Friday, April 3, 2015

Theorists give great talks

We just had Rob Phillips come visit Penn and give a talk in the chemistry department. It was great! A few months back, we also had Jane Kondev come give a talk in bioengineering that was similarly a lot of fun. Now, Jane and Rob have a lot in common (both are cool, interesting people), but I think one common thread that links them is that they are both theorists by training. (Both do have strong experimental work happening in their group now, by the way.) I think theorists (at least in our sort of systems biology) give some of the most engaging talks, and I think the reasons why are illustrated in some of the best features of both their presentations.

The first departure from business as usual is in the amount of data presented. In Rob’s case, he presented almost no data from his own lab. Jane’s talk also had a lot of background from other people’s work, and the work he did present always came with heavy references to other literature and findings. This allows them to set up the conceptual issues well, as well as their place in the context of science. I think that some people feel like bringing up other work distracts from their own work, and that they don’t have time for it because they have so much of their own to present. I think that Rob and Jane’s talks prove these concerns to be overblown. Rather, I think that their talks feel rich with history and thus significance. Those are good things.

The other main thing I’ve noticed in talks by theorists is that they emphasize the conceptual. Most talks suffer not from a lack of data but an overabundance of data. Here’s a simple rule: if you’re not going to explain a piece of data, don’t show it. If it’s impossible for the audience to truly grasp how the data you show proves your point, then you may as well not show it and just tell them that it all works out. Often times in bad talks, it’s hard to tell that this is happening because people haven’t even set up the question well.

Which brings me to another nice thing about theorists: they aren’t afraid to delve into what might be called philosophy. For some of us, I think there is maybe a fear that people won’t take us seriously if we muse about the big picture in our talks. I think those fears are ill-founded. Overall, I think biomedical science could do with a little more thinking and a little less doing. Another nice thing about this is that for trainees, it can be very inspiring to think about deeper problems. Isn’t that what got us all into this in the first place?

On a related but peripheral note, I was at a conference a couple years ago and was shocked by what I was hearing from the students and postdocs. I asked one student what they thought about some fundamental question about the field, and they responded with a blank stare as though they had never been asked that question before. Another postdoc I met, when asked about some underpinnings of the field, literally responded with “I just want to get an assay that works and get a bunch of data”. If that’s you, go see a talk by a theorist and get back in touch with your inner scientist!


  1. Hi Arjun,

    I think that your observations and analysis generalize quite well to other colleagues, e.g., Ned Wingreen and Bill Bialek. Giving a chalk talk is also quite helpful for emphasizing the conceptual aspects of a talk. That is quite clear from the theory lunch at harvard that Jeremy organizes, and I would love to see such chalk talks spread more broadly. I agree we can benefit much from moving more in that direction.

  2. Oh yes, good point, they also both give *excellent* talks. In fact, when I was first at MIT, I saw Bill Bialek give a physics colloquium talk in a huge (and packed) lecture hall, armed only with chalk and a board. It was absolutely amazing! I hope to do that myself someday.

  3. As an ecologist, I've always had the impression that ecologists and evolutionary biologists give better talks on average than folks who do cell biology, molecular biology, or biochemistry. EEB types (theoretical or otherwise) all have it drummed into them to put the big picture, interesting questions, and general concepts front-and-center. But I'd always been worried that that impression might just represent parochialism on my part. Interesting to hear the same impression from someone in the field.

    I'm curious--is your impression here widely shared? Or would most people in your field see Rob and Jane's talks as poor because they were light on data or whatever?

    And if your impression is widely shared, is it a symptom of a deeper or more widespread problem? (So, not the sort of thing that would be fixed by just giving trainees more training in how to give a good talk.) A symptom of trainees not being given enough intellectual freedom to develop and pursue their own ideas (something most EEB students are expected to do, at least at PhD level)? A symptom of the field as a whole over-valuing data and under-valuing concepts and theory?

    1. Not sure, since I haven't really seen a lot of EEB talks. I certainly think that cell and molecular biology talks could improve in general, but that is probably true in other fields as well. Based on my experience between fields, I would say that variance within a field dominates variance between fields. I'm not sure how a talk like this would be received in general, but I think fairly well, though perhaps some folks might want more data.