On the importance of presenting at lab meeting

21 01 2013

Dr. Becca put a post up a post today, asking about lab meetings and how different PI’s run them. I totally and completely understand that 1 style does not fit all and that everyone is going to have a different opinion. In the comments I mentioned what our lab does and then I was going to go on a rant about why I think its important to have students give “formal” presentations in lab meeting. However, I realized  my rant many reasons were going to turn into an essay, so I”m posting it here.

How does our PI keep on top of us? She’s busy. Alot busier than she was when I first started as she took on a Dean position a couple years ago. When I first showed up 3 years ago, we only had a weekly lab meetings, her door was always open so we often would often have spontaneous 1 on 1 meetings.  I recognized the need for  deeper dive into the literature, so the lab started a weekly journal club in addition to the weekly meetings.

Our PI does not attend our JC and we do not do formal presentations at it. We sit around a table, each person presents a different figure and we discuss the papers figure by figure. Everyone really likes this format because it does not take alot of time to prepare for,  its casual and we usually imbibe while we do it.

This has changed since our PI became a Dean. Our PI is now only around 2.5 days of the week because half the time is S/he is off working in the black hole deans office.  Since she would like to stay on top of what we’re all doing (we all have different projects and our lab studies 2 distinct systems) we now all have weekly 1 hr meetings with her. As we all TA, we decided to have lab meeting and jc alternating weeks so that our non TAing time isn’t booked up with meetings and seminars.  At lab meeting we spend about 10 minutes on lab business – ie accusing each other of discussing which lab items need to be clean or replenished.  A person then presents their data using a formal presentation style.

This is HUGELY important to the development of a student. All of us need practice at presenting our data.

We need to be able to tell an audience what we are doing, why its important and what its potential impact is.  We need to answering succinctly what are we doing and why to an audience that isn’t intimately involved in the project.  You have to be able to present this to your committee, at seminars and conferences. As a student, you better get your feet wet and practice in front of a group of friendly’s vs having a committee member ask you at your first meeting. Trust me, “My PI said so is not a valid answer”.

This is important as a newbie when you’re trying to figure out what your project is as well as a senior grad student to keep your eye on the bigger picture.

Putting together a formal presentation makes us look at our data and ask WTF does it mean? Where do I go next? If you follow me on twitter you know that I’ve found data. How do you lose data? Easy, I get on my little hamster wheel and start dissecting larvae, staining them with the crap load of stains I think I need to do, image them, deconvolve, quickly look at, rinse repeat.  Then I go on mat leave and don’t look at anything. Come back, I forget I’ve done some stains and so I get on the hamster wheel and work. The thing is if  I’m not looking at my data and  thinking about it what it tells me I”m going to get lost in the forest. Your data is your map.  Lab meeting forces me to do that. So then I go back to find figures and see that how I’ve did xyz stains 1.5 years ago. It makes me look at my hypothesis and say I’ve shown this to be false or true. Look I have these phenoytpes so I think this may be going on.  I was working on going down path A but my data (MY MAP!) tells me that I need to change directions and go to path B because that is what the data is telling me.  Or maybe I”m so set on going down Path A that I don’t see the really really cool detour with the flashing lights that my lab mates can see. Or I don’t the big fucking cliff I’m about to fall over on. My lab mates might.

This is great practice for learning how to give a talk. When most of start in the lab we give very basic presentation. I did this trying to figure out that. Its mostly a bullet list of stuff we’re doing to start off our projects.  Then as we grow, we start doing the presentations like I am now doing them. What questions am I asking with these experiments, how do they relate to what I am asking and why? How does this data fit in? Now when I’m putting together my lab presentation I”m trying to put together “my story”. How is my paper going to flow. Not sure I would’ve gotten here as quickly if I wasn’t listening to our rockstar postdoc give her presentations like this.

Sure post-docs and PI’s may have this down pat. We students do not. We need lab meeting to help us.  The caveat to the above situation is that you have to have a supportive environment. Which isn’t to say you ask easy questions of your lab mates, it means you ask really hard questions without attacking the person. You provide constructive criticism. If you don’t think something will work, you don’t say the person idea is shit. You say hmm, have you thought about how x, y, z may effect your idea. My job as a lab member is help thicken my own skin and that of my lab mates.

This part may be particular to our lab, we all work on very different projects. Yes we all use the same model organisms but we look at different systems and our asking different questions. We all make up random flies that may be useful to other members.  Lab mtg is a great way to show off a new technique or communicate a new fly line we made to ask a specific questions. Someone else maybe able to answer something in their project with it. We all don’t really talk that much. I’m in a 7:30am and leave when the others are coming in. We all work different hours and only overlap by a couple of them.

These are my reason for having formal lab meeting vs the rapid fire round table approach.




3 responses

23 01 2013

I couldn’t agree more with you. Preparing the presentation actually forces you to critically examine your project; practicing your presentation skills is good; learning how to answer questions and deal with comments is important. May be more time consuming than round table discussions, but I think it pays off.

17 05 2013
10 06 2013
Alienor Chauvenet

I realise how late I am to this discussion (January post !!), but I just wanted to say that I truly believe that making students do formal presentations at lab meetings is very important. Besides the obvious benefits you mention, and the fact it teaches them to keep to the time, speak in front of an audience, etc… I think that by praising them (even inflating a bit how well they did and how barely nervous they looked ;)) you can raise their confidence a lot. Of course, there is space for constructive criticism but I think that showing them you are proud of their courage and execution can be very beneficial.

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