Posts Tagged ‘science’

Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

This topic popped up as I was working on putting together my itinerary for the upcoming annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). Conferences are especially stimulating for me, as they represent a great intersection of people and ideas. Some may say planning should not be a big deal after years of attending conferences; yet, I can still easily become overwhelmed by rich content gatherings that bring together more than 20,000 people. My zest becomes my biggest problem: it may seem that during any of the long days, I would profit from and enjoy being able to attend more than a half a dozen… simultaneous presentations! So here are some thoughts:

Knowledge/Content: putting together an action plan!

1. Browse topics and speakers ahead of time. I know, I have trouble making proper time for this beforehand, but it always ends up being the best strategy to make the most of my conferences. Postponing until close to departure never works, somehow fires that will need to be put out will always occur just as I am about to take off…

2. Define your strategy, i.e. main goal(s). Ask yourself “what is the most important thing I could bring back after this year’s conference?” Will I want to be able to say: a) “I learned the latest details about a specific project I am working on” b) “I had the opportunity to meet/follow the work of… (specific people/groups)” c) “I was able to check on a specific technology” or d) “I got a good sense of the ‘hot topics’/ future trends?” When in doubt, dig deeper into who/what will be available at this year’s conference, e.g. read abstracts, quickly Google subject/presenters. Learned from experience: frequently the title is more interesting than the content itself! Maybe including in your schedule some of each works best. If on the other hand, the main purpose is to present your own stuff, make sure you alert/invite the people who should hear it. And don’t forget to plan time to check on the room, equipment, or to talk to potentially interested people after the presentation.

3. Use all available scheduling tools to make your life easier (e.g., online planners, personal calendars, alerts, etc.) Prioritize the content, produce a plan/schedule, and find information fast and easily (even when your brain might be half numb).

4. Check on feasibility of reaching presentation locations – can you actually make it from one event to the next on your schedule? If not, have a plan B, could be even just take a quick break and regroup rather than frantically missing half of the next event.

5. Be flexible and nimble, not only in terms of running from one session to another, but if you find that an unexpected topic is capturing your imagination, go for it! You may catch up with the previously planned speaker or topic another time or way.

6. Avoid the “burn!” After a couple of busy conference days, this is to be expected, plan even more purposefully, including breaks. “Spice it up”: mix various formats, contents. Don’t give up easily on your daily exercise routine, unless you really get a lot of mileage walking from session to session. There is also a benefit from using different muscles, maybe use the chance of having a hotel pool to swim instead?

Attendees – interacting with people at meetings is as important as absorbing the content – make time for them! I found that while this is engrained into the business culture (see my previous post on the professional benefits of social interactions at conferences), this may not come naturally to many science or technology-oriented people.

1. Attend interactive sessions, e.g. posters, they usually allow more quality interactions than the plenary sessions. Match your content priority with the format (or… strategy with tactics!), i.e., poster sessions are best for digging into technical details with the presenters, oral/plenary sessions are better to get a bird’s eye view of trends or hear what others might say/ask about a topic .

2. Listen and ask lots of questions, but, please, please, not as a series of excruciatingly detailed questions after an oral presentation… Avoid being one of those people! You will not be making any friends as you will be wasting everybody else’s Q&A great opportunity by insisting on some detail you only are interested in, and you might publicly demonstrate being the last one still in the dark… Asking the presenter technical details after the session always works best.

3. Best opportunity to make contact with people whose work you have followed. One of my greatest thrills when I started going to international conferences was to put a face on a name I only knew from their scientific reports, likely equivalent to that felt by people meeting their Hollywood favorite stars. Schedule time with these people ahead of time (authors’ contact info is mandatory for published reports, or you can Google any academic), or just plan to be where they are likely to be during the meeting to do some “star-gazing.” Take the opportunity to introduce yourself, be very brief, unless invited to elaborate.

4. Re-connect and stay in touch: Use conferences as an opportunity to touch base with previous colleagues, collaborators, mentors, who now work in different locations. Most people feel safer spending the whole time huddling with their current buddies, but you can do that without having to travel. Schedule meetings that do not interfere too much with the “flow”, e.g. go see them by their poster, after their presentation, attend alumni events, or purposefully schedule coffee, lunch, drink, etc. You can use social networks (e.g., LinkedInTwitterMy Lab Your Lab) to signal you will be attending or send invites. Use these after the meeting to re-connect and stay in touch.

