Posted by: unlikelygrad | April 19, 2011

wishing for a happy medium

In our department, we have to attend seminar weekly. Most of the speakers are young-ish assistant profs who are dying to talk about their new research, though we do get a few who seem to be further along in their career. And once every year we have the “Named Lecture” where the department brings in a super-duper, very famous scientist. This year’s Named Lecturer was a Nobel Laureate, for example.

I find that I have really enjoyed the Named Lectures. It is not that I am basking in the glory of being near such a famous dude–after all, I met Linus Pauling when I was an undergraduate, and who can top that experience? Nor have I enjoyed these lectures because the subject material was near and dear to my heart; that hasn’t been the case at all. No, what I like about the Named Lectures is that the professors who give them are excellent communicators.

In a way, this makes sense. It doesn’t matter how good your science is if you can’t (1) communicate what you have done to other scientists and (2) convince most of the people you meet that your discoveries are not only accurate, but also important. The more people you can influence, the more significance your work takes on in your field. So I don’t think it’s possible to become a Nobel Laureate without being a good communicator.

This year’s Named Lecturer was definitely a good communicator. Not just in front of a lecture hall, but also at the reception held immediately prior, where he made sure to circulate and personally talk to not only all of the professors, but all of the grad students and undergrads as well! He seemed to find something in common with each of us.

But I have noticed something else about the Named Lectures: namely, that they tend to be a little light on in-depth scientific knowledge. Yes, these people are good communicators but they are used to communicating to a general audience, rather than to people with a serious background knowledge in their field. Clearly this is not because they lack the requisite scientific background; more likely it’s because greater fame means a greater number of speaking opportunities before non-scientific audiences.

So it is good, I suppose, for us grad students to be exposed to more technical talks. And I say this even though I struggle to make sense of the polymer chemists and nano-scientists who get trotted out before me on a weekly basis. (My own specialty is applying analytical chemistry to determine kinetics in natural systems, which is about as far from polymer chemistry as you can get while still being in the chem department.)

And yet, I have to wonder…does being technically rigorous mean that your presentation has to be completely non-understandable to those who are not in your sub-field? Is that why so many of the seminars are completely unintelligible to me? Surely this can’t be the case, for there are rare exceptions where the visiting professor has spent the first 10 minutes giving us background information which helps me understand the rest of the talk far, far better.

I guess I wish that the majority of our speakers would search for a happy medium: presenting their work in rigorous detail while still realizing that there are people outside of their sub-field in the audience.



  1. We have these weekly seminars, too, and I too enjoy those big fancy scientists coming in. You’re right – communication is key. I got to hear a talk about crazy monkeys and their communication the other day, which has nothing to do with my research, and it was so fun! I love those big fancy scientists.

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