Ben Kline, undergrad extraordinaire, graciously offered to pick up my slack and do a few blog posts over the next few weeks. Ben has been working in the lab for almost a year now, and taken leadership on a project looking at individual variation to heat stress. Results of the project are still pending, but we’re introducing him to a whole new side of science- professional conferences. In this post, Ben talks about his first impressions of an American Fisheries Society (AFS) meeting, which he presented at in February. He did so well that he's packing his bags for the National AFS meeting in August in Atlantic City.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to give my first oral presentation at a professional conference on fisheries science. It wasn’t my first ever presentation, as last fall I attended the Susquehanna River Symposium at Bucknell University. If you follow The Troutlook on Twitter, then there is a good chance you saw my first crack at a research poster that I attempted to pull together for the conference (or perhaps you were able to pick out the glaring typo instead). The event was quite memorable, and I was pleased with how everything turned out. The poster presentation was a great way to get my feet wet in the fisheries scene, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking with other people that were interested in the same realm of science as me.
Making the poster and hearing feedback was something that also helped me to reflect on my current and potential future research experiences. As people began to talk to me about my project and ask questions, it became evident that, although I had already spent months working on my project, I still had significant knowledge gaps about all of the moving parts behind our experiment. This experience was somewhat disappointing, as I felt that I had not learned very much in my time working on the project, but also simultaneously quite motivating in a sense that there was a bit of urgency for me to get back to the lab and keep working on the project.
I left the symposium with some thoughtful critique and some questions in need of answering. Upon returning to the lab after some time for the winter holiday, another opportunity presented itself to me. A few weeks prior I had submitted my first abstract to give an oral presentation at a local conference. When I logged into my email I had discovered that my abstract was accepted and I would get a chance to speak at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. Upon sharing the news with Shannon, we immediately got to work. I had never before given a professional talk about my research and I knew that there would be a lot for me to learn. I prepped my talk and meticulously edited my PowerPoint until I was pleased. When it finally came time to give my practice talk to our lab I knew that there would be plenty of comments, but I was eager to learn and improve in any way that I could. To my surprise, my talk was received warmly by the other members of the lab. With the meeting coming up in just a few short days, I continued to refine my work until the story came out exactly how I wanted it to.
The morning of the conference was a big groggy. Getting up at 4:30am and then taking a 2 hour drive in subfreezing temperatures is not the most glamorous way to start the day, but I was excited nonetheless. We arrived at the conference center and got things set up. I had the chance to chat with a few of my classmates from Penn State that were in attendance while we waited for the show to begin. There were about 100 people in attendance, a healthy mix of managers and academics with few students- and even fewer undergrads. I was a bit nervous to give my talk, and being the first person to go wasn’t very inspirational. But a curt nod from Shannon was enough to motivate me towards the podium and the rest was downhill from there. The talk went quite well, and only one person was asleep, so I would consider it a success. With a major weight lifted from my shoulders I had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the rest of the conference for what it truly was. I had plenty of opportunities to listen to other talks about research that is going on in the fisheries world. As a future graduate student, it was really helpful to hear what kind of projects other people are working on so that I could better define my interests. I was also pleased to have the chance to meet a number of other scientists and managers and hear about their experiences firsthand.
Through it all I was certainly able to learn a number of valuable lessons. From my first attempt at a research poster to my second attempt with the oral presentation, I was able to identify that I maybe didn’t fully understand my project to the best of my ability, and that was okay for the time being. Having a hard time putting your work into words was a great way of identifying what parts of my research I should spend some time becoming more familiar with. After all, it is one thing to try to understand something yourself. However, being able to not only explain, but also really convey the essence of your research to someone else is something that is truly difficult to do, which brings me to my second lesson. Being a good presenter is about being a good story-teller. The more clear and vivid of a picture you paint for your audience, the better your talk will be as a whole. I spent countless hours thinking about the story that I was trying to tell with my presentation and as a result, the final product was much different than the original. It isn’t about having perfect transitions or the most articulate vocabulary in every instance, but instead about finding common ground that is relevant and meaningful to your audience and using that as a way to leverage the most important parts of your research into what you are trying to say.