5. Network! Go beyond the “known,” make an effort to strike up a conversation with people you don’t know, even if they do not work in an area directly related you current interests. It is often the best opportunity to learn something truly new and come back with great ideas for novel projects. For instance, ask people what are they working on, what is the most exciting angle/topic to them? By doing this, I became aware of a lot of great concepts that I was then able to connect with my own areas of interest and I also identified new collaborators to help me apply them, similarly, a lot of people found me! An easy recipe for innovation. Don’t forget to exchange contact information. You can also “solidify” new connections by inviting people to become part of your professional network.

Did you have some good tips to share with us?

I probably forgot many tips, but a very important one I have to make sure I don’t forget before going back to refining my overloaded itinerary (and packing)… Wear comfortable shoes!

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Recently I was fortunate to hear Professor Leon Lederman, Physics Nobel Prize Laureate 1988, speak and to continue with him the conversation regarding understanding science. He is not only brilliant but also very funny. His main message was that nature is likely very simple once we finally understand it. He also emphasized the need to be able to explain science to a large audience in order to engage others.

His opinion completely resonated with my own central belief that a few fundamental principles could explain – and rule – nature in her many representations. Maybe this is because I started my own scientific education journey with Physics then went on into biology and medicine, or maybe it is why I pursued my education in that order (mentioned in an earlier post on our educational journey). In fact, Professor Lederman is on a crusade to re-haul high-school science education. He believes the sequence in which this is currently taught in the USA is wrong and that students should be first introduced to Physics, then go on to study Chemistry, and finally Biology (the exact sequence I pursued myself!) He argues that we should be building up the knowledge of our world from understanding the few elemental particles to studying the list of chemical elements, and then go on to studying the much more complex collection of biological systems. As a simple yet brilliant demonstration that something simple could the basis of something much more profound, Professor Lederman offered the following thought: “consider for instance a simple problem such as: Johnny drives at 60 mph from point A to point B which is 360 miles away. How long will it take him to get there? When solving this problem, you are basically… predicting the future!” (If only Wall Street would be better at that…)

Agh, I finally felt understood! To me, physics is all about fundamentally simple building blocks, about learning a few fundamental principles (like E=mc2) and using them to deduct anything else needed and build up from there. As I might have mentioned somewhere else, the perceived simplicity and lack of expectations to memorize things were the very reasons due to which I had decided to begin my scientific training to become a biomedical researcher with Physics. Later, during my years among biologists and physicians (yes, I did not mean physicists), in the process of analyzing puzzles presented by biological systems I often raised eyebrows when expressing my fundamental belief: “It just cannot be so complicated. If it were… we would be broken most of the time. It must be simple, we just don’t get it!” If starting with this premise, one makes a conscientious effort to ask the “simplest” fundamental question that might explain the observation (allowing the quickest way to confirm of infirm the hypothesis) and then design the simplest experiment to test it.

And, I think Physics is all about unifying theories and the “big picture!” On the other hand, biology’s building blocks are already rather complicated and display great apparent variability, and it only gets harder from there! Biology delves into the details and variability of things, while physics constantly seeks the unifying themes. A quick analogy of the difference between physics and biology can be gleaned from the quintessential tools used by these two scientific disciplines: telescopes and microscopes. The first can help one see galaxies millions of times bigger than us and the world we came to know, all captured in one little circle, and they all look basically very similar, some sort of “speckle”… The other type of tool, reveals the extraordinary intricacy and variability of worlds millions of times smaller than us and the microscope calls for … two (!) oculars to do it.

The same quest for simplicity should guide our efforts to solve any outstanding problems: great solutions, as well as great innovations, are really simple. These rely on ideas that are easy to understand, therefore easy to design and build, test, implement, and easy to “sell!” If you still have doubts about this, think of the proverbial “30 seconds elevator speech” or consider the continuously rising popularity of Tweeter (if can you say it in 140 characters, we’ll read it and might be persuaed to became your followers!). One should be able to explain the most brilliant ideas in a few simple sentences. This is the surest way to win support, whether it is in terms of human following, gaining resources, or the funding needed to develop it. When the benefits of the innovation are obvious, the product literally sells itself.

While travelling I was pondering the concept of the beauty of simple innovations, so I was more tuned into observing them around me. I don’t know about you, but I used to cringe every time I got into the shower of a hotel room knowing that in spite of my best efforts the curtain will be sticking to my wet body. I knew they did not change the shower curtain too frequently, and I dreaded the almost certain occurrence. However, lately, this daily stress has completely disappeared. Thank you, inventor of the… curved shower curtain rod, whoever you are, you deserve all the royalties for this simple innovation that finally allows me to start my days completely refreshed.

Simple is beautiful!

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