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How to Give an Interesting Research Talk?

Corngrass1 a dominant mutant that keeps maize from making the transition to adult growth. The stalk of a normal maize plant is shown to the left for comparison. According to George Chuck, in some genetic backgrounds where they never flower, corngrass plants are potentially immortal, as cuttings of the stalk can be transplanted to new soil and simply continue to grow. (Normally corn plants are annuals, they stop growing once the end of their stalk turns into a tassel and eventually die off even if they're grown in temp. controlled greenhouses.) Photo courtesy of MaizeGDB.org

Just got back from a great talk given by George Chuck, who works on microRNAs that control the transitions between the juvinile and adult phases of plant development in maize at the USDA’s Plant Gene Expression Center. In trying to figure out why it was such a great talks (besides the obvious, that he had exciting data to present).

The obvious ones I could spot where:

  • History. One of the mutants he was working on, corngrass1, was first discovered in a sweetcorn field before many in the audience had even been born, and he was able to tie the history of the mutant in with the history of the debate about corn’s relationship to teosinte the wild grass from which we now know corn was domesticated.
  • Context. Starting out by discussing phase change in model organisms like C. elegans, as well as phase change in humans (more commonly known as puberty) before bringing it back to corn.
  • Tiny unexpected things. The one datapoint he presented to suggest the system he’d found in corn might also be functioning in eudicts wasn’t the usual model system for eudicts (Arabidopsis thaliana, the first plant to have its genome sequenced). It was watermelon. “I’ve always wanted a reason to work with watermelons.” It was only the second time I’ve seen any biologic data on watermelons. (The first was the result of a fascinating discussion with my roommate about phloem loading in the cucurbits (a group of species that includes melons, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers).)
  • I’m sure there were lots of other things I didn’t even notice. Like housekeeping, it’s what’s left undone or done badly is much easier to notice than what is taken care of perfectly. <– I don’t know how the analogy to housekeeping entered my vocabulary, sounds more like something a person who was alive for the 1950s would use.

Studying plant genetics (and probably a lot of other scientific fields as well) means seeing a lot of presentations that are difficult to follow, even though they’re presenting fascinating data, but it also means seeing the occasion speaker who has mastered both the concepts and methods of his or her field as well the techniques used hook an audience.

This isn’t true just of public speaking. I’ve heard people complain (though I haven’t formed an opinion of my own on the subject), that the papers that get published in Science and Nature, the two most prestigious scientific journals out there, don’t always represent the biggest scientific breakthroughs, but rather great science that’s been done by people who are the best at writing papers accessible and interesting to people not working in the exact same field as the authors. I’m still too unexperienced as a scientist to know if this is a real bias, or just represents bitterness by people whose papers don’t get accepted, but you can see how it would make sense if it were true, can’t you?

Science and Nature are both read by highly educated scientists across a wide range of disciplines. If you and I both make discoveries of equal scientific merit, but my paper is written up in such a way that NO one outside of plant science will be able to make heads or tails of it, and yours has a chance of being read and understood by people working in everything from the phylogenetics of archaea to human medicine, and maybe even get a few anthropologists interested enough to skim the figures, obviously your paper should have a higher priority for being published in journals that reach the widest audiences (like Science and Nature).

It really isn’t fair, but people who can do the research, and then turn around and effectively communicate their results clearly do have an advantage in science. That’s why I’m trying to make notes of what keeps me engaged during the best talks. My one attempt so far to present the results of my own research was an only slightly mitigated disaster.

As just for the record, unless you’ve already decided you want a 100% teaching position, great communication skills are NOT a substitute for actually producing interesting data. They’re complementary goods, not substitutes.

4 Comments

  1. Greg says:

    Great post. A lot of people do not recognize communication as a set of skills that needs to be practiced and refined just like any other.

    I was just admiring how well written a paper in Nature is and thought that some people really have this science writing thing down pat. There is definitely a higher portion of elegantly papers (with regards to how it is presented) in higher tier journals. Is that why they get accepted or do people just put more effort into it when dealing with the big shots? Good question.

    Or do the editors play a big role?

    1. James says:

      I’d like to think I’d be psyched enough about actually getting published anyway to put in my maximum effort at making the paper readable, but since I not yet a first author on anything, let alone a Science or Nature paper, I’m in no position to say that definitively.

      I hadn’t thought about whether there might be a difference in the skillset/goals of the editors at the highest tier journals. It’s a good point.

      If I had more time today I’d try to track down some authors who’d published in both Science/Nature and good but more field specific journals like Plant Cell and Genome Research and see how the writing compared.

    2. Amy says:

      I worked in a Nobel laureate’s lab, and they had a full-time editor on staff for the group who prepared all manuscripts for publication. (I’m not sure how common that is.)

      1. James says:

        I didn’t know labs had that kind of support, but I can see how it would make sense if they’re turning out enough high impact papers. (Now I want one!)

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