Slides from recent talks…

I put a fair bit of effort into the design of my talks, so I thought that I would share a couple of the recent talks that have kept me busy as a glimpse into my approach to communicating my science. I’ve done this before, and you may have noticed there what you’ll notice here: over the years, my visual style has evolved (ha!) to be quite minimalistic. I prefer to stand in front of my slides and use them as support, so I keep text to an absolute minimum and focus on using images and short bursts of text to provide emphasis, guide attention, and advance a narrative. This isn’t an approach that will be comfortable or appropriate for everyone; it also makes sharing slides like this a little bit of an odd proposition, because there’s ample room for misinterpretation or unanswered questions when I’m not there to actually talk about what’s on the screen (as I feel that it should be – otherwise, why are you there in the first place?). Thus, if you see something that you don’t understand or that looks odd to you, please give me the benefit of the doubt and feel free to ask questions in the comments!

The first is a talk I gave recently at the biology department at Macquarie, where I was invited by my friends Matthew Bulbert and Julia Cooke. I was inspired by the video games of my early youth, and went with an 8-bit theme:

The second is an outreach talk I gave to a general audience at the Sydney Athiests meetup group a little over a week ago on human evolution, arguing that it has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. I wrote this talk in a hurry, so I got a little lazy with the font selection (2 points if you know where I got the main font combination in the talk from).

Below are the links to any images that I used, either directly or as inspiration, for these talks which I did not create myself or purchase as stock images. I think I got everything, but if you notice anything missing, please let me know and I’ll try to correct it as soon as possible!

Image links for the Macquarie talk:


Image links for the human evolution talk

Headline fun, Volume MCCXIV

Following up on a recent observation:

I opened my news aggregator on the iPad (News360) last night.  News360 aggregates news stories in a way that might be familiar to users of Google News:  it finds the main news item and presents a series of links to the same story from different sources.  Thus, if the story is on, say, baby carrots, it would contain links to that story from CNN, the BBC, local news, etc.  So when I clicked on a story  about the opening of a new cancer centre in the UK, the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), here’s what I got:

And from the less sober side of the news?

The stories all quote a Professor Brian Ashworth from the ICR, but I don’t see any direct quotes from him about sequencing making cancer a chronic disease, as many of these stories claim. I’m not sure where they’re getting that from, but if anyone knows, please leave a comment!.

I won’t rehash the back-and-forth over who’s to blame for headlines like this;  I wouldn’t be surprised if, as is so often the case, it’s a case of the Chinese Whispers game that starts off with the university PR office and ends up with your grandma wearing a tinfoil hat.  But given how routine this sort of thing is, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that something is still fundamentally broken in how science news is reported and that if we don’t do something about this, people will lose confidence in us as scientists.  We may not be (entirely) responsible for causing the problem, but we’ll pay the price 3.

  1. ‘say scientists’.  Drink!
  2. Is it 5 years or 10?
  3. Which, now that I think about it, basically makes poor science reporting akin to a negative externality;  the papers benefit, while scientists and the public both pay the cost

A Bit of Behavioral Ecology in 2012

Well, 2012 has come and gone, and WordPress sent me a link to one of those fancy year stats reports a few days ago.  So, if you’re voyeuristic enough (and bored enough) to poke through the stats on this blog, have a glance at the 2012 stats!  This blog had about 10,000 views last year, which makes it a baby blog in social media terms.  That’s all right for me, because my goals for the blog have always been modest, but I’m aiming to increase that a little for 2013.  Stick around, we’re only going to go up from here!

Are grad students just lonely?

I was reading a paper today on computational modelling approaches to an interesting information situation known as the ‘standing ovation problem’, by Miller and Page (2004) (free pdf here), when I came across this nugget:

Methodological perspectives can be deeply ingrained. Prior to presenting the SOP to graduate students in economics, we tested it on Cal Tech undergraduates. Though Cal Tech undergraduates are hardly a random sample, we found that their modeling efforts differed in fundamental ways from those of graduate students in economics. The undergraduates assumed that individuals sat next to close friends (or, even went to the lecture with dates). In contrast, very few economic graduate students included the possibility of friends in their models. This difference might be a reflection of the social life of budding economists, but we remind you that the comparison group here is Cal Tech undergraduates. We suspect that the divergence in assumptions is much more due to the emphasis on individual choice that pervades most of modern economic theory, rather than social differences between the two groups of students. (p.9,emphasis mine).

I make no comment, but I invite comparison to the students of other disciplines or the reader’s own experiences.

