Alright. Let’s talk about my talk. I’d really rather forget this ordeal and move on, but if I glossed over this experience, I’d be doing both myself and future grad students who read this blog looking to learn about one of those “roadblocks” I mentioned in my first blog post a massive disservice. There are a lot of things to learn from in this debacle, and it’s actually pretty entertaining at some level, so let’s get to it.
“Knowing my luck, I’ll run into each and every roadblock it’s possible to hit on my way to earning my degree. Might as well write about it such that future masochists–sorry, I mean graduate students–get to learn from my mistakes.” ~Let me introduce my blog.
A/N: I wanted to wait a few days to write this post to give myself time to calm down. I don’t think it was as bad as I thought it was, but this is not the TL;DR version. I’m going to walk you through this thing so you can understand just how chaotic and non-ideal this entire process was. Partly for you, and partly for me. This is also to help me analyze everything I did and learn how to be better next time.
The very first mistake I made was taking Anatomy and Physiology and trying to do a non-trivial amount of research during my first semester. Because the class was more strenuous than I expected, research got neglected until I simply couldn’t procrastinate on it anymore.
I spent the last four weeks of the semester working like a mad woman in lab. There was a Saturday when five different people (four upper level graduate students and my uber driver of all people [it was 3 in the morning, I’m not walking home]) said I was working too hard and I should take a break. I had a final exam on Dec 19th and had booked my flight for the 20th maybe a month and a half earlier, so all my time was spent experimenting and studying. Sleep is for the weak, anyway.
The goal was to do all the experiments I could possibly squeeze in and then spend the break analyzing data. Well, I collected quite a bit of data. 375 main experimental runs, 1.5Tb of video data, 11,250,000 data points (each run outputs an excel file of 6 columns and 5000 rows). It was a lot of data to go through. More than I expected.
I made a few mistakes over break. The first was underestimating the amount of time going through the data would take. The second was prioritizing seeing friends during the day and putting off work until the evening. On the days I set aside solely for working, because I did schedule like 3-4 days with absolutely nothing but work on the agenda, I ended up spending the hours troubleshooting code and not making much headway, which goes back to the first mistake. The third mistake was spending too much time on something I ended up not being able to use for the talk.
One of the main ways of analyzing fish swimming is looking at their midline kinematics. In fact, the traditional fish swimming categories (thunniform, carangiform, anguilliform, etc.) are defined based on the midline kinematics. The image to the right is an example taken from Google Images. Midline kinematics are essentially traces of the midline taken at different points of undulation. It’s not very difficult, but oh god is it time consuming. I spent probably a solid 24 hours of work time going through 105 of the 375 high speed videos trying to make graphs that look like panel A for each video before I realized that I didn’t know enough about the midline graphs to be able to consolidate what each graph was telling me into anything resembling a cohesive result with one graph. There goes 3 solid days of work, but on the bright side, I didn’t have to do the other 270.
One of the things I was convinced I needed in order to present solid results was oscillation amplitude data. To get that, I basically had to go through each video again but, instead of tediously tracing the midlines (which was roughly 15 points per frame), I did two points for each frame: one at the head, and one at the tail to get tail amplitude. I finished 250 of the videos before I left, and I did the other 125 once I got to the hotel. Doing this took about 18 hours or so total. The process was very quick compared to trying to get midline data, but it was still a huge time sink. I didn’t get much sleep the last week of being home because as I said, I left a lot of the data analysis for the evenings (meaning 7pm to 3-4am).
In conclusion, I spent two weeks at home and when the time came to leave for SICB, I had a bunch of raw data analysis and not a lot of results. I had it drilled into me during undergrad that you don’t present raw data. You simply don’t, unless there’s not a better to way to communicate something. You always present *results*. Statistics. Trends. Summary graphs. So, the fact that I only had raw data at this point was starting to scare me.
I arrive in New Orleans Tuesday afternoon, and as I said in the last post, I spent all of Tuesday, all of Wednesday up to the Plenary Session at 7.30pm and dinner afterwards, and all of Thursday except for lunch with friends, working. I missed the entire first day of SICB. But I was busy trying to convert all that raw data I had into meaningful results. Tuesday through Thursday, I was data mining like a maniac. And trying to make the presentation. Again, not a lot of sleep. I got maybe 4 or 5 hours between Tuesday and Thursday evening.
