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Friday, April 08, 2005


Well, I'm back from the conference. On balance my talk went better than it could have done. I was pleased with my actual presentation. I kept to time (which was rare enough to be appreciated I feel!), didn't make too many mistakes in my delivery and got laughs in the right places (if in doubt stick a couple of gags in, I say). The questions were unfortunately rather tricky. The field's "legend" (officially retired but still first author on at least 2 major papers a year and still in possession of a lab bench apparently) kicked off the questions. Naturally, it was on a topic that I hadn't prepared and even taking my queue from the graduate student frantically shaking or nodding her head behind him, I eventually had to admit defeat. Nevertheless, I went up to him afterward and thanked him for his question (brown-nosing moi?) and in amongst the piss-taking he very kindly suggested a few experimental approaches that I hadn't considered.

Encouragingly, my project did seem to catch people's attention and I found myself being recognised outside the lecture hall. One or two people even collared me to compliment me and express interest in our work or even ask my opinion on their work.

After delivering my talk, I relaxed immensley and, as I sat in the darkened hall, even had time to muse upon conferences in general and this one in particular. I even scribbled down a few blog notes...

So here are a few random musings about my experiences.

1) Time.
As biologists, we exist in a largely Newtonian universe. Therefore Einsteinian notions of relativity rarely apply. What I am trying to say is that time is not a relative concept - i.e. when offered a 15 minute talk - give a 15 minute talk! Do not give a 20 minute talk or even a 28 minute talk. It fucks up the timing of the whole session and eats into the coffee break. YOU WILL NOT WIN FRIENDS. A 30 minute coffee break between sessions seems generous on paper, but is surprisingly short when 200 people want coffee and a pee and the servers are well into their 80s and half the toilet stalls are out of order. The breaks are also important networking opportunities and 30 minutes is not very long to grab a popular speaker and ask them questions whilst their talk is still fresh in your mind.

2) Food.
It is said that an army marches on its stomach. The same is largely true of a conference delegate. As with many small conferences, the catering was simply done by the university refectory. A great way of keeping costs down but not necessarily a great culinary decision. Giving delegates a case of Delhi Belly is also not popular when most of the day is spent in a crowded lecture theatre with no air-conditioning. Culinary delights t this conference included;

"off salmon" - when every single person who ordered the salmon bins it after a mouthful compaining that it tastes funny, its safe to assume that we aren't just being fussy.
"pasta puree". Even the most hopeless mummy's boy can cook pasta. Therefore one would expect that the pasta option would be a safe choice. It takes real talent to overcook spaghetti so much that it has to be eaten with a spoon.
"Foreigners and veggies". There are an estimated 2 million Muslims in the UK and probably twice as many vegetarians. It is therefore reasonable to assume that when catering for 200 people, at least some don't want a pork chop. Not to at least offer a halal option or failing that a proper vegetarian option is scandalous. Most of the muslim or vegetarian delegates were forced to just ask for extra portions of side vegetables and forgo the main dish. I have no idea if there were any orthodox Jews at the conference, but my limited understanding of Kosher practises suggests that at least one meal would have been entirely unsuitable, even if they played it safe like the muslims and just had the side orders.

3) Windows 98.
Yes you read that correctly. It is 2005, yet the laptop which the delegates loaded their talks on to was powered by windows 98 and powerpoint 97. Mac users were catered for, but the rest of us had to use the computing equivalent of a slide-rule and parchment. The problem, is that despite Microsoft's claims to the contrary, Powerpoint XP/2003 presentations are not compatible with Powerpoint 97/2000. Unless you restrict your talk to simple bullet points (which I did thank god), your animations just disappear. One delegate had to talk us through a slide where 3 lots of text were overlaid on top of each other, and a colleague of mine was left trying to explain a graph where the datapoints had all mysteriously shifted into the top left hand corner.

4) Truncation.
I am logo-happy. This is rather fortunate. The bottom of each of my slides contained the University and conference logo, my email address and the univeristy's website. A tad too much you might say - fortunately, since the data projector was crooked it removed the bottom 10% of the screen and nobody even knew the logos were there. Rather less fortunately, for the less logo happy, that 10% frequently contained important data. More than one delegate had to verbally describe the data or bullet point that was missing from the bottom of the screen.

5) Lighting.
There were precisely two lighting options in the lecture theatre; glaring white so that the talks were unreadable or pitch black so that you couldn't make notes...
Pitch black isn't too bad an option if you fancy a crafty snooze, however the man behind me kept on kicking me in the back through the seats, so sleeping wasn't an option. At least until I reached behind me (after checking he was just a PhD student and not a Professor obviously) and yanked the fucker's shoe off. He got the message...

6) Plink Plink Fizz Fizz
Actually, to be fair I should have taken my own hangover remedies...



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