What would I change? Nothing.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist blog, Jeremy Yoder is organising a blog carnival about “Knowing what I know now”. Essentially, the question at hand is: what would I do differently in the previous stage of my academic career (my Ph.D., for me) to help me in the current one (my postdoc). When I read this, I thought that it would make a great blog post here, but then the question sank into the back of my mind and I struggled to put anything down on the screen. I fought with it for a few days, until I finally realised why.

I wouldn’t change anything about my graduate career. But I would tell myself something.

Two years into my Ph.D., I was living in Montréal while my wife was living in Edmonton, 3500 kilometers away. It certainly wasn’t an easy life: I spent a fair bit of my time on airplanes, returning to Edmonton at least once every month or every two months, and let me tell you that the novelty of both the Edmonton and Montréal airports wears off quickly. It was stressful financially and emotionally; my wife was working two, sometimes three jobs, and I was putting every waking moment into my Ph.D. research to try and get finished. My sleep cycle was so screwed up that I often went to bed when the sun came up and woke up a few hours later to stumble back over to my computer. I put on a fair bit of weight, I was unhealthy, and I was a mess. There were also a few times – I’m told – when my mother-in-law, Dawn, was the only thing keeping my wife from divorcing me. I’ll owe her forever for that.

Which is one of the reasons that the news of her diagnosis with cancer that summer came as such a blow. The day I received the call, I was on a plane back to Edmonton, and we soon learned that the situation was bad: Dawn had a late-stage gallbladder cancer. Treatment options were limited, and we were faced the prospect of caring for her as she died in an extended and unpleasant fashion. My heart broke for my wife, who was as close to her mother as a human being could be; her father had been out of the picture since she was a child, and so the two of them had faced the world together as an unbreakable unit. Being allowed into that small but powerful family was one of the greatest honours of my life, and watching it go through this darkness was one of the greatest pains.

But here’s what I would tell myself.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert presents a compelling case that one of the things that trips us up so badly when it comes to happiness is that we’re terrible at predicting it. In his now well-known TED talk, he discusses the phenomenon of the lottery winners and the amputees; measured at the time of the occurrence, people in the former group would predict their happiness to be much higher than that of the latter one year on, but when actually measured a year later, their happiness comes out to be the same. The lesson of this is not to give up striving for situations that make us happy. Rather, the lesson I take from this is that when life hands you a truckload of lemons, rest assured that you’re probably going to enjoy the lemonade more than you think.

Why would I remind myself of this? Because the truth is that the things didn’t get better, at least not right away. I had to watch Dawn die painfully over the next eight months, and I had to hold my wife’s hand while she underwent the most difficult period of her life, utterly powerless to help. I lost one of the most important people in my life, closer to me than my own parents1. After Dawn died, I had to deal with my own grief while helping my wife do the same. And while all of this was going on, I had to push forward with my Ph.D. research.

When it comes to my Ph.D., I was lucky. I was doing theoretical work, so I could be away from my lab without being entirely crippled. Was that optimal? Hell, no. I went to Montréal in the first place to work with a really smart guy, and I spent most of the last half of my Ph.D. talking to him occasionally on Skype. His patience with me went above and beyond the call of duty, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully express how much I appreciate it, nor will he ever really know how much he taught me despite all of this. I also lost time with my lab mates, from whom I could have learned a lot. The research I did probably wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I might still be paying for that today2.

So, barrels and barrels of lemonade. Yet despite all of that, I’m happy now with how it all came out. As Gilbert would say, I’ve synthesised my own happiness, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s made the scientist that I am now, and even if that’s not as good as I could have been, I can live with that. This all drives down to the core of what I would tell myself at that moment, when I was flying home to Edmonton and facing down the prospect of watching someone I loved die, thinking that my life had gone completely off the rails:

Look, this sucks. I’ll grant you that. But insomuch as you can, try to let go of your predictions and worries for the future, because you’re definitely wrong.


Okay, I’m lying a little. I would change one thing. In the first summer of my Ph.D., my wife was teaching in Edmonton so she was able to come down to Montréal for the summer holiday. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have signed up for the ISBE conference in New York so that I wouldn’t have found myself leaving my wife in Montréal to go to New York a week after she came from Edmonton to see me. It seemed like such a good idea at the time and it actually had beneficial outcomes for my career, but it was – by far – one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

  1. A story for another day, but my adopted parents and I did not have what I would call a close relationship.
  2. Not an excuse for anything, mind you, just a recounting of the facts. I’m happy to take responsibility for the successes and failures of my work.