Well, it’s Thursday, I’ve made a few graphs that I think are solid enough. One is a raw data graph, but it really was the best way to communicate a big picture result very quickly in the time that I had to analyze stuff. The other graph, well, I thought I understood it, and that I had made it correctly. I thought I could explain it in a way that made sense, so I decided to use it. (You can probably tell where this is going.)
I almost had a full presentation–everything but the introduction and the conclusion slides, because I wanted to run the results past George to get his approval on the results. The introduction slide was literally that, a slide. My talk was the second of two talks. Ardian, the post doc who started the project, was talking before me and presenting on the data that was included in his accepted paper. Because I figured that roughly 90% of the audience would be the same, but that I shouldn’t neglect the people who showed up just for my talk alone (so, basically, just my friends), my intro slide very briefly explained the setup.
I finally found time to talk to George on Thursday evening. We went through the slides and he seemed confident in everything, so I went back to my room to finish up the slides and practice rehearsing. I’m thinking, I have a night and a morning to rehearse–which, for me, basically means memorize every single word and comma that I want to say (not ideal, but I’m too inexperienced to wing it, at least in my book) — I’ve had worse.
I did make sure to get 6 hours of sleep on Thursday night so I don’t look like a zombie at my talk. I have a habit of recording meetings with professors so that I can focus on participating in the conversation rather than taking notes the entire time, and I can go back afterwards and make sure I didn’t forget anything. I listened to the recording of our talk and I could barely finish a complete sentence, my brain was so sleep-deprived. It was painful for me to listen to, and I can’t imagine I inspired much confidence in George at that point.
There were quite a few OEB grad students at SICB, so I sent out an email to the few I knew better to see if I could go over the slides with them in the morning. I met up with one, and that second graph that I was sort-of kind-of not really confident in was definitely an issue. After meeting with her, I went back to my room to try to fix it, ended up trashing it completely. I scrambled together another graph, but at this point, it’s 1pm, I have yet to go to the Ready Room at SICB to see if I had any trouble connecting to the projector setup, and I was starting to freak out.
Emergency meeting with George to see if he liked the new graphs, and a last minute meeting with Kelsey right after George left to go through things again and she asked a few questions, trying to prepare me for any questions I might get. George and Kelsey helped calm me down. When I get frustrated, my eyes tear up. It’s an automatic response that I have no control over and haven’t been able to shake (believe me, I’ve tried), but it makes others believe that I’m feeling worse than I am, and it kind of has a positive feedback loop into my own feelings, because then I get embarrassed and more frustrated that I’m crying and I don’t want to be.
After calming myself down, I got to the ready room around 1.35 or so, only to find out that the projectors are old and don’t have HDMI inputs, only VGA. And the IT dudes don’t have anymore VGA to HDMI converters. I mass text everyone I know at SICB to see if they have a converter, but no luck. So, we’re trying to put my presentation and videos onto a USB, but because I’m also using a font file that I downloaded onto my laptop, not a default font, I’d need to install the font on the in-session computer before the session started. Well, my talk was scheduled for 2.30pm on Friday, with the session starting at 1.30pm. That’s not happening at this point. So, I could use a USB, but I’d have to go through all my slides to convert the unique font to a standard one. (BTW, Roboto is an amazing font and I love it and have used it on all my posters and presentations since I was introduced to it.)
Lo and behold, an IT dude returns to the room with a VGA to HDMI converter. Small miracles do happen–crisis averted. I’m able to hook up to the projector no problem and everything looks good. I should be set. The IT dude who had been helping me, Mike, says he might come to the room with me just to make sure I’m able to hook up correctly. At that point, I don’t think I need the help, but I’m glad there’ll be someone there just in case I mess something up.
