Monday, 4 November 2019

3 Tips to Make the Best out of a Scientific Meeting

Do you wait all year long to go to a meeting and you come back feeling like you missed all the good talks?

Did your friend get to talk to the keynote speaker –maybe even got invited to spend some time at their lab– and you only got yourself a one-person audience at your poster?

Do you feel awkward and frustrated when it is time to ask questions at the end of a talk and you can't for the life of you think of a single interesting one?

Here are some tips on how to make the best out of any meeting.

#1 Check out the program in advance

I know that during the weeks and even days before the meeting arrives we're all rushing to get our posters or talks finished in time, or we're tying up some loose ends so that we can thoroughly enjoy the meeting without worrying about a half-finished experiment back home. However, a great way to make sure you don't miss anything important is making a schedule of the talks you want to see before even leaving your home.

You could say, "But Dr Perillo, I can get to the hotel the day/night I arrive and see what's what." However, when you arrive, you might get there the same day the conference begins and you'll find yourself wasting precious talks trying to find the ones that interest you. Or if you get there the previous night, you might find friends you haven't seen in years and end up going out to eat or for drinks (we are human after all and not everything is work-related, even during a business trip).

Another possible complication is that many times there are a lot of talks happening at the same time in different rooms and if you don't plan ahead,  in the rush of getting to one of the talks, you might end up going to the less interesting one. So, why not be prepared in advance?

Taking one hour here and another one there –maybe while eating your lunch two or three days before– and perusing the program will help you realize what are the talks and posters you will be interested in seeing.

#2 Think of questions ahead of time

Don't you hate when a presenter finishes their talk and no one asks anything at all? You can hear the crickets in the room and the awkward shuffling of bodies waiting for the moderator to hurry the next talk along. Or are you like me, one of those people who finds the talks super interesting but are left with no questions at all?

After several conferences, I got tired of being unable to formulate any kind of question. I started creating the habit of asking myself questions while the talk was going on. How could I relate whatever the presenter was talking about with my own work? Were the methods applicable to my own research? What were their drawbacks? If I knew about the method that the researcher was using and knew about its limitations, had the researcher taken those into account? Could they have designed the experiment some other way or taken into account another variable I am familiar with? And so on...

I'm not promising that these particular questions are the right ones to ask every time, but over time, I found that making myself those questions while listening to people speak led me to generate tons of questions that I could actually ask. It's a habit that is pretty useful and not just even for uncomfortable silences. They help out when reading papers too!

#3. Network, network, network

My dad always told me that the most important part of a conference is the coffee break (or lunch, or dinner). Why? Because those moments are the ones where you get to network with other researchers in your field, which may lead to collaborations and many more opportunities that you wouldn't have if you had stayed quiet by yourself eating half the pastries at the snack table. I may even dare say that half of what makes you a successful researcher is making connections with other scientists. It's the sharing your ideas over coffee (or tea, or mate if you are Argentine or Uruguayan) and coming up with ways to improve each other's projects with your different expertises.

One way to connect with these people is to go to their talks and ask questions (Hence, the usefulness of tip #2). Questions get conversations started and may lead you to places you would never have dreamed of. They might also fizzle out, but unless you take the chance, you will be stuck with your same old same old reality.

So, force yourself out of your shell and get to meet other people. Even if you're stuck at your poster, talk to your neighbours, or be a rebel and leave your poster alone for ten minutes and go engage with someone else. You never know what opportunities you might get from talking to the stranger getting coffee right beside you.

#3.1 Don't cluster with your pals

A corollary of the point above is: don't stick to your workmates. I know that not everyone is an accomplished extrovert able to talk to stones. I am surely not one of them. From personal experience, I know how hard it is to go out on your own and make connections with other people. So, what was my preferred modus operandi when I used to go to a meeting? I would stick with my people, the ones I saw every single day at work. By the end of the meeting, I ended up making no connections at all.

So, go meet some new people, but if you don't want to seem suddenly antisocial to your friends or colleagues, maybe get together for one lunch or one dinner, or possibly, invite them over to eat with the new people you're in the process of meeting.

Bonus tip: Don't forget to take one day to sightsee!

Always try (if your personal travel budget allows) to stay an extra day, either before or after the conference. Some conferences, like the one I'm currently attending, are in places I know almost like the back of my hand, but others will be in places where you might never go again. Don't miss the chance to see the local culture and points of interests, even if it's in your own country. There is always something beautiful and unexpected that you won't ever get to see otherwise!

Sunday, 27 October 2019

An unusual tool to stop procrastinating on your dissertation writing

Does your heart tremble when you think about writing your thesis? Do you hyperventilate when you imagine the number of pages you need to write to finish it? This will undoubtedly mean more words that you may have written in your life! Have you tried to start writing it but keep putting it off? Following the rabbit into procrastination land is so much easier than facing the fear of that blank page.

I've been there. I get you. Know that you're not alone.

Yet, you have to sit down and write that huge little monster sometime before your scholarship or TA-ship ends, right?

I have a tool that might help you tackle that monster and make it fun at the same time. It is a tool that has nothing to do with science but a lot to do with writing.

[Now, before I tell you what it is, promise me you'll be open-minded and hear me out until the end of the post –it's not that long anyway– and then, if you think it's not a good fit for you (or even if it is a good fit), I'd appreciate if you could let me know your thoughts in the comment section.]