Got a nice picture of this fellow (?) when he landed in our back yard for a bit of a perch on our clothes dryer:

The kookaburra – this picture is most likely of a Laughing Kookaburra, Dacelo novaeguineae) –  is one of the largest members of group of birds known as the kingfishers. It is well-known for its distinctive call that, as the name suggests, sounds like a laugh.  You can read more about the kookaburra, and hear an example of its call, at this nice little write-up I found about them here (scroll down on the right hand side to “Calls” to find the audio).

(The kookaburra has also been the centre of a few controversies, mostly related to a popular children’s song about the bird).

I guess I’m just not a real man.

If you’re a man, and you really like [insert chosen thing here – I’ll use Star Trek for this post], and you’re a fan and you talk to other people about it, and you spend time watching the TV shows whenever you can and you go to conventions and put effort into dressing up to have fun;  well, then, you’re a freak who should die alone.

Photo by Falashad, used under a CC license.

On the other hand, if you’re a man and you really like sports, and you’re a fan and you talk to other people about it, and you spend time watching matches on TV multiple times a week and you go to games wearing the team jersey and you get drunk and act like a jackass and maybe start some stuff on fire when you lose;  well, then, you’re a real man.

Photo by Matt Gibson (, used under a CC license.

Explaining the stupidity of this is left as an exercise to the reader1.

  1. Despite what it may look like, this isn’t about me.  I just heard about someone who’s a fan of Star Trek get rejected by a woman at the ‘should I contact him?’ stage for solely that reason, and it struck me as stupidly unfair

Science is a process, not a person.

tl;dr I got into a fight with a creationist during an online science outreach event. Here’s my thoughts on why it should never have happened.

I’ve been a little quiet here since my last post; after I wrote that, I spent most of the rest of August in Europe, and upon my return I participated in an online outreach activity called ‘I’m a Scientist – Get me out of here!’. If you’re not familiar with the contest, it links up science classrooms throughout Australia with scientists like me, with the scientists answering questions posed by students and engaging in chats with classes online. Students vote on their favourite scientist and the participating scientists are progressively voted off the island until one winner remains. The scientists are partitioned into ‘zones’, with five scientists per zone; some zones are themed, like the zone I participated in (‘Disease’), and others are more free-for-all.

(You can read the reflections of the winner of the Boron zone, Simon O’Toole, here.)

Participating in this event was great fun, and even though I was eventually defeated in second place, interacting with the students was more than enough to make it worth my time. I answered a lot of great questions, though some patterns were definitely evident – I may put ‘Zombie Guy’ on my next conference nametag – and even if the chats got hectic at times, they were a great way to interact one-on-one with the students and show them who and what a scientist is1. Yet half way through I ran straight into a issue which caused me serious consternation, and I’d like to reflect on it a bit more here.

The problem began with a deceptively innocuous question by one of the students, ‘How do YOU think life started?‘ I’d already been running into one of my fellow scientists, Soon, in the chats when she would answer questions about evolution with ‘Darwin was wrong’, and ‘We didn’t evolve from monkeys’, and now things really hit the fan. If you’re bored, masochistic, or just interested in seeing 19th century creationism in a 21st century context, go take a gander; I’ll warn you, though, it’s definite tl;dr territory. For brevity’s sake, here’s a condensed, abridged, and mangled version:

Me: Somewhere before 3.5 billion years ago, the first life (replicators) appeared. We don’t know a lot of the details, and there’s a lot of ways it could have happened, but there’s also been a lot of great experiments done to show possible steps in this chain. Lots of cool science to be done here!

Soon: I’m a biochemist, and Stanley Miller didn’t show anything useful about the beginning of life. Also, cells are too complex to evolve. The Big Bang is ridiculous – what caused the Big Bang? 2nd law of themodynamics means life can’t organise itself (ermagherd entropy!!). Also, if you see something that looks designed, it must have a designer (Paley’s zombie watchmaker argument). Thus, Creator!

Me: *picks jaw up off the floor*


I’ll ignore the details of slapping down the half-baked creationism that Soon (and, unfortunately, Natasha) peddled in her answer; you can see the thread for all of the gory details, or, say, any book written since about 1859. The real problem raised by Soon’s answer is that, in my opinion, Soon’s answer should not have been allowed to begin with. Failing that, the organisers should have made clear that Soon’s opinions were not scientific, and did not belong in an educational forum devoted to science. I had a long talk with the organisers (Kristin Alford and James Hutson) about this behind the scenes, and I hasten to add that while I disagree with their position on this, I respect them greatly. They took the position that my responding directly to these questions modelled how scientists think and how we come to the correct conclusions when presented with unscientific and – frankly – just plain wrong statements about science. In their view, the students would learn more from my response to Soon than from my withdrawing from the competition in protest, which is what I had planned to do. (I eventually relented on withdrawing, not because I believe that Kristin and James were right, but because I felt that I needed to do what I could to counterbalance what Soon (and to a lesser extent, Natasha) were saying to the students).

