Let’s talk about talks

Last Tuesday (Apr 14), there was an interesting discussion at IAG/USP about the outcomes of a poll, or rather, a survey that some of the astronomers did about the attendance to the department’s talks (seminars and colloquia). I don’t have the actual numbers, but there were some results like this:

  • 50% of the faculty staff and 50% of the postdoc answered the survey, and so did some 60% of the graduate students, plus a handful of undergraduate students
  • Most people said they only attended talks related to, specifically, their field of research
  • Most people answered that the main reason for not attending other talks was because they were bad, and the second (but close) reason was “lack of time”

While these results are somewhat alarming, they are not at all surprising. I have to confess that I too shared this closed-mindedness of only attending to talks that only belonged to my area. But luckily I was remembered that astronomy is not only the study of stars, or galaxies, or any other particular field: astronomy is a body of knowledge that encompasses countless aspects of the universe. I think it is common to separate things because we like to work with compartmentalized blocks, it’s easier that way. Or at least it seems, most of the time.

First point: why go?

The discussions reminded me of this cartoon: don’t forget the bigger picture, it says. And now that I think about it, I’ll probably print it and glue it to my office’s door, just because more people should see it. It’s not like a simple cartoon will magically change someone’s mind, but it can help. There are countless reasons why we should listen to other fields of research, such as networking opportunities, intuition pumps, the sharing of new ideas, and maybe even a potential new collaboration.

One of the reasons why people decide to become scientists is the autonomy. Scientists have, to a certain level, more freedom than other professional careers. In principle, we are not generally forced to attend meetings that are not of our immediate interest, nor do we have to have a fixed, written in stone, schedule. While we have our own interests and motivations, it is important to remind that we need to address to certain expectations. Scientists are expected to produce knowledge, to answer questions, to give back to the people who paid their salaries. There is no such a thing as a free lunch. The better we can weave our little dents in humanity’s body of knowledge, the better scientists we are.

Okay, but what if talks are outright bad or too hard to understand? What if the talkers don’t introduce the subject? What if they do not consider that they are addressing a broader audience, even if the organizers said them so? There are a few mitigating actions that can help in this point, such as red-flagging bad talkers and making sure they are prepared to talk to a particular target audience. In the discussion, someone gave the idea of a postdoc giving an introductory talk [a few days] before the main one, so as to “normalize” everyone to the same level. So, there are things we can do, and others that we can’t. If the talker is just bad, what can effectively be done about it? Nothing more than a red flag. So there is no point in discussing this. There will always be some bad talks, we just have to deal with them.

Second point: quantity vs. quality

An important issue that was pointed out is that it is not always about the quantity of people that attend talks, but rather how much knowledge is exchanged, which is the actual point of having a talk. As someone wisely said, it is possible to have a wonderful session with just ten people.

Some people criticize their snappy-styled, sitcom-sized talks, but there is much we can learn from TED. Their talks engage people in ways that, sadly, few scientists can do. Last week, during a Data Science Workshop at IAG/USP, we had a wonderful and engaging presentation by Professor Claudia Medeiros (Instituto de Computação/USP), where she introduced us into the many doors that were open for data scientists in the corporate world. She didn’t delve into the technicalities of data science, she focused on a broader topic that would suit the varied audience we had. And she delivered the message, that was received with many curious questions.

But as I said previously, expecting to always have a good talk is not a good thing. Let’s be more pratical: what can we do to make people engage more? A suggestion made on that discussion is to give an opportunity to people who were too embarrassed to ask questions, such as using an anonymous questioning system or even Twitter hashtags (which is a great idea). Also, we should avoid pointless questions such as “did you consider the magnetic fields?”: they do not help in engaging people; in fact, they can make it harder. Please, leave technical questions for an after-talk session or just read the paper; unless, of course, the talk is targeted to a technical audience who will actually be interested to know about your goddamned magnetic fields.

Another idea I read somewhere was that some people find the informal sessions, such as the coffee-break and the dinner, actually more productive, science-wise. Maybe we could have meetings that consisted only on feasting. I don’t think I would suit to these, though, because I would always have my mouth busy and wouldn’t be able to talk.

Second point: blaming an abstract entity

Something was brought up in the discussion that made me a bit uneasy at the time, and in hindsight, I completely disagree with: they said the lack of care for talks or other areas of astronomy (or the fact that students are afraid to ask questions) are part of “our culture” (whatever they meant by that). In fact, I think it is a dangerous line of thought. This thing about always blaming our culture for its miseries has a name in Brazil: it is known as Complexo de Vira-lata (which literally translates to “the Mutt Complex”). If you’re reading this post and work in another astronomy department somewhere else, you’ll most probably relate to the issues of talk attendance. When I was an exchange at Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, at the University of Groningen, the attendance to talks too wasn’t that prolific (I don’t have numbers to cite, though). And the faculty staff didn’t stimulate students to attend them; in fact, it was only my graduate colleagues that did.