The thing with conference talks is, you’re scheduled for 15 minutes. If you have technical difficulties at the beginning that take 2 minutes to fix, your 15 minute talk is cut to 13 minutes. The time period between talks is finite, regardless of what it is filled with. SICB I heard is a bit more generous than a conference like APS, where the talks are 12 minutes and if you go a second overboard, they kill the projector and kick you off stage. SICB moderators will give you a warning when your time is up and then give you 30 seconds to wrap things up.
So, it’s 2pm and I spend the next few minutes going over the slides one last time. I’m just getting ready to leave around 2.10 for my session when Mike comes over and says, I’m definitely going to the room with you because we just got word that the projectors are cutting out over there.
Well. That’s not good.
I get to the room just after Ardian starts his presentation, and lo and behold, the projectors are indeed having issues. One of them starts cutting out every few minutes. There are two, so he handled it just by switching to the opposite screen (the podium was roughly in the middle), but that’s not the thing that has my attention.
The. Room. Was. Massive.
From the biorobotics session I caught at the last SICB, there were roughly 50 people there, but it was in a small room and the walls were lined with people standing. I guess from that experience, they realized that they should book biorobotics in a much bigger room. Well, they did, and biorobotics must have picked up in popularity since last year since the room held maybe 125-150 people.
I walk in and see the size of the audience and nearly have a panic attack. I was already frazzled from the earlier craziness, and seeing the number of people I would soon have to stand in front of and try not to embarrass myself nearly set me over the edge.
Let me briefly say, my dad suffers from chronic panic attacks induced by public speaking fears. He takes medication for it since, as part of his job, public speaking can’t be avoided, but this has always been in the back of my mind. “Will I suffer the same thing?” The two panic attacks I’ve had in the past were both really random. One was set off probably by pain (funny story for another time) and the other was out of the blue. I was having breakfast. Weird, I know. But I knew that panic attacks were something that I could suffer from.
Again, cheers for small miracles. I was able to–well, I can’t say that I calmed myself down, because I was very much into the “not calm” side of the meter– but I kept myself from escalating. Second potential crisis averted.
Ardian wraps up with 0 seconds to spare, and I start walking to the front. The moderator gets up to the podium and says “Will Zane Wolf please come to the front so he can set up his presentation?” I just wave to the girl, since I’m standing right by her at that point. Small dose of humor. I do have a guy’s name, so it happens a bit more often than people with an androgynous name might experience, but it makes me smile and I feel a tiny bit better.
I didn’t know this, but apparently, SOP is that before the session starts, you should introduce yourself to the moderator so they know who you are and can get everything ready for your talk (like installing a font file on the computer, etc.). I was busy in the Ready Room when my session was starting, so obviously I didn’t do this, or know to do this. Thus, the announcement.
Mike comes with me, because as I said, one of the projectors was on the fritz. I plug my computer in and both projectors shut down.
So, I’m standing at the front of the room, two IT dudes are now rushing to get the computers and the projectors working–thank god it’s not my fault– and all I can do is make awkward eye contact with my friends standing at the back of the room and the few audience members I know and try not to freak out as my talk gets shorter and shorter by the second, and I had been pushing 14 1/2 minutes during rehearsals.
Right now the situation is SNAFU and it’s heading further and further into FUBAR with each second the projectors continue to not work. This period of time seemed like multiple, indeterminable, soul crushing minutes to me, but a friend reassured me that it was probably 45 seconds, a minute max.
The IT dudes get everything working and I begin.
Things actually went…okay, I think. I didn’t mispronounce any words. I didn’t go too fast that I was incoherent, or so I’ve been told. The moderator was super nice and gave me the full fifteen minutes to talk, which they didn’t have to do. That made me feel better since I didn’t have to super max rush through things to finish.
Straight up, some mistakes I made: I forgot that I had included some slides last minute (ones that were there originally, but I had taken out, and then decided to put back in), so I explained them thinking they weren’t there, and then next slide, whoops, I just explained this. And the last mistake, I think, was thinking that the projector would show color wonderfully. I had a graph that had three lines that differed only by color and not style, and on the screen they all looked like shades of grey. Wonderful.