Kristin and James’s position is intuitively pleasing. After all, as scientists we face these sorts of opinions many times, and showing the students how we deal with them could only be a benefit, right? But I still maintain that this was the wrong approach to take, for two reasons: because addressing creationism in an event dedicated to science legitimises it, and because the structure of the event did not easily allow for the real rejoinder to this, which is that science is a process, not a person.

The first reason is the same reason that Dover teachers refused to read a single statement about intelligent design to their classes, and why the school board members who had been overruled on the introduction of creationism to their schools resigned in protest. Creationism is unscientific, and it does not belong in a science classroom – to introduce it not only damages the science, but legitimises the creationists and makes it appear as if there is a debate where there is none. I viewed my participation in I’m a Scientist as I would any outreach activity where I went into a classroom in my role as a scientist; my duty to the students in this situation is to safeguard their education by presenting the science faithfully to the best of my ability. The Dover teachers didn’t accept what they’d been told and ‘model critical thinking’ in response , because this presented a real danger to students’ education (you can ask Kentucky how this turned out for them). And I will not give ground to creationism in a scientific venue or let it seem as though it is a legitimate alternative to evolution or science (including the study of abiogenesis); as Dawkins quotes Robert May as saying, “That would look great on your CV, not so great on mine“.

The second reason is equally important, though it’s possibly less obvious. When I get into a fight with Soon over creationism, I’m not alone; I draw on the work of tens of thousands of scientists and centuries of scrabbling at the walls of ignorance that these men and women have given their lives to. The words that come out of my mouth or from my keyboard are the result of a process with a long history, one which has produced the accumulated mountains of evidence we have that science works and that it gives us true answers about the world. What I say isn’t true because I say it. It’s true because we as scientists (and anyone else who seeks the truth) have proven it. We’ve done it in fits and starts, we’ve debated bitterly, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve corrected them, but we did it together and over a long time. Students viewing a debate between Soon and I may think that the watchmaker argument is a valid attack on evolution; after all, Soon’s a scientist, right? There were five scientists in our Disease zone, and two of them were creationists – that must mean that there’s a real problem with this evolution thing, right? When Soon tells kids in a chat that ‘we didn’t evolve from monkeys’, hey, it’s coming from a scientist so it’s must be true, right2?

The structure of this competition did not allow for the reality, which is that evolution is true. The reality is that abiogenesis is hard to study, and we don’t know a lot about it, but we’ll learn by using science, not religion. The reality is that climate change is real, that the earth is billions of years old, and that we orbit the sun and not the other way around. These things we know to be true because of the process of science: the meticulous accumulation of evidence by many, many scientists. Along the way we argue and bicker, and there’s always more to learn, but there is a universal consensus on these matters of scientific fact (hey, there’s over 1200 guys named Steve who accept the truth of evolution on the basis of the evidence). But the competition only allowed the students to see science as Soon and I – as people – not as the process that it is. To their credit, Kristin and James put out a call and got a few of the I’m A Scientist alumni to show up on the thread and back me up (thanks, guys!), but given that the final result was 3-2 in favour of evolution and scientific ways of thinking, the students could be forgiven for coming away thinking that this is still just down to a few people with differing opinions.

My position here shouldn’t be taken to mean that I don’t value critical thinking, or teaching these skills. But the hard truth is, I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life acquiring the knowledge that I have about evolution and science (and, I’m happy to say, I’ll never be finished learning about it!). To expect grade 7-12 students to ‘critically think’ their way out of this non-debate in the course of a single short event like this is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. I would be happy to explain the evidence for evolution to the students at length, and do my best to prove to them why we know it to be true and to show them all the things that we still don’t know. But I will not bend on this: creationism answers nothing about science and so does not belong in an event engaged in science education. Nor will it ever.

The organisers of I’m a Scientist seem to know that something went wrong here, and I applaud them for3 being willing to reevaluate their policies for the competition going forward. They’ve assured me that they will look at what happened here, take it seriously, and work to fix it in the future. In the end, I’m happy that I participated in the event; I had a great time, made a couple new online friends, and learned a lot myself (it’s amazing what I had to read to answer some of these questions!). Here’s hoping that the next I’m a Scientist competition can show science for what it is: the light shining on the darkness of our ignorance, held by the hands of anyone who values truth and passed ever forward to cast its glow on new mysteries4.