I don’t think this is an issue of the culture of our country or of our astronomy departments. First of all, how to objectively define a culture? And how can we change it? Or rather, is it possible to change a culture? How can we change something that we can’t even define? As with the bad talkers, there is no point in discussing this. We should not blame what we can’t define.

Wrapping up: my suggestion

And after presenting you with the discussion we had, here is my take on the issue: can we try smaller groups of discussion? I remember that the best science discussion sessions I had during my course in academia, so far, have been with small groups: up to 10 people, tops. The problem with big sessions is that they will eventually turn into the so dreaded traditional talks, which are less engaging and are more prone to frustrations, almost like classes. Sometimes they are unavoidable, such as in congresses and scientific meetings, and maybe this is their place. But in weekly sessions, it is probably too much.

Featured image: “Back Lighting” by Steve Jurvetson


Let’s talk about talks

A new chapter has just started

I like to see my life as a book. And I remember quite well the most recent chapters: the chain-reaction that led to my decision of studying astronomy, the first year as a student of physics, then the exchange period to Netherlands, the limbo-like period in which I dedicated to setting myself up to grad school… And now, I have just started it, so the last weeks have been quite hectic (reason why I haven’t written since the beginning of March). Two weeks ago, I moved to São Paulo, the biggest city of South America, so I could study astronomy at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP).

By the way, people who don’t know Portuguese almost always pronounce “São Paulo” in a weird way (at least for us) – which is completely fine! I always mispronounce Groningen, the city where I lived for one year, since I left there (but when I was there, I was dedicated to say it correctly). If you’re curious about our language, the tilde over the letter A means a sound like the U in the word “dump”. So, the correct pronunciation of “São” uses that sound instead of “Sao”. And if you’re even more curious, São Paulo is the Portuguese name if a saint – more specifically Saint Paul, in English.

I’m not new here in this city. I know, maybe all to well, how it is to live here: the long trips to get around the city, being always cautious with your stuff, the huge quantities of people, planning your day carefully to make it as efficient as possible, and, of course, dealing with the inefficiencies of the systems. And this is what really gets me, because I’ve been spoiled: Netherlands was too efficient, at almost everything. I don’t want to blame this country that I love so much for my frustrations with São Paulo, but it is impossible to not miss how good NL was when everything here is so slow and bureaucratic. Just as an example, when I lived in NL, we could simply order a free pre-paid SIM card for a cellphone and we would get it delivered at home. This can’t be done in Brazil: you have to go to a store and buy it, and this can be a pain in the ass if you live in a city like São Paulo.

Okay, that might have been a dumb example, but there are some other ones, such as the process we have to go through to get a simple magnetic card to use the public transport system here. I don’t have much to complain about the transport itself, because SPTrans, the company responsible for it, has been doing a fairly good job, I think. But here is the thing: in order to enjoy free or discounted transfers between buses, subways and trains, you have to have the magnetic card, and it can only be bought at very few selected stores sprinkled though the metropolis. The ones that carry student discounts have to be ordered by the school, and to get it from SPTrans, you have to wait in a 1-hour long line under the scorching Sun.

But enough complaining. Dang it, I didn’t want this post to have so much rant, but I guess that’s where my thoughts wandered, and I needed to vent. It’s fine that the systems are inefficient, things will never be perfect, I’ll get used to them. What I also need to get used to is the new routine. Grad school is different, there are more responsibilities. There is also the need to show my work to the world. I’ve been doing research on my own pace for some time, but I don’t think there are many products to be shown. I need to get into the game. Once I’m done with moving and dealing with the initial bureaucracies and headaches, I’ll will dedicate 100% to research (or at least that’s the plan). Yes, I do not have a definitive place to live yet, so I’m staying at my brothers’.

If you’re a prospective graduate student for the University of São Paulo, here is a pro tip: you don’t need to live near the campus. In fact, I would recommend not living there, because housing price is bloated, and the region is not very safe – especially to the west and southwest of the campus, where there is a favela nearby. I hear that thieves specifically target students that live around that region, because they usually carry notebooks and expensive cellphones. What I recommend is to get a place near a subway or train station, or near a bus station on a bus-only lane, and preferably in a building with 24h security (which we call “condomínio”). If the trip is too long, I found that the best way to spend the time is with a good book – a paper one, because ebooks and tablets attract too much attention and you may end up being robbed. Well, sorry for these kind of somber notes, but I just felt it needed to be stated.

I have a lot of ideas in mind to write more blog posts (such as the observations I did, pictures I’ve taken, my research projects, the recent astronomical happenings etc.), but I just haven’t found the time to materialize them. It’s been such crazy weeks lately, and it makes me feel bad that I’m not writing or being more productive. Moving is hard, but eventually things will settle down. Until then, I’ll try to keep at least the one-blog-post-per-week pace.

A new chapter has just started