How your bad scientific talk makes me feel

While clearing out the loft over the Christmas period, I found an old wire-bound notepad from my PhD. It had been used to record key points from seminars, conferences and so on. Flicking through, one entry made me smile. Unsurprisingly, I can’t really remember the specific talk I’m referring to in this entry. I do, however, know only too well the feeling of attempted concentration giving way to sheer critique (and eventually, complete indifference) – a frightening number of talks make me feel this way.

I wrote this long before I’d even considered blogging, and it has sat in my loft for several years since. Before it becomes recycled paper, I thought it was worth transcribing so that at least something comes of the lousy conference talk that wasted an hour of my time one January morning:


As the speaker chortled to his cronies on the front row, rambling on about how the members of his research team were “rarely in the same time zone” (guffaw, guffaw), all I could think was “I don’t care! You have forty-five minutes to convince me why your work is important and interesting. So far, everything you’ve said is irrelevant and to be honest, it’s making everyone except the two people you know feel pretty uncomfortable. Tell us something fascinating!”

But he didn’t. He showed us what seemed like a thousand plots, skimmed over umpteen equations and talked in obscure, unfathomable abbreviated terms. He works on one of the most beautiful, amazing groups of birds – the hummingbirds – and yet he has managed to drain every shred of curiosity from me.

A few benevolent members of the audience murmured a chuckle as he commented on the unnecessary complexity of his inscrutable phylogenetic tree. I, however, found myself fighting the urge to stand up and bark: “Are you serious? If we really “don’t need to worry about it”, why show it? Have you even thought about us – your audience – for a moment? Do you want us to remember you and your work? Do you want us to leave thinking you actually do something worthwhile?!”

I managed to contain these silent outbursts. My aggression has begun to subside. Slowly, I have become numbed to the core by his seemingly endless sermon. I have spent the last ten minutes writing this to avert the feeling that my face is melting, but now I am imagining myself as a hummingbird, desperate for nectar. I hope there is wine at lunch.


Never one to miss the chance for a bit of self-promo, if you would like some tips on how to avoid leaving your audience numbed to the core and desperate for wine, here are ten of mine: Nicola Hemmings’ Top Ten Tips for Giving a Great Talk.




Lab elf

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the lab,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a post-grad…


I haven’t seen a soul in the department today. Over the past week, corridors have emptied and office doors have stood closed. The undergrads left last week and the rest of us have been dropping off like flies ever since.

And now it is Christmas Eve. An eerie hush has descended. Professors are at home, beginning preparations for tomorrow’s festivities. Post-grads and post-docs are traveling across the country or world to be with their loved ones. Technicians are breathing a sigh of relief as they look forward to twelve days free from the demands of academics.

Soon, an email will go round, announcing the closure of the department for 2015 and urging us all to be on our merry way. It will generate a hundred out-of-office replies: We’ve already gone.

Except for me. I am still here, and I will remain here for the majority of the next twelve days. Not because I have to. Not because I have vital experiments on the go or because my workload is so crushingly unmanageable that I must simply forgo Christmas. This is quite simply the best time of year to be in the lab.

Call me Scrooge, shout “Bah-Humbug”, question my character if you like. The fact is, what I love most about Christmas is the sheer peacefulness at work.

Imagine that you could begin each working day without a barrage of emails, demanding to be answered with the utmost urgency. Imagine colleagues didn’t immediately intercept you as you walked through the door, requesting your input on a multitude of tasks. Imagine looking at your Google Calendar and seeing an expanse of free space, without a single meeting scheduled! For me, this is the magic of Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong: I will see my family tomorrow. We will eat, drink and be merry. I will not do – or probably even think about – work. But one full day of complete gluttony is more than enough for me. Frankly, I find the rest of the festive period rather boring. One day, if/when I have kids, I will no doubt feel differently, and relish the chance to spend long days off work playing and laughing with them. But right now, I don’t have kids, and the long days off work feel, well, long.

So instead, I will come here to my desk at the end of the lab, and I will start each day by thinking “What shall I do today?” rather than “How the hell am I going get through all of this?” And since no one else will be around to interfere, I will do exactly what I want: Think, read and write about wonderful science.

Merry Christmas Everyone!