  1. Time to plug one of my favourite ‘dispelling the lab coats’ sites: This is what a scientist looks like.
  2. Well, it is, but that’s another story.
  3. As they told me offline
  4. Even if those hands sometimes slap each other silly along the way!

Memoir of an academic talk.

tl;dr … well, honestly, go read something else if you don’t like long form.  This is 3600 words of navel-gazing detail, and I’m not about to apologize for it.

A companion piece to my earlier post on the process of designing a poster, this post deals with the talk on the same material for a different conference (vastly different audiences, so I don’t mind overlapping).  As I said for the post on designing the poster, this is a snapshot, or series of snapshots, of my process for doing science and preparing talks.  It’s not the whole picture, and I’m deliberately  exposing the warts and bumps that go with doing science;  I don’t get to control the image you form of me as well as I otherwise might, but I feel that the resulting material is more honest and informative.

In any case, I hope you enjoy it.  Please leave feel free to leave comments or questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.


– Monday, July 23, 2012:  The ISBE 2012 conference is a couple of weeks away, so it’s time to start thinking about the talk.  The initial steps will be a little slow, but today I’ve created the presentation file as a symbolic step.  I haven’t yet conceived of the overall visual theme of the talk, so for now I’m adopting a simple black  on white approach. 

– Thursday, July 26 4:30 p.m. I’ve got about a half an hour before I need to leave the lab to go meet my long suffering wife for dinner.  Time to outline some content!  I’m working quickly, creating new slides and just typing main ideas of the story I’m telling into them.

– 4:51 p.m. 20 minutes later, I’m done a really quick outline.

A couple of things to note.  First, considering that this is a 12 minute talk, you may be wondering if 22 slides is too much. Yes, and no.  For most people, 22 slides is too many for this length of talk;  a good rule of thumb is – depending on the density of your slides – allow for at least a minute for any slide you’ll be saying more than ‘hello’ over.  This is a mistake that I see people make time and time again:  they make hugely dense slides with dozens of graphs, and then leave themselves about 15 seconds per slide.  This won’t work.  They either end up blasting through slide after slide of results, or they go way over time1 .  Aim for simplicity, and remember that simplicity is hard.  Simplicity doesn’t mean dumbing down your message, it means presenting your message in as straightforward and audience-appropriate2  a fashion as possible.  On the other hand, I deliberately present more slides with fewer ideas on each one;  this is a conscious strategy aimed at controlling what the audience is seeing and thinking about on a more fine-grained level.  However, this is a more difficult approach, and you should be careful about adopting it.  Long story short, if you have more than about 1 slide for every 30 seconds to a minute, you should have a good reason why. Also, the outline is hardly set in stone.  As when I did the poster, it’s an iterative process which will lead to me adding and subtracting material as I get into the content and the design.  I’ve already got some ideas that may add in a few slides, so I’ll probably need to subtract some elsewhere.

– Monday, July 30, 4:36 p.m.  Squeezing in a few minutes to work on the slides before I head for home.  I don’t have a cohesive plan for the design of the slides yet, so I’m going to iterate the content a little and see what suggests itself.

– Tuesday, July 31, 11:30 a.m.  Only got a few minutes in on the talk yesterday before I got distracted by an ‘emergency’ (read: time-suck).  I just realised this morning that I really need to create two versions of this talk, because I’m going to be giving it at a couple places I’m visiting in Europe after the conference.  This means that I need a 12-minute version for ISBE, and a 45-minute-ish version for the seminars I’ll be giving.  This isn’t as bad as it looks, because creating the 12-minute version requires cutting out a lot of material that I would otherwise put in;  while it makes for more work creating slides for the longer version, it’s more relaxing because I can afford to go into details that I would have to otherwise avoid in the shorter version.  This post, however, will focus on the 12-minute version which I will create first.

– 4:20 p.m. It’s been a bit of a slow day, but some of the pieces are starting to come together.  I’ve got a few of the visual ideas worked out, and though there is a massive amount of work left to do, at least I’ve got a direction.

You may notice a few things.  First, I’ve littered the slides with notes to myself explaining where I want to go with that slide, reminders about content to add or delete, and even notations on which notes might be suitable to cut from the final version.  Second, if you look closely, some of these images are decidedly low-res.  That’s because they’re “comps” of stock photos (from iStockPhoto), which are super-low-res versions that are watermarked so as to be unusable in a production document.  They are, however, useful for trying things out and deciding what image works best before you lay down money for the final image file.  This lets me play with the slide deck before committing (an example is the image of the dog and the bat;  I’ll only use one when I discuss rabies, but I’m trying them out to see which I like better), and it might even be possible to find free alternatives to the images I’ve used.  The final thing of note is that I haven’t addressed the typography of the presentation yet;  the font used in the slides so far is Keynote’s default Gill Sans, but my next step is to choose some appropriate fonts now that I have a bit of content in place.

