What you really need instead of an elevator pitch

The chairlift might be a time to talk about your science!

I bet you’re feeling a little guilty whenever someone asks you if you have an elevator pitch, you know, those 30 second or 1 minute talks about what you do that can be given in the time it takes to go up from the first to the fifth floor. You don’t really have one. If you do, you probably worry that it sucks. You know not to be too technical, that if you had taken a course from Alan Alda on improv, you would be much better.

So maybe you feel a little relief when I tell you that really you don’t need an elevator pitch and there is a good reason you don’t have one. Even improv champs like Alan Alda or Aniek Ivens might agree with my following reasoning. First, consider the elevator ride. Actually, people generally do not talk to each other in elevators, even at scientific meetings. So, it is not going to be an elevator pitch, because you are not going to blurt out 5 sentences to strangers and in any way communicate science.

When might you actually have a chance to have only a few minutes to explain your science? The most plausible scene I can think of is in a group where you know some but not all the people. So there is already a bit of a comfort level since you have friends in common. The stranger next to you turns to you and asks “What do you do?” or “What do you work on?” At this point I think I would use one of these five sentences. 1. I am an evolutionary biologist. 2. I work on social behavior in microbes. 3. I study the evolution of symbiosis in a social amoeba called Dictyostelium. 4. I am at Washington University in St. Louis. 5. I teach behavioral ecology and undergraduate research perspectives. Just one of those, no more. I would pick which one depending on the audience.

The next sentence I would say would be to ask the questioner what she does. However she answers, I would ask a follow-up question. I would try to turn the conversation to what she does. This gives me several advantages. First, I get to learn something new. Second, if the conversation does get back to what I do, she is much more likely to listen. Third, she will have an overall positive opinion of me because I am interested in her work.

But what if she never does ask me what I do? Have I lost an opportunity? No, for two reasons. First, if she really doesn’t care what you do, forcing it on her won’t help. Second, by letting her go first, you can figure out which of your many cool stories will most interest her, and tell that one. You should never spend much time on an overview of your work. Do that with a sentence and then turn to one cool story.

But what if she is really famous and you already know what she does? You can ask her about one particular study she has done. Or you can ask her what she is most excited about now. When it gets to your turn, if it does, then you already know which of your stories she is most likely to be interested in.

So there you have it. Conversation is a dialogue. Turn the conversation to the other person and you will learn something and have a more willing listener should it come around to you. And then tell one story, chosen to fit best with this particular listener. Have fun!

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For your NSF proposal, fit your Broader Impacts to existing infrastructure

One of the challenges to writing a compelling Broader Impacts section in your grant proposal is that we are not generally educated in this area. We are not high school teachers. Most of us have never made a museum exhibit, or done meaningful outreach of any duration. We generally do not even know what a high school curriculum in our field looks like, or what kinds of activities are desired.

Think of the next generation of scientists and citizens!

So we invent something that sounds cool and hope it doesn’t sink the research we really want to do. In doing this we ignore all the research into pedagogy and learning that is out there. We ignore curricular standards. We ignore our own colleagues in other areas. This is terrible. Fortunately there are a few really simple fixes that will empower your efforts toward real impact in schools and communities.

First, ask the experts. Find teachers in your community and ask them what they need. Ask them how you and your team might help with a curricular need. They don’t get to teach whatever you invent. They have standards to meet, test goals to cover, whether it be higher level International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP), or simply the standard for the US, SAT or ACT. You owe it to them and to yourself to figure out how your research can fit their needs. Make the link explicit. It is easy to find the education goals of all these programs. You could start with what the National Academies thinks is important.

Second, plug your projects into existing infrastructure. Does your university already have a way of helping public schools? Mine does, with the Institute for School Partnership. We also have a way of interacting with the community, The Gephardt Institute. We have a volunteer program for graduate students, the Young Scientists Program. What does your institution have? Use it!

You may feel this is not doing something totally new, but I disagree. It is a way of using existing infrastructure to find the audience for your cool outside-the-university modules. It is also a way of discovering what the teachers and educators that engage at this level most need. Innovate with your science activities and messages, not with the way of bringing them to the community.