Having made that small request, here's the tool. It's called National Novel Writing Month.

[Cri, cri, cri. Are you still here?]

[I know, you're writing a thesis, not a novel, but hey! They're both a lot of work, they have a long word count, and they do tell a story! Yes, even scientific papers, in their own way, tell a story.]

What's the tool about?

The National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – or simply NaNo for those of us who are addicted to it– is an activity that happens each year during November where each participant assigns themselves the task to write a novel in a month.

During the event, people from all over the world pledge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. [Yes, you read that right.] That means that to reach the goal, you better write at minimum 1,667 words per day. If you skip a day, you'll have to make up for it, so it puts pressure on you to keep up at least with the bare minimum.

What are the advantages?

The advantages of adhering yourself to this month-long challenge are:
  • You get to start writing your thesis;
  • You get a final date on when that very first draft is doing to be finished;
  • You don't waste time editing and re-editing the same paragraph all day long until you end up the day deleting it all because everything sounds like bs;
  • You don't waste the time from the point above because the large word count per day lets you forego of your inner critic for a little while;
  • Depending on where you live, some groups join in for write-ins (in-person sitting down and working on their writing once a week in a coffee shop or library);
  • The site calculates the statistics on how fast you are writing and how long it'll take you to finish at your current speed;
  • You get a whole world-wide community that will be cheering you on (even if what you're writing isn't a novel);
  • You get accountability along with that cheering;
  • If you can't do it in November, they also have Camp NaNo April and Camp NaNo July where you can tackle your own word counts;
  • Did I mention that you get started and might actually finish the draft?
How the site looks like, with a word count graph, and average word count, etc.
How the statistics page looks like on the website. Right now, as NaNoWriMo hasn't officially started, it is still empty (

I know what you are thinking. How am I going to get something coherent if I need to rush to write so many words? I need to put my citations and think about how I'm structuring the thesis itself and the chapters. What if I end up with a rambling mess? What if I have to delete half those pages I wrote? And those are the disadvantages of using this tool.

I get your fears. That is what might happen. It happens to the novelists trying to write their novel too.

There is a solution for that, though. It's called editing. Even if you don't write your thesis in a rush, you're still going to take the time to edit both your idea organization and your grammar. You're still going to have to add the correct citations. You could avoid some of those problems by having an outline to follow as you write and by having read the papers you think you are going to need beforehand.

Despite those unavoidable problems, the point of this tool is to get you started. You can't edit and finish a thesis if you haven't started writing it. You can't make sense out of your thoughts if you don't spill them out into the page. You have to do that at some point.

You have to stop procrastinating at some point.

My turn

I am going to be participating in this year's National Novel Writing Month writing a novel (as I have my PhD and already went through that thesis writing nightmare). However, a very dear friend is in the process of writing her thesis, and if you let her, she's more than happy to go find other work to do in the lab or go help someone else out rather than sit her butt on the chair and finish writing her thesis. So, in the spirit of helping my friend achieve her goal, I've asked her to join me as my writing buddy this November. I'll write my novel; she'll write her thesis. In the first post of December, I'll let you know how it worked out for her!

Participating in NaNoWriMo over the years has made me a better, more consistent writer, and it gifted me with the bonus of making friends that I'll have for the rest of my life.

Why don't you give it a try?

[If you want to give it a try, my NaNo username is vanelle. Search me and add me as a buddy. I'll be more than happy to be your accountability buddy.]

Friday, 25 October 2019

Fiction Writing: Sometimes a detour goes a long way

       I’ve always been a writer, a story finder. I was writing short stories ever since I learned to string two sentences together. I even made use of writing during the hard teenage years, when everything seems bleak and you’re looking for your way. It was my refuge when there were no friends to be found when there was no one who seemed to understand.
       I lost it, though, as I went into college because short stories weren’t what I wanted, what I needed to write. I had the drive to write a novel, an epic journey as those Tolkien wrote about, but I just couldn’t do it. By the time I finished the first two paragraphs, my story idea seemed foolish and uninteresting.
       Discouraged, I gave up on the idea of being a writer, focusing on what I thought I could be successful at: science. There was no more time for writing in between the classes, labs, new friends and experiences. When I started my PhD, there was even less time for writing.
       Then, it was time to sit down and write my thesis. I was afraid but wanting to finish that chapter in my life. I sat down, legs shaking, fingers sweating and opened the new document.
       The blank page stared at me accusingly but like any good scientist, I filled it with facts that I needed to add to my literature review and methods I had used in the lab. Without noticing I crafted a story of what I had done and what I had discovered over the years of hard work.
Somehow, there was a sudden click, and I could write longer pieces of work, even if it was science and not a fictional story. That experience got me thinking that maybe I did have what it takes to write a novel. I just had to try and give it my best.
        I’m working on it now. My first novel is out now, and I have several new writing projects on their way. The one that is the closest to this blog I'm starting is my series Publish & Perish. I'm writing book one, which I hope you'll get to read when it's finished.
        Am I good at writing novels? I don't know. Will I be successful? I don’t know that either. But I do know that I’m doing my best to improve each day, one way or another.
        I took a 10-year detour, but I’m getting there. Sometimes all it takes is a click to get back on the horse after you’ve fallen. It takes deviating from the path you thought you wanted to learn something that will bring you back a full circle.