– 2:36 a.m.  I’ve been working for the last three hours transcribing every common name and genus-level-or-above taxonomic name from the index of Odling-Smee et al’s monograph on niche construction in an attempt to set the stage for why I’m giving this talk;  namely, that viruses are under-represented here.  To make this point visual, I’m turning it in a word cloud (you can see the placeholder I whipped up in the slides above).  I’ve reached the T’s and I have to stop now because otherwise I’ll be doing this all damn night.

– Wednesday, 12:26 p.m  Back to it, and I’ve finally finished the index.  Now to throw it into R (using the “wordcloud” package), pretty it up, and insert it into the talk!  (And yes, I *will* go way too far for a detail no-one will care about).

– 1:06 p.m.  Here’s the new placeholder that I’ve created in R.  It’s still a placeholder because I’m going to try to match the fonts and colors to the rest of the slides;  making those decisions is the next step.


– 4:25 p.m.  I’m ‘auditioning’ some font and colour scheme choices.  To do this, I’ve duplicated my presentation and slides with in it, and I’m applying various styles to see how they work.  I’m looking for a bold, attention-grabbing combination, because I want this to stand out from a sea of similar-looking talks;  since I’m not adopting any sort of high-concept approach for this talk (mostly due to a lack of time!), I’m focusing on using typography and colour in a more aggressive way than is usual.  With that said, I could really use my wife’s designer eye on this, because I’m having anxiety attacks over what combinations might work.  I like the use of Bebas Neue and a script font for the headers, but I’m having trouble with a body font (because neither of those choices work well as body fonts).  I’m in a bit of a grey area because the presentation really only has a couple of blocks of text that need to be set, so I need to balance readability with mood.

Incidentally – and this is important – I’ve also been ducking into an unused conference room with a project to try this out on the bigger screens.  Always try your talk slides out on a setup that is as close to the final venue as possible.  You want to make sure that the colour combination that looks great on screen actually works when you project it!

– Thursday, 4:36 p.m.  I’ve been working on the slides throughout the day, in and amongst other things on my todo list.  Today I’ve been focusing on the results section, which has seen some progress.

I’ve made some subtle modifications, including breaking the green color of the palette into a brighter green for text on black slides (like the title slide), and a softer green for backgrounds.  If you compare this snapshot to the previous one, you should be able to see what I mean.  Also, I’ve started redoing my figures to use the fonts that I selected for the talk.  It’s a small thing, and perhaps no-one would consciously notice, but I believe in minimising friction for the viewer;  different fonts and designs between parts of the talk can be jarring even if the audience can’t figure out why, and I want to avoid that as much possible.  It may not be entirely doable (I still have to figure out a better way to present that tree, for instance, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find a way to change the font on that), but I’ll go as far as I can to homogenise the design.

– 4:52 p.m. I’ve ducked into the  conference room to check on how the slides are showing up on the screen.  I’m generally happy with it so far, but projecting it makes it clear which version of the word cloud I’m going to keep;  the script version is painful at large sizes.

– 11:04 p.m.  I’m continuing to work on the slides.  I’ve been going back and forth between the bat picture and the dog picture for rabies (another potential example of viral niche construction, methinks), but now it finally occurs to me that the dog picture just doesn’t read well to anyone but me.  So, it has to go.

– 11:55 p.m.  I’m working on a slide that suggests a speculative link between viral niche construction and sociality;  this is based off of work on a cat virus, so I’m using a picture of kittens to illustrate the point3.  My first version, though, illustrates a design issue:  if you use a picture that has eyeballs in them, the rest of the slide has to relate to the eyeline (somewhat similar to the concept of eyeline matching in film editing) or else the viewer gets uncomfortable.


As you can see, the kittens are looking down and I have text above them;  this creates a visual tension that has no reason for being there. Putting the text below the kittens, besides looking bad  because of the shading at the bottom of the photo, also fails because the kittens are all looking in different directions.  Once I’ve identified this problem, I have to find a new photo;  thankfully, the internet seems to be big on cats (who knew?).