There are other existing venues you can use, from farmer’s markets to museums. When I set up a science booth at the farmer’s market here, I sincerely hope others will want to use this venue too, just as they do with the physicists at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. My science cannot sustain it. Together as a community, we could have a permanent series of activities. Together we can bring change. If broader impacts are too scattered and not part of a broader infrastructure they will not actually endure. We have been putting broader impacts in NSF proposals for a long time now. What can we point to that we have actually changed? We are so creative and so hard working. Now it is time to tie with structures that will let our ideas best serve the community and endure.

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Improv for scientific communication with Aniek Ivens

Children get improv, naturally

How I wish I understood you, but I have no idea what you are talking about. You seem friendly and animated and clearly love your research, but what is your question? Why do you like this figure so much? What is important? How does your work fit with what has gone before? How does it fit with what I already know? Oh, right, you don’t know what I know any more than I know what you know, so how do we ever move forward?

Steve Pinker calls this the curse of knowledge. Alan Alda asks you why he’s making this face if he understands you. Figure this one out and not only will you communicate your work more effectively, but you might also learn to ask bigger questions and answer them more ingeniously because you have learned to communicate across boundaries.

It is hard to communicate because the details are things you think about all the time. How could anyone not know them? The broader the audience, the deeper the chasm. National meetings may seem to be the most challenging of all because the audiences are so varied. However you should also be talking about your research with people who do not share your background at all, which is another set of skills. If we did this better, maybe our governments would get the importance of investing more in research.

Learning to bridge to others may best be done with tangential exercises. Learn to explain something you are not invested in, then apply those same skills to your science. This is sort of like cross training. The fastest runners don’t get that way just by running, do they? Or maybe a better analogy would be a team sport where you have to figure out the actions of others, not just your own. This is key.

Pay attention to your audience. Pay exquisite attention to your audience. Talking is not communicating, after all. Communicating is a dance of talking and listening, building your story according to what your audience is getting. Know your audience is a start.
Improv? Isn’t that where you keep a blank mind and say or do something that follows only from what another participant said before? Isn’t it where you get to put others in embarrassing positions, setting them up for a story that cannot easily be continued? No! Actually in improv the actors try to set each other up to shine, something that requires exquisite between actor connections. Improv in front of an audience might seem like a party that you don’t get to attend, only watch. But of course the whole point of improv is an intimate connection to the audience, almost as if they were another actor. How the script goes depends on the audience reactions in the best cases.

We were fortunate enough to have Aniek Ivens teach us in a too-short workshop an introduction to improv for science communication. We started with learning each other’s names. Besides Aniek, there were 14 of us, a challenging number to learn quickly. We all got in a group and chose an adjective and an action to attach to our first names. Aniek started as anxious Aniek who showed us clawed hands in front of her. We had juggling Jenna, miming juggling, ecstatic Erica who jumped up spreading her arms up. We had yucky Yunji who made a face and artistic Allison, who air painted. We had fast Freddie, extended Ethan, and terrible Tony. We went around the circle a few times saying our names and showing our actions. Then we all did each person’s action, passing around the circle. Would this work in class? I might give it a try. After all, this was an easier way to learn the names than what Aniek would call dry names, without the accompanying adjective and gesture.

Clearly we still had a lot of loosening up to do and I could see Aniek was mentally sorting through hundreds of possibilities. She chose a circle game in which we clapped our shoulder on one side counting to six, then arced our arm over our head for seven. After a few rounds of this, she added a twist. It was that the direction could reverse if we simply used the other arm to slap the other shoulder. And we still had to keep track of the different gesture for seven. It sounds easy, but speed it up and we made mistakes, missing the seven, or failing to detect a change of direction indicated by our neighbor. It got fun.

Then Aniek broke us into two circles. If we made a mistake we had to run to the other circle. No one else could tell us to go. We had to self-police. I suppose we could always use more self-policing and less other policing. This got crazy and fun. We could hardly stop laughing. Maybe the point of it was to loosen us up and to make us comfortable with mistakes.

