Notes from the Road 4

(I am unusually grouchy today, so calibrate accordingly.)

Many speakers are really not very good. Most, in fact.

No matter how cool your slides are, nothing helps if you are an anemic speaker, boring as hell and unable to make a point.

This one guy was speaking very, very slowly, ending every sentence with lowered intonation, even when asking a rhetorical question. And every time he’d open his mouth, there was this annoying “plyah” lip smacking sound.

I know people get colds and coughs, dry mouths, allergies, and whatnot. I don’t even understand why this ticks me off, but it does: why do people have to stop to drink water during a 20-30 min talk? Seriously, you have to take a sip 10 min into a talk? Don’t you ever teach? Do you stop to drink water throughout a lecture? Sheesh.

It’s interesting to note how former young rising stars have become considerably fatter and middle-aged. And perhaps not quite the stars they were rising to be.

The green laser pointer is a dangerous weapon of mass distraction. Many people have unsteady hands, owing to age or nervousness; pointing at something on the screen usually results in a crazy dance of a bright green dot. It’s good there are no cats in the audience.


I am amazed at some of the work my European colleagues do. It is technically good work, don’t get me wrong, but there is no way they would be able to keep working on such esoteric stuff for so long anywhere in the US; there simply would not be any funding for them. I know that in some (perhaps many) European countries the professors don’t have to pay for PhD students or any of their own salary, but can apply for grants to cover postdocs and travel. Having baseline institutional support for students without fearing you’d completely go studentless due to the boom-bust nature of funding in the US definitely has a bearing on the type of projects you can embark on. Whenever I have a new idea, something I would like to do, the first question is “How am going to get money to do that?” Often the answer is “There is no way I will ever get that funded,” which means I don’t pursue it despite interest.

As much as I hate the idea that I don’t get to work on some interesting topics because the current funding climate is not conducive to supporting them,  there is something to be said for the exercise of grant writing: having to pull your thought together, think longer term, and convince other people that what you do is correct, important, and novel (dare I say “transformative”?) is not necessarily a bad thing. Proposal writing definitely forces you to clarify your thinking. Some ideas are not very important and should not be pursued. If the funding rates were 30% or so, then I believe the fundability would have a strong correlation with importance. These days, the 10% or less funding rates at the NSF are simply too low and too much good science doesn’t get done.

I resent the fact that I continuously have to think about (read: scout for) new funding opportunities. There is no time to just think and do science, because you blink and the 3-year-grant has expired.


At the workshop last week, I made a comment on how next time I hope there would be at least another woman present. A student said “I thought you’d be used to it by now.” I didn’t want to tear him a new a$$hole or come off as an unhinged harpy, so I didn’t press on the ridiculousness of his claim: the fact that someone is used to something, i.e., no longer surprised by it, doesn’t make whatever they are used to right. Just because something is routine doesn’t mean that it should not be fixed.

I am definitely used to being the only or one of very few women around in technical meetings. Sure, people usually notice me, and I hear that getting noticed is important. However, they usually start by assuming I am someone’s significant other or someone’s student or postdoc (getting older helps with the latter). The fact that someone notices me doesn’t mean they think I am a worthwhile scientist, and there is a big jump from being noticed to being remembered for the right reasons and then to being extended an invitation to present your work.

Dudes, dudes, everywhere.




  1. I totally support you in your grumpiness but I’ve got to say that some people do need to drink while they speak. I never come to class without a bottle of water because I’ll start losing my voice if I don’t. I was a smoker for many years, so maybe that’s the reason.

    But I totally get that there are moments in life when everything is just annoying as hell. 🙂

    Enjoy the trip!

  2. Wow, you should have torn that student a new one! Saying that to a tenured professor – what an ass! That alone would make me grumpy!!

  3. If you lose your voice when speaking, try a vocal coach. Chances are that retraining the muscles in your throat and not speaking on a fry can fix this or at least improve it greatly. If you are losing your voice you are probably forcing the voice, too. It can be fixed, in my experience.

  4. #2 here notes that yes, she drinks water during class lectures. I get thirsty! Plus when I’m nervous (as during a talk) my mouth dries up. Drinking also helps me to pause so I don’t talk too fast.

    heehee, they do say that trying to organize academics is like herding cats, maybe the laser pointer is an attempt in that direction.

  5. I’m with Clarissa and nicoleandmaggie #2. I get thirsty, especially when I’m nervous. I don’t think it’s how I’m speaking (I don’t lose my voice so much as just have a very parched throat and I’m pretty sure I’m not doing the vocal fry thing), it’s a physical response to nerves. I’ve gotten better with more practice, but still always have water on hand!

    Totally with you on your last two points of grumpiness though. And partially on the first one — a lot of people are bad speakers!

  6. Oh my !!! Are you sure you aren’t working in my field?? I just can’t concentrate when people give horrible talks (not horrible work mind you). The excuse in my field is that none of these people teach (they all work in National Labs, very little faculty).

    I am still working on not being mistaken as the student/post-doc in social settings (not enough grey hair yet). Typically the mistake goes away and people think of me as being more senior than I am, once I give a talk or when they see me in action at workshops (people seem to be surprised women can have an opinion/knowledge and articulate it in a consistent rational way).

    I was approached once at a social setting by the wife of a scientist/manager of a large lab: With the comment, you seem to be the only female representative. I was pissed. Mostly because her husband’s lab has the worst female representation ever and he as a manager could do something about it. The only thing I can do, is make sure the young women here at my university continue on to grad school and if a graduate student passes my path to make sure she does not drop out because of the a$$holes surrounding her.

  7. Just a thought but stop sitting in the back of the room and move to the front. Colleagues will be less likely to assume you are a significant other.

  8. +1 to the lol on the cats comment – I’m still laughing at the mental picture of some tiny kitten flying up onto the screen every time the speaker emphasizes a figure 🙂

  9. I always bring water to talks and teaching. During my first national conference as a grad student (years ago), I found out the hard way that I tend to get a dry cough when speaking/nervous. The session organizer (and all around nice guy) didn’t want to interrupt my presentation, so he crouched down and raised a cup of water over the podium. I was grateful, but the image of that cup of water materializing during my talk has always stayed with me and now I come prepared!

  10. I sat at a workshop today, and was (sadly) reminded of this blogpost (or of your several blogposts on this subject). I was the only woman in the room of about 30 people. It is sort of ‘by invitation’ workshop and not publicized anywhere (and I was not even invited, but came since it was in my institution). I’m wondering whether to say anything to the organizers (I’m still a postdoc).
    By the way – I could think of at least two women that could have been invited, and I still don’t know the people in the field that well.

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