– 12:09 p.m.  I’m wrapping up for the night.  I’ve made reasonable progress today:  aside from a set of slides in the middle that I’ve engaged my wife to do drawings for, the last thing that I need to do for this first, rough version is to redraw the phylogenetic tree and find a way to present it.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that I’ve still got too many slides.  I’m going to be practicing this talk (including a lab practice talk next week), but it’s almost certain that I’m going to need to cut some material.  Like any other content editing, there’s going to come a point where I have to kill my darlings. This doesn’t bother me as much as it normally would, because most – if not all – of what I cut will end up going into the longer seminar version of this talk, where I’ll be making the same case in greater depth.  You can see that I’ve already started doing this, as I’ve moved some slides after the acknowledgements at the end;  these will be included in the longer version unless I cut them entirely.

- August 6, 2:26 p.m.  I’ve been fiddling with the slides over the last few days, just trying a few things out and moving things around.  I’ve decided on one of the cat photos, the middle one, as it’s the most engaging; my wife pointed out that this is because of the way they’re looking, including the one staring straight at you.  I’ve got her working on producing a diagram for me to explain the way baculovirus manipulates its hosts, which goes in the blank spot in the middle, and I’ve placed images in there to help get me over the hump.  Today, I need to fix the phylogenetic tree and place it in;  whether I use it in the short or long version, I’ll need it at some point.  And I want to get the short version done tonight if I can, because I plan on practicing it tomorrow before I present it to the lab on Thursday.  So here’s the current state of affairs:

– August 7, 2:15 a.m.  Small refinements now.  Unfortunately, even in consultation with my talented wife I couldn’t come up with a good illustration  for the slide I’ve been holding on the various genotypes;  thus, I’ve decided to break down and use (gasp) text.  I know, I know.  In the mean time, I’ve also managed to refine the tree diagram (which requires further refinement, but the pieces are there now).

– 1:02 p.m. I’m searching for images to illustrate the hypothetical genotypes (zombie, non-gooey;  non-zombie, but gooey).  I’m having trouble meeting the criterion of Creative Commons or stock that I can purchase as well as being the right image for the idea.

– 3:02 p.m. I’ve found images and replaced the phylogenetic trees. I’ve also replaced a slide that I apparently deleted at some point along the way without noticing;  you’ll notice that the second slide in the talk is missing if you compare the last two snapshots above.  Using OS X’s Versions, I was able to graphically browse to an old version from a couple of days ago, find the slide, and drag it and drop it directly into the current version of the talk.  It may not be git, but it’s still cool.  And it’s also a good lesson:  keep old versions!  Keep backups!

I think that the short version of the talk is in good enough shape now that I can practice it, so I’m going to go see if I can find a room with a projector to play in.  If you can, it’s best to practice talks under conditions that are as close to the real thing as possible;  that means standing up in front of a room, even if it’s empty, and playing your slides behind you as you address the room.  Muttering under your breath as you stare at the slides may seem like a good way to practice, but you’ll never find the timing problems and flow issues unless you force yourself to stand up and actually talk.

– 4:52 p.m.  I just finished practicing my talk for the first time.  As I expressed on Twitter:

Seriously, people.  Practice your talks before you give them.  Then, practice them again.  And then three more times.  What I’ve learned is that I need to do some rearranging, because the flow of ideas in the talk didn’t quite work;  I’m going to jettison a few slides and use them in the longer version, and I’m going to see if I can add a few elements to the text that I abruptly noticed were missing.

– August 8, 12:24 a.m.  I’ve spent some time rearranging slides and writing down what I want to say on each slide.  I like to have my material memorized to the point where I can present it without notes, but I sometimes find that writing down key points of each slide when I’m practicing helps me to achieve that goal.  Here’s the current state of the short version, with changes incorporated.

I’m still struggling with some aspects of the design.  In particular the genotype slide (slide 17) is bugging me;  I had to add the model diagram because it was too difficult to explain the genotypes by referring to the parameters alone.  Now that I think about it, though, I may try playing with text instead spelling out the assumptions.  But that can wait until tomorrow, because I need some bloody sleep.

– 11:49 a.m. Back to the conference room to practice again!

– 12:42 p.m. I tried it three times, but I’m still coming in too long.  The talk is supposed to be 12 minutes with 3 minutes for questions, and I’m clocking in at 18-19 minutes.  It looks like I’ll need to pare some things down to put into the longer version.  It breaks my heart, but I think that I’ll have to put the word cloud into the longer version;  it’s a great image, but under time constraints it’s not pulling its weight.  When that happens, you need to kill your darlings.

– 1:07 p.m.  I’m cutting it to the bone, but I’ve got things down to 20 slides (simplicity is hard).  The room I was using is booked right now, I’m going to have lunch and do some work until it’s open and I practice again.

– 4:35 p.m.  I’ve practiced this thing backwards and forwards, but I can’t get the time down!  From 19m 28s to 14m 12s, I’m still two minutes over.  I may have to remove the phylogenetic results, though it kills me to do so.  I know that they’ll be in the longer version where I’ll have plenty of time to go over them, but it still pains me.

