A group of geeky colleagues assembled in the lobby after work last night and headed down to Vancouver’s Railway Club for Café Scientifique. This monthly science outreach event encompasses talks about everything from biodiversity to genomics to chemistry to particle physics; the speaker this time was Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, talking about her work on the basic genetics of and gene therapy approaches to mental health disorders.

The talk was very interesting, but what really stood out was Dr. Simpson’s approach to questions from the audience. She said at the beginning of the talk that she’d like to take questions after each slide, rather than all at the end – and then actively solicited questions about literally every slide, from her academic background to funding acknowledgements and everything in between.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about this approach at first – it seemed a little forced and awkward, and I was grateful that one of the other regulars asked the first question so I didn’t have to. But three or four slides in, as we got more into the meat of the talk and I started to think of questions of my own, I decided that it actually worked really well.

I chatted to the event’s organizer, Susan Vickers, after the talk, and she said that Dr. Simpson had told her that this approach sometimes works really well, and sometimes completely bombs. The informal setting of last night’s talk (in the back room of the bar, with a pint of beer in almost every hand) probably helped to ensure that people got into the idea and were happy to speak up, but I can see a bigger or younger crowd being too shy to participate. I don’t think I’d ever have the intestinal fortitude to try this myself, though, even with beer in the mix!

I do have one unanswered question of my own: what on earth is an old pub sign from my home town doing in a bar in Vancouver?!


The Hole in the Wall is a pub that I’ve visited many times, just inside the city walls and within sight of York Minster, which graces its sign. I’ve asked a couple of different Railway Club bartenders if they know anything about it, but no luck so far.

I guess some questions must remain unanswered…

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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6 Responses to Questions?

  1. Grant says:

    Her question per slide approach strikes me as a step towards engagement/dialogue rather than lecturing. (It’s striking a chord as it echoes a twitter discussion the recent New Zealand’s annual Science Communicators Association of NZ meeting; they were discussing deficient model v. alternatives – perennial topic, but this talk style is a new twist on it to me.)

  2. cromercrox says:

    Over many years of giving talks, mainly to scientists, about the inner workings of Nature, I have come to realise that the audience doesn’t want to hear me drone on for hours and hours. People are always bursting to ask questions – about peer review, open access, peer review, the appeal process, and peer review. And did I mention peer review? So, if scheduled to talk for an hour, I’ll talk for twenty to thirty minutes, tops, inviting people to interrupt at any point. They rarely do this – but after my presentation I’ll open the floor to Q&A. This always works, though sometimes one’s host or a helpful senior researcher will kick things off, as students are often less confident about asking questions. The time flies by.

  3. Nina says:

    I’m going to my first science cafe tonight, so this is good timing! If the speakers aren’t using this format, I’ll try and make them use it 😉
    I guess in order to make it work you will need to instruct some insiders beforehand to ask (silly) questions, so others in the crowd get a feeling for it.
    As for the sign, you should probably head back to its origin and ask around there!

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Grant: yes, it definitely felt like one of the more interactive and conversational Cafes I’ve been to. Most talks are pretty good, but this was one of the stand-outs, along with the Higgs boson talk after which I understood the subject for almost two hours – a new personal best!

    Cromercrox, that sounds like the best approach for that topic and that audience. I know any time I’ve interacted socially with people who work at funding agencies, I’ve had a TON of questions for them!

    Nina, hope you had a good speaker! How did the forced asking of questions after every slide work out for you? 😉

  5. Nina says:

    Well, the science cafe was definitely a good experience, but the two speakers were not much beyond what I’d expect at an invited lecture for a conference. As in, no interaction, and many unintelligible graphs and figures, of which only 10% was explained. Luckily the topic was quite easy (bees), but personally I would do my science cafe talk very, very differently.
    I am ashamed to say I didn’t stay for the discussion. I had to get up early the next day to help out in the community share organic garden. Where, to my delight, I suddenly noticed a lot of different bees! (Did you notice all these Higgs boson particles just after that time you understood it all for a while??)

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Yeah, some scientists have definitely never got the “tailor your talk for the audience” memo.

      I didn’t notice any Higgs bosons after that talk, but I did try to explain the talk to my parents. I was not successful.

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