We did some other things before we got to explain stuff to each other. All of it had to do with communicating, I think. Here is one that was intense. We stood opposite another person. One of us was the leader. That person had to do movements that the other had to mirror so exactly that a third person could not identify the leader. This meant we had to move slowly and look the other person in the eyes continuously. I still remember channeling Aileen’s every movement as she moved slowly and carefully. It helps in doing this to follow some kind of pattern. Clearly Aileen had some familiarity with ballet moves, but I did not, just as she did not know yoga moves I fell back on when I was the leader. I like to think we were pretty good at slow, symmetrical moves that were not too hard to match. But what did this have to do with either improv, or communicating science?

I guess it isn’t too hard to figure out that the connection has to do with exquisite communication. You can’t follow a predetermined script if your audience doesn’t follow you. How can you tell if you are actually communicating the ideas you care about? Only by having a great connection to your listener. I suppose you get better as you do this at guessing what your listener gets so that you get better with even a huge audience in a dark auditorium. This exercise was mesmerizing, even though we weren’t using it the way others have here, here , here and here.

The next exercise we did was lighter. Someone began with a word and around the circle the story grew, each person adding a word to the previous one to tell a story. Aniek reminded us a story begins with a scene, has a problem, then has a resolution to a problem. Your science stories should be the same. She also reminded us to keep a blank mind, so we could best respond to what the person before us said. I could say a lot about the power of a blank mind, open to discovery. If you really listen to what your audience is saying, you may begin to avoid the curse of knowledge.

Now that we were all loosened up, comfortable with making mistakes, in touch with our blank minds and the supremacy of the audience, we were ready to do some activities that got really close to actually explaining our science. Aniek told us we had to do a kind of role playing, explaining a modern device to 15th century people. This required us to imagine our audience and their world. It made us think about the world they knew as different from the world we know. This is an important skill for explaining to any audience, particularly those with less of a science background.

Finally we got to the actual science part, which was just as interesting as the rest. I wonder how we would have done if we hadn’t gone through the earlier exercises. Frankly, I believe they made us much more in touch with the goals of science communication, actual understanding of what our partners understood and when we needed to back track. As before, we each took a turn being actor and recipient. The actor told the recipient what role they should take. I paired with Tony and he wanted me to be a prospective graduate student since he is starting a new lab. When my turn came, I wanted him to be a recalcitrant editor that keeps rejecting my papers without review. One person worked through a two-minute presentation, then a 1 minute, a 30 second, and finally a 15 second spiel. After the two-minute one, we answered questions about what we understood.

It was transformative. If ever I felt I had time to ramble in two minutes, it was after having said essentially the same thing in 15 seconds. I think it not only helped me communicate better, but also helped me understand what my real message was. It helped me think about where the weaknesses were also.

We wrapped up with some group discussion and then one last exercise. We got back in the main circle, juggling Jenna, artistic Irene, angry Aileen, basic Brandon, and all the rest. Then we started with the one word thing but instead of going around the circle, the person that said one word pointed to the next speaker. When we felt the idea was complete, we indicated it with all yelling out ‘right on!’ These were sort of like proverbs. We did a bunch of them, then ended the fabulous 100 minutes with applause for amazing Aniek.

Can I keep everything I learned that afternoon? Will I actually find and take an improv class?Or I could look for TJ and Dave, or, according to Aniek again, read Jagodowski or  Keith Johnstone,

But really, I hope I get to work with Aniek again. If you want to, here is her contact:
Or you could try your local improv groups, or Alan Alda:  or lots of other publicity on the role of improv in communicating science, like this.

So, have fun, pay intense attention to your audience, help everyone shine, and figure out what your big ideas are and what the evidence for them is.

Posted in Communication, Creativity, Science writing for the public, Scientific meetings, Talks | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The best job for an undergrad premed student

Nancy combs my mother’s hair.

Before medical school in the USA, premed students can major in anything, provided they take a certain number of science courses and some other requirements. In addition to college, they shadow doctors, observe in clinics, and go on service trips to hospitals in other countries.

It seems like diligent premed students really want to learn about the profession they will give their lives to. But how much do these activities really make a difference once they are doctors? Here I describe an activity that I hope will give them a kind of enduring empathy that will make the a much better physician for their whole career. It is something simple. It is something that pays, that has flexible hours, and offers a unique perspective.