– August 9, 12:49 a.m.  I’ve spent the last couple of hours finalising the design, including replacing all of the comp images with the full versions that I’ve purchased.  It’s pricy ($86 AUD for 50 credits on iStockPhoto), but worth it.  If you can’t afford to pay for good images, then find them under a Creative Commons license on Flickr, or take them yourself.  But always use high-resolution images!  And don’t steal them.

– 11:58 a.m.  Okay, further practicing yields no advances.  I’m going to have to cut the phylogenetic results in favor of asking people to talk to me if they’re interested.

12:45 p.m.  11 minutes, 58 seconds!  Finally, we’re ready.  Here’s the state of the talk before I give it to the lab this afternoon.  Don’t forget that I’ve got extra slides tacked on (after the slide with the big Thanks! on it).  I’ve also added a slide with photo credits;  again, acknowledge your sources and don’t steal other people’s work.

– 4:45 p.m.  Well, I gave it to the lab (and a distinguished visitor!), and things went pretty well.  It’s clear that the work I put into the design and practicing the talk has paid off, because I received multiple comments that it was a very polished talk.  There were some good questions, and a couple of good suggestions for minor improvements, but otherwise it’s done and dusted!

- August 11, 12:39 a.m.  I leave for the conference tomorrow afternoon, and I’ve just thrown my talk files onto my USB drive – and I’ve got them in my Dropbox, on my iPad, and in my email. You only have them in one place?  You’re begging for a disaster.  But, I digress.  At this point, it’s worth reviewing the lessons I learned while designing this talk.  First and foremost, as I wrote above, simplicity is hard, and you have to be prepared to kill your darlings.  I had more content than I could present, so I had to cut it down and make it as simple as possible.  Practice is king.  I practiced this talk no fewer than eight times to an empty room, and it paid off;  the people I finally gave it to were impressed at how fluent I was.  What they didn’t see was the hours I spent stumbling and swearing and fumbling my words.  If you suck in private, you’ll be great in public.  And finally, iterate, iterate, iterate!  To make good posters and good talks, you need to advance and revise, create and critique.  If you scan back through this post and look at nothing but the slide pictures I’ve included, I hope that you’ll get a feeling for this.

So, if you’re still reading after all of that, thanks for sticking with me!  I hope you learned a little something, and I welcome your thoughts.  But for now, I’m off to Sweden!

  1.  A minor rant:  if you go over on time on your talk at a scientific conference, you are being rude.  You’re holding up other presenters, you’re making it difficult for people to get between talks on time, and you’re generally making things worse for everyone.  I don’t really care about your excuses, because 95% of the time what they boil down to is ‘I didn’t care enough about my audience’s time to practice my talk and make sure that I could present it in the time allotted’.  I’ll cut students a little slack, but only because I’m going to whack their advisors over the head.
  2. What do I mean by ‘audience appropriate’?  I mean that you need to think hard about your audience and explain things they won’t be familiar with while avoiding long digressions on topics that are well-known to your audience.  Spending two minutes defining ‘genotype’ to an audience at a genetics conference will be a waste of your time, but it might not if you’re presenting to a science outreach high school event.
  3.  Yup, that’s right, kittens.  If that makes it into the final version for ISBE, I pity the poor fool who has to follow my picture of adorable kittens

Darwin on confirmation bias.

If you’ve been paying attention to my Twitter feed or blog (and seriously, why aren’t you?  /narcissismoff), you may have noticed that I’ve been reading a bit about Darwin lately.  I just finished Desmond and Moore’s biography, Darwin, which I found really enjoyable, and when they mentioned his autobiographical musings on his rejection of Christianity, I sought out a copy of that to read.  In amongst his reflections, I saw this quote about the way he worked and the dangers of what we would now call confirmation bias:

I had also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once;  for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones.  Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.1

I don’t know to what extent he managed to follow his own golden rule, but I think that the sentiment is quite important and useful to people in any field, scientific or not.  We should always strive to answer the strongest versions of the arguments against us, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.  As scientists we tend to get this idea beaten into us by vengeful reviewers, after which we have to learn how to separate useful opposition and criticism from useless spite, but I think the reminder from Darwin’s own hand is useful for us to remember.  Besides, it’s just more fun that way;  being ‘right’ all the time (whether you actually are or not!) is boring.

  1. Okay, so he loved commas.  Give the man a break, it was the 19th century.  Quote from p. 123 of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1958, edited by Nora Barlow.  You can read it for free here.