I will say that because I was so nervous, my hands were very shaky with the laser. I had to move it around on screen to hide the fact that I couldn’t keep it still. Additionally, like I said, my way of preparation is to memorize every single word, pause, and breath in my presentation. I was so nervous that I started going off script and putting in some more colloquial phrases (like, “You know,…” and “…,right?”), which is a strong sign of an amateur speaker. Which I am. (I trained myself out of saying ‘Ums’ and ‘Uhs’ back in high school in a speech course, so I don’t think I did any of that, which is good.)
I didn’t surprise too many people by sounding like an amateur. In fact, I made sure to point it out. I said twice that I was new: once when I introduced myself (“I’m a first year grad student at HU and I’m talking about a project I’ve been working on since fall.”) and once with the goals (“The biggest thing I could accomplish in four months was looking at an expanded parameter space.”). I included these so the audience would know not to expect an elaborate, or even a finished, project and that I was new to the presentation game.
I remember a specific moment where I was about halfway through my talk, I looked over and saw that I had plenty of time left. I paused, I took a very deep breath, and my hands stopped shaking, I started talking a bit more slowly and steadily, rather than in spurts. And I finished with about a minute to spare.
So, somehow, I made it through to the end of my talk. There were a few easy questions (probably due to pity), and then I got off stage.
Of course, once I was finished, I was hit with a massive wave of depression and self-doubt. “My talked sucked. I didn’t bring anything new to the table that wasn’t already implied by Ardian’s work. I wasn’t professional enough. My voice probably shook from my nerves. My graphs were sub-par. Why did I wear business casual clothes, instead of business clothes? Did I just tank my career right after starting it?” And so-on. It didn’t get too much worse, but man was I hard on myself. Even a few days after, I’m still very much aware of how much I need to improve.
However, all the feedback I’ve received so far is positive. All my friends said I sounded very calm, not nervous whatsoever, and that my presentation was pretty complete and easy to understand. We’ll see if the trend continues.
A man found me that afternoon and explained that he was a year and a half into his PhD and he couldn’t have done what I did, giving his first talk to such a large audience. That made me feel loads better.
The best thing, though, was this email from George:
I had been talking to a lab mate about what to expect from George in terms of feedback. They said, “If you talk to him and he doesn’t bring it up, then it probably sucked. If you start talking and he just comes out and says you did a good job, then you’re fine.” When I told them I got an email with a “great” and an “excellent” in it, they said I’m definitely fine then.
Oh man was it nice to hear that.
Because we were both busy at the conference, I haven’t talked to George yet for complete feedback. That’ll probably happen tomorrow or Thursday. I might update this blog with what he says, if it’ll significantly contribute or contradict anything I’ve written here.
*Edit: his comments have mostly reinforced my own assessment of things to improve upon, things I did well, comparing and contrasting Ardian’s talk. So, I think that’s a good sign, that I’m able to review things and come to the same conclusions as him. It means, I think, that my problem is not in baseline knowledge of how to present, but in the execution. Next year will definitely be better.
*Edit 2: I spoke with a friend recently who also passed on some feedback about things I didn’t think were issues. First, they thought I shouldn’t have stressed that I was a G1 so much. Once is enough, but even that’s not really necessary. Since this contradicts what George wanted me to do (doesn’t matter if I thought it was a good idea, my experience counts for very little at the moment), I’ll just say I’m happy I won’t have to do this again next year, and next year I will just jump into it without putting asterisks on my credentials.
Second, throughout my talk, I did say “Ardian explained this or that, so I won’t go into it in depth”. It might have been better just to re-explain it anyway, whether Ardian had spent a significant portion of time on it or not. I definitely give them that; being the second part of a two-part talk was difficult for me to really manage, on top of it being my first conference talk. I wasn’t really sure of the best way to blend the two, how much of our two talks should overlap, venn-diagram style. Hopefully I won’t be in this situation again, but should this happen again, I’ll devote more time to balancing and blending the talks better.
But that is the story of my first conference presentation. The only universal law my life seems to follow is Murphy’s Law, but I hope you enjoyed it significantly more than I did (not hard to do when the baseline is at zero, but still).
I’ll write another post talking about the actual SICB meeting either tonight or tomorrow, because it really was a fun conference and I want to share some of the more interesting talks with you.
In the meantime, stay frosty.