-lagged and stressed as he was new to the role. The other was a senior postdoc presenting in a forum usually reserved for programme leaders and he just seemed to get confused and overwhelmed halfway through.

    It is quite distressing to witness this kind of thing.

  6. cromercrox says:

    I’ve thought about this some more. I am happy to say I am pretty good at presentations, even impromptu ones. I can usually turn up without any AV aids at all, or even any notes, and just burble away. I am also an amateur rock musician who likes nothing more than a jam session without any form of notation or set list. I’ve been doing this for years and years, to audiences ranging from a man and a dog, to a packed crowd of 400 people at a major science festival. And you know what? I ALWAYS get nervous. Stomach-churningly, headache-inducingly, knee-trembling, utterly, utterly nervous. But this is always a good thing.It passes after a few minutes, and is usually a good sign. It’s when I don’t get nervous that I usually give a poor show.

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Cromercrox=Henry–I’m slowly catching on. I definitely agree that s degree of initial nervous-induced adrenaline is key to a strong performance. I’ve definitely noticed that, in the times where I used to practice teaching lectures and seminars frequently before presentation, the practice sessions were often dull, flat and ‘yawn-laden’ boring. This is despite really being in control of the material. On the other hand, the talks in front of an audience came out with (I think) a lot of energy that connected with the audience. I came to the highly statistical and scientific conclusion that the lack of adrenaline in these practice sessions was interfering with my ability to project any real charisma into my talk. What do you think–do we have enough data for a letter to send to my favorite scientific weekly?

    • cromercrox says:

      Hahahaha! You’ve certainly go enough for a blog post. Yes, it’s the adrenaline.I think a small sense of danger helps a presentation go well. However, I do know people who are also good at presentations who aren’t happy unless they’ve rehearsed the tiniest detail. So obviously there is more han one way of approaching the issue.

  8. Manju says:

    Nice post

  9. Manju says:

    Dear Dr.Caplan,
    Mark called me and told me that he thought the book signing was really nice.
    If you have a recording of the event, could you please post it?
    Nice post. Reminded me of my veterinary school years in India. We had to give seminars for almost 2 or 3 courses each semester. In one of the Genetics courses, this particular classmate of mine was so stressed out, he kept repeating the first sentence over and over for about 10 times.. All the listeners became more and more tense with each repitition, but thankfully at the 11nth time or so, he was able to move forward… To add to the excitement of our seminars, we would have seniors walk by the classroom door and more often than not, they would yell the presenters name out loud. This would elicit a “startle response” (similar to that seen in mice exposed to a loud sound) in the presenter. By the end of 10 semesters, most presenters slowly became immune to the stimuli and were not startled anymore!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Hey! None of that DOCTOR stuff here! Please see my post “Informal Science” to understand why…

      As for video–my technical crew (daughter) has other pressing plans this weekend, so I’m afraid that will have to wait…

  10. chall says:

    Good times :)

    Happy it went well and that you enjoyed it! (most important imho) The story with the poor guy fainting is (unfortenately) too funny. in hindsight I guess. Since it wouldn’t be funny unless he got over it. Oh the stories of undergrad scaries…..

  11. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I used to hate presenting, but with practice (lots of it) throughout my undergrad, PhD and postdoc days, I gradually cut the panic down until it only kicked in an hour or so before I began. And I was always fine as soon as the first couple of slides were out of the way. I always got really good feedback on my presentations, and everyone always said that I didn’t look nervous, even when my heart was pounding and my mouth felt like it was full of cotton!

    Of course, now that I’ve changed jobs and present only very rarely, my skills have become very rusty, and my last presentation (over a year ago) was very shaky. I’ve thought about joining Toastmasters or something like that to keep my skills sharp!

    I’ve never seen anyone pass out or vomit while presenting, but I did once see a 2nd or 3rd year grad student have a wee bit of a melt-down. She started strongly, with a joke that went down well, and got through her first couple of slides just fine – but then at the next slide, she just stared at it for ages, then burst into tears and ran out of the room. Her supervisor ran out after her, and one of her labmates stood up and said “she’s had the flu, we told her not to come in, but she insisted”. Another PI came to the front and started a conversation about the way a communal facility was being used – a fantastic response, since this issue affected everyone and distracted us from the presenter. After about ten minutes, the student and her boss came back in. She apologised, then started where she’d left off, and did a fantastic job. She got the biggest round of applause I’ve ever heard when she finished!

    I told her afterwards that she was my hero… the thing all presenters dread the most happened to her, but she bounced back. I think of her every time I present now, and remind myself that no setback is insurmountable!