The point of it is to help premed students see their future patients as people with real lives, with families, with preferences for food, for music, for television, and for friends. But how can a premed student intimately embed themselves into a patient’s family? They can do this by working in  home care. This does not require a nursing degree. In fact, it does not require any degree. A weekend CPR course is helpful. You should be up-to-date on your vaccines, flu, and more. Some even do a short course to become a Certified Nurse Assistant, but it is not necessary.

It is not hard to find in-home care jobs. They are advertised locally. Or you can join an outfit like Home Instead. The pay may be low and benefits few, but you are doing this for the experience. In some cases you might be able to tie it to a college course and get credit. It embeds you into a family for priceless experience of life outside of clinics and hospitals.

Chris helps my father find something he wrote.

Why is this such a great idea? It is because in home care lets you see patients that will show up in the clinics in their homes where they love, are loved, and live. They are people who once had lives as vibrant as yours. They did not choose to become old or ill. These things happen to real people who continue to have their interests and passions, whether they can act on them or not.

Why should you develop the empathy that seeing patients as whole people will give? Because it might slow you down a bit. You may know the treatment for a given patient, so you don’t feel like listening to that soft, raspy voice. But giving all the dignity of being listened to helps a lot with health outcomes. If you get it at a visceral level that this is not just an ill body in front of you, but someone’s mother or daughter, your job will be both easier and more fulfilling.

Nick, at Michigan State University figured this out and did it before I knew about it. Now he has graduated, his friend Chris is helping my parents. Both are wonderful and I hope what they learn on the home side of care makes them better physicians in the future.

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What can you give others at a scientific meeting?

A meeting in Florence in 1993, Polistes as a model system, where I was seated between Bill Hamilton and Mary Jane West Eberhard.

My undergraduate advisor, Richard Alexander of the University of Michigan once told me that there was nothing I could do better for my career than to give a great talk at a national meeting. Unfortunately, the converse was also true, that there was nothing worse I could do than to give a poor one. Ever since that advice I have taken giving talks extremely seriously. After all, if only 10 or 20 people read any particular paper carefully, there could be 30 or 40 in a talk audience. Some of them are even listening. But I only partly jest. Everyone wants to tell about their own work at a scientific meeting, either with a talk or a poster.

But there is something else perhaps just as important that we can all do. It is something that becomes more and more important as we advance in our career. It is to help someone else at the meeting. This is easily done if people come up to you and ask you questions. Make time for them. Ask if they have lunch plans. Pay for their lunch. You probably have more funds at your disposal than they do. You could after all make a real difference in someone’s career.

If people do not come up to you, approach them. Approach the younger people, particularly those that are alone. Be friendly and get them to talk about their research. This is easier if you came out of the same talk, or if the meeting meals are together. Try to make a difference to someone every day. Try to figure out what you know that might be useful to them. Listen.

Taking the time to talk to people thoroughly at posters is another way to do this. Look at them and listen to their story. If they don’t have a summary point, ask for it. If they don’t have what’s next on their poster, ask for it. Don’t just go to the posters of your friends, or your friend’s students.

As scientists, it is wonderful to discover new things and to solve puzzles. It is also wonderful to make the path easier for the next generation of inquiring minds. Meetings offer an excellent opportunity to do this. So while you are keeping track of what you are learning at a meeting, also be mindful of how you are helping.

Posted in Scientific meetings, Undergraduates | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Undergrads: present your poster effectively!

Rory explains his poster to Justine, keeping to the strict time limit.

You have your poster and have tacked it up at your assigned place on a rickety stand. People are starting to wander in. They walk down the middle of the poster isle, trying not to make eye contact so they don’t get engaged inadvertently with a hungry poster presenter. That is the challenge of poster presenting. No one wants to be captured for too long at any one poster. How do you get people to stop and hear your pitch?

The scientist that stops at your poster has made a choice, kind of like speed dating free-for-alls. They want to learn something and they want to be released quickly, or at least have that option. They stopped because it looks like you will offer this. First, your poster is simple enough that it won’t take forever to hear about. Second, you look friendly and engaging. You might have made eye contact with the person and asked if they want to hear the story, promising that it is short. Third, your poster looks interesting. You understand that posters are short advertisements for your research, not the whole story.

We had a practice poster session for our undergrads, with a timer every 5 minutes and rotation.

