Audience members: Thank you for all the Qs!

Last week I gave my departmental seminar.  Im pretty sure every school does this– while you are getting your PhD, every so often you have to stand up in front of everyone and tell everyone what you are doing, and why, and what it means.  A lot of being a scientist is knowing how to present your data, so as terrifying as it is (well, at least for me, even after all these years) it really is an excellent learning experience.

You would think that since I have done this so many times before, and since I have gotten extra practice speaking about science to the general public, that this would be a piece of cake for me.  But I still have a lot to learn.  I tend to use my hands to make gestures that could be interpreted as ‘terrifying’, I slide into colloquialisms, and sometimes I say what is in my head, rather than stating things in a more professional manner (I bet you all have a hard time believing this, LOL!).

I normally get pummeled with questions during these seminars.  First, Ive done some pretty neat stuff, and people want to know more details.  And, my lab is pretty much the lone virology group among lots and lots of bacteriologists, immunologists, etc, so I get lots of practical and more basic questions, or suggestions for how to do things from a different angle.  And then this year I was the first to go, so the professors had a summers worth of inquisitiveness they were itching to let loose (it was actually really fun!).

The Q&A is normally what scares presenters the most.  You arent in control over what is going on anymore.  Nothing is set up on a slide.  Nothing is scripted.  You just have to roll with it.

And this is where I think I have gained the most from speaking to the general public about science.  What I have learned from the audience– I LOVE Q&A.  LOVE IT.  I dont view it as a scary thing– I have a very positive view of everyone who raises their hand to ask something, because in all of my presentations (even the ‘debates’ with Creationists) there are always fantastic questions from excited, curious people.  Its gotten to the point where I would just as soon make a shorter presentation, make sure everyone goes home with a new nugget of information, and I spend the rest of the time answering questions.  LOVE IT.

So when I give seminars, Im not scared of questions.  I dont think anyone is out to trip me up.  I dont think anyone is asking something ‘stupid’.  I think ‘This person actually listened to my talk, something I said got them thinking, excited, and they had the guts to raise their hand to ask for more information.  Thats COOL!!’

So I just wanted to make a post to officially thank all the folks who have ever asked me a Q at a presentation (and everyone who has asked me a Q here or via email, though I suck at responding to those in a timely manner… just keep bugging me!).  Youve made my life less stressful, youve made me a better scientist.




  1. #1 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    September 5, 2012

    Hey, put up a link to your slides!

    Reading this reminds me of when I gave my first couple of talks (far too long ago!), and the advice I’ve given to many grad students over the past decade.

    What you present is important, and might even be interesting, but the questions are the key. If you can listen to what someone is asking, and answer them in terms they can understand (whether it’s a colleague in a different specialty, or some interested layperson), then you really do know what you’re doing.

    I’ve learned a tremendous amount from this blog in the past year (I’m a particle physicist, and wouldn’t know a POL from a D_s* :-). Thank you for sticking with it!

  2. #2 mo (one of Abbies's elk)
    September 7, 2012

    You don’t link to your unpublished stuff which is only meant for your department :|

  3. #3 Patrick
    September 9, 2012

    Does public speaking in general make you feel uneasy, or is it the fact that you have to try and convey such robust and thoroughly technical presentations? When I first spoke in front of an audience, I was petrified with all of those freaking eyes glaring at me. I have to find a way to tone that out. I presume it is simply a matter of “practice makes perfect” ordeal.

  4. #4 ERV
    September 9, 2012

    Its a tug-of-war between my introversion and my desire to educate the public on a cool topic, but the technical aspect of it is an issue. I dont mind speaking to other HIV researchers at all. I mind speaking to people in my department some. And its really damn hard to talk to the general public, ESPECIALLY ones that are really pro-science. Its the obligation to speak well enough that they can take something positive away from the talk.

    I would rather just sit in my lab and work, or sit in front of a computer and write posts, but I think that is part of The Problem with science outreach (there aint enough of it, cause we would rather work in the lab). I never got to meet a scientist when I was a kid– if I can overcome a bit of stage-fright to show some people what a real scientist looks/acts like, then its worth it.

  5. #5 David Edwards
    February 19, 2013

    Abbie, since you love Q&A, perhaps you can answer a query for me, and at the same time, possibly stomp on some duplicitous pedlars of mythology-based masturbation fantasies into the bargain. :)

    With respect to the use of ERVs to construct phylogenies for various clades (the major example being, of course, primates), we’ve had the usual apologetics thrown at us elsewhere with respect to this topic. In that thread, whilst dealing with the tiresome “locus specificity” assertion so beloved of the DI in particular, I posted a comment to the effect that if you took some cells in a tissue culture, and subjected them to retroviral infection, amongst the cells that ended up with ERVs in their genomes (as opposed to dying from the infection) would, upon examination, all exhibit insertions at different parts of the genome. Since you’re more knowledgeable than I am in the field, could you confirm that I’m not pissing into the wind with this comment? :)

    Many thanks in advance.

    I would have E-Mailed this, but I don’t have your E-Mail address, and you probably reserve your E-Mail for more important things, such as contacts with other scientists.