Another GTDA haiku

January 19, 2008

The modal fate of

all your scientific toil

will be rejection.

This has been a public service announcement from GTDA.

Cookbook for a great presentation

November 16, 2007

I recently gave a talk about communicating in science. Hoo boy, if I had only known about this slideshow by Alexi Kapterev (view the whole show via the link below).

Two of the “money slides”:

1) What is it about repetition by threes? Maybe my neurobiology buddies can tell me. All I know is it works.


2) A great presentation

  1. conveys with enthusiasm why it’s important
  2. is built with repeated elements
  3. each of those elements is simple, uncluttered, and catchy
  4. is so well rehearsed it seems spontaneous.



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Why your best idea may never see the light of day

November 14, 2007

From the late, great Creating Passionate Users.


In place of “fear”, you may substitute “committee meeting”.

Happy Friday

November 9, 2007


big big h/t to Bill Watterson

QotD: Darwin on why hypotheses matter

October 30, 2007

I sat in on a grad seminar the other day that presented lots of data, and whose “Goals” slide started with the words “To find out if….”. Much of the resulting input from the audience was of the sort: “Could your data suggest that..?”.

Reminds me of a story. A critic said that Darwin, in writing Origin, should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest”.

Darwin replied

“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize, and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

The best science is communicated as a narrative, a voyage of discovery, that presents your data in the light of different cool hypotheses.

That’s three parts to communicating science.

Data and hypothesis without a narrative ignores the fact that humans learn from stories.

Data and narrative without hypotheses is like watching a slide show from a stranger’s cross-country trip (“Where is this going fercryin’ out loud!?”).

Hypotheses and narrative without data is like an evening listening to free verse.

h/t Michael Shermer, Scientific American, October 2007

QotD Walter Granger

September 27, 2007

Walter Granger, AMNHA young geologist challenged Walter Granger, saying, “Dr Granger, are you sure you’re right?”

Granger answered, without a flicker of hesitation, “Young man, I will consider myself a great success in life if I prove to be right fifty per cent of the time.”

from John McPhee’s masterful Annals of the Former World

Eight reality checks for new grad students

September 1, 2007

GSMGraduate school is not your undergraduate education on steroids. It is a transformative journey in which you spend most of your waking moments training yourself to think and act like a scientist. Along the way you have many mentors and guides, not least of which are your fellow graduate students, the vast literature, and fussy, know-it-all blogs.

But your advisor is undoubtedly the partner most responsible to help guide your way, protect you from egregious political crap, steer you from some mistakes (you will find ways to make enough the way it is) and basically give you the time and space to transform yourself. The advisor’s role is complex and may best be described as your academic parent.

This realization is hard for some, particularly those who just spent some pretty harrowing years discovering both the joys of puberty and that their parents were batshit crazy. But just as every set of parents is different, advisors come in every stripe. The problem is, it is often not clear at the outset what you are getting yourself into. The more considerate, literate, (and, by definition, not batshit crazy) professors go out of their way to lay out their expectations early on. These vary, obviously, but the most basic advice is timeless.

Toward exploring these issues, I present below just such a “Manifesto of Expectations” (repeat to yourself, “It’s all about M.E.”). The author is a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. I will respect his wishes, save to say that his short-lived career as a left tackle for the Golden Buffaloes was plagued by scandal, not all of which was his responsibility. What follows is some pretty frank (and dead-on) advice. It is lightly edited (MK: and annotated) toward removing the author’s frequent and rather strained metaphors to offensive line play. Read the rest of this entry »

QotD Roger Mandel

August 25, 2007

“Quite broadly, I think of the fine arts as a method by which humans ask the big questions not necessarily knowing the answers, whereas design enables people to create answers quite concretely. A strength of RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)’s balanced curriculum is that the fine artists help the designers consider the big unanswereable questions as they work on their chairs and buildings, while the designers inform the fine artists about how to make their ineffable expressions tangible. Art’s about more than being creative, it’s about developing a system of thought, by which you can solve complex problems to improve aspects of the world’s concerns. More concretely, proportion, functionality, texture, and surface beauty are broad design attributes anyone should learn because they enrich visual literacy and acuity. Art education without elements of design is not useful in the end–which is why art teachers have had a hard time justifying to boards of education and parents that the visual arts are important in the curriculum.”

ht I.D. magazine, September/October 2007

How would you rewrite this paragraph if one replaced “fine arts” with “sciences”? Talk amongst yourselves. MK

How to lecture: two beginner’s mistakes

March 5, 2007

We continue our exploration of Ira Glass’s excellent broadcasting podcast, adapted for science graduate students by placing it on a piece of wood and banging a few nails through it.

1) Learn from the experts, don’t mimic them. All of us go through an acolyte stage. It is perfectly OK to steal, err, sample from folks you admire. But you are ultimately creating your own style and approach in the way you write, lecture, and do science. If your colleagues recognize your behavior as an imitation of professor X, or, worse yet, do imitations of you imitating professor X, you need to back off a bit.

2) Don’t be a narcissist. Show some empathy. Don’t talk down to your audience, draw them in. (Corollary: You have to be really talented to lecture like an asshole.) When I was a beginning lecturer, my wife kindly assented to sit in the back of the classroom. Note that this was the second time I had taught Principles of Ecology and I thought I was getting reasonably good at it (I wasn’t). I caught up with her at the end of class and we walked back to my office. Eager for feedback I asked “Well, how did I do?” and then braced myself for the effusive torrent of praise to come.

“Not bad, I guess.” she said. “But do you have to lecture like you have a stick up your butt?”.

So we end today’s post with that simple bit of wisdom, courtesy of Zeladoniac:  Don’t lecture like you have a stick up your butt.

The learning curve: a psychological hurdle to creativity

March 4, 2007

In our second installment from a podcast by Ira Glass, we learn about the steep learning curve in becoming a professional storyteller. One consequence is that you learn to recognize good work sooner than you learn to do good work.

This is a huge insight into one of the great banes of graduate student existence. You are a grad student because someone has recognized your raw talent, because you have a latent barometer for distinguishing good science from bad, and because you have a passion to do good work. Yet unless you are extraordinarily lucky, your first efforts, your second efforts, your third efforts, will be pretty bad. And the painful fact is that you will recognize it as not very good because, as Glass points out, you have good taste.

Remember that this is a common dilemma in mastering any creative skill. If you don’t have the tenacity and the work habits, it will grind you up.

But if you fight through it, and resolve to apprentice yourself to the task, you will move forward. As Gideon said in some earlier comments, you have to immerse yourself in grad school, absolutely drown in it.

Also, note Glass’s little diversion on how you speak to your audience. You don’t underline every third word for its emphasis (i.e., the “BBC voice”). Speak with the tones and inflections as if you were telling a story to friends around the table.