So, how do you deliver an excellent poster visit experience? Practice presenting your poster. Tell a story. Make sure that it takes no more than 4 minutes. Yes, 4 minutes. Keep it under that! This is essential!

Look at your audience, not at the poster. Never point at the written words; only point to a figure or two. When you are talking to someone, you should let your words carry the day. Likewise, your visitor should look at you, not at the poster. If they look at the poster instead, gently tell them you can just tell them the story more quickly and you’ll point to the few bits they need to look at. The promise of speed is a good one.

After 4 minutes or less, release your victim. Encourage her to move on. She usually will. If she wants to stay longer, then it should be her decision. Don’t desperately cling to each poster visitor. Bring them in, entertain them briefly, then release them. Have fun!

You could also in advance email a few people you particularly want to see your poster. Tell them when it will be up and what number it is. Choose people that are in related labs and not just the PI. Their students are probably more fun. Some societies, like SSEvolution, have a formal way to do this. They also talk about permanently sharing your poster on figshare, also a great idea.

If you are lucky, additional people will join your poster as you are talking to the first person. Bring them in with eye contact, but do not go back and start over. That would be discourteous to your first person. Just keep going, making eye contact with both, and be sure to be open constantly to questions.

Erica explains her poster to Dave

Oh, one more thing. Some people will look at your poster when you are not there. It should tell the story enough that you don’t have to explain it. These people are really a completely different audience.

One last thing I should mention is that the poster should be great. There are lots of places to turn to see how to make an effective poster. In sum, it should have few words, under 300 if you need a number. It should tell a story, generally one story, not everything you do. It should have clear figures. It should flow in 2 or 3 columns, top to bottom, to accommodate several people looking at it at once. It should be simple, large, and clear.

I’m at a meeting now, looking forward to the poster session this afternoon. Almost no one will effectively follow these guidelines. Do so, and you will talk to the most people and excite them about your work.

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An undergrad primer for attending scientific meetings

Former Rice Undergrad, now Emory grad student, Erica Harris, at her first Gordon Conference, Animal Microbe Symbioses.

Undergraduates can benefit from attending scientific meetings even more if they have a plan. This plan should be focused around what you want to learn. The meeting overall will be broader than your specific interests, so it is good to pick something in particular to learn. For example, at one Evolution meeting, I decided to learn more about phylogenetics. I used that goal to guide me towards both useful talks and people to talk to. I didn’t ignore more general discussions and talks, but with this focus I could judge how well I was getting something out of the meeting.

You can achieve your goal by going to talks, going to posters, and talking to people. The first two are much easier than the third, but the third is at least as important as the first two. So choose people you want to talk to. The easiest way to do this is to figure out who the lab heads are on topics you are interested in, then find someone else in that group who is attending the meeting. You can talk to the PI, but others will have more time and be as good or better. You can also meet people at posters to talk with further. You can email people also. It is crucial that you look at who is coming to the meeting and figure out in advance both your goal and a few people you want to talk with.

Conversations with new people about science work best if you have read some of their papers and have some specific questions to get the conversation going. It is fine to have these written down. Even if you just do three people and their papers, that will be a good start. Really the whole meeting will be less intimidating if you do some homework first.

Oh, and while you are hunting down the famous and their lab members, don’t forget to talk to your peers. There will always be someone more alone than you, someone whom you can befriend. Who knows, this could be the start of a delightful collaboration. So even if you feel you are struggling, remember you have something to give to someone with even less confidence. Be alert to them, and see what you both can learn.

You may also be giving a poster, so this is another important part of your meeting experience. Both at the poster and elsewhere you have a chance to share what you are doing. I’ll write more about this in another piece, but the key is to make it short. Have a summary of a few minutes or less. Tell the big question, what you have discovered and what you are struggling with. Listen to comments even if they are not that helpful.

If there are any specific events for undergraduates, go to them. Go to the receptions. Sign up for field trips. Use any opportunity to learn from people. Don’t be shy!

After the meeting, try to solidify what you have learned. Write down a summary. Look back at the papers you read before and read more. Make a list of what you have learned. Contact and thank the most important people you met.

Posted in Posters, Presentations and seminars, Scientific meetings, Travel, Undergraduates | Tagged , , | Leave a comment