The art of learning

Let me stop you right there. I’m not going to give you tips on how to ace your next exam, or the best method for memorising chemical formulas. Instead, I’m going to share with you one of the now-best experiences of my life, and from that, I’m sure you’ll get the “lesson” (see what I did there?).

Can you imagine studying the sun for 4 years of your life, and then, suddenly changing course to study the planet Earth? Seriously, who would be silly enough to do that? Me. I am said person. Although in my case, I studied biochemistry for 4 years and then suddenly decided to switch to cancer biology in my PhD. Crazy right?

“Yes, you’re crazy, so why make this switch in the first place?” After completing my Masters, I desperately wanted a change in my life, and I knew that it had to start with my PhD. I was always two-minded between biochemistry and cell biology. Since I experienced biochem, I decided to give the other field a shot (also, cancer research is really cool!). After being lucky enough to land a cool cancer project along with an empowering supervisor, the hard part began. I mean, how do you get a TERMINAL degree in a field you have absolutely no experience in (excluding the one or two undergrad practical’s)? You LEARN.

“So, she’s changed from biochemistry to cancer biology…Is that a big deal?” YES, in biochemistry I only dealt with proteins and the only time I worked with cells was to get my protein. On the other hand, EVERYTHING in CELL biology revolves around cells. Besides reading papers, designing experiments and the occasional pity-party, that’s about the only similarities between these two fields in terms of techniques.

Of course, I knew this would be a challenge, but oh boy was it the biggest challenge I ever experienced. Let’s start off easy:

  1. The proposal: From the years of scientific research experience, writing up a project proposal wasn’t too difficult considering I knew the basics to get me started. However, entering the field of cancer research was TOUGH, to say the least! I had dozens of papers and no clue where to start. Between you and I…I still can’t believe I pulled off that research proposal.

“How would you rate your experience?”

2/5. Not happy.

  • New team: Leaving my old research team was another toughie. During my first year of research, we usually came in a group to meet our new lab mates, so I was always comfortable knowing I had my usual peers around me. This time, it was different, it was just me, and yes, I was quite nervous about meeting these new people. But this experience turned out better than I had expected. Without having anyone to lean on, I was forced to become more extroverted than normal and within my first week, I was already feeling both comfortable and welcomed in my new setting. I realised how capable I am of breaking into new environments and forming relationships with those around me.

“How would you rate your experience?”

3.5/5. Feeling great.

  • Lab work: I’m not going to sugar‑coat this part. I killed my cells, I contaminated my cells, I used a colleague’s WHOLE bottle of media (by mistake OF COURSE), I incorrectly made-up cell stocks for the entire first month, and the list goes on. I laugh about it now, but at some point, during those times, I really felt like giving up. There were days where I questioned whether switching my field at this point in my academic career was the right move.

“How would you rate your experience?”

1/5. I’m crying myself to sleep.

Present day: Fast forward a couple of months and I’m proud to say that I am still here, standing tall. So, let’s re-evaluate those experiences, shall we?

  1. The proposal:

Achievements unlocked: The ability to read, understand and communicate science in more than one field (which I am currently proud to be using as a freelance scientific/medical writer 😊)

  • New team:

Achievements unlocked: Self-reliance, the ability to network and form interpersonal relationships, strengthened team-player skills.

  • Lab work:

Achievements unlocked: Training on new lab techniques, alternative data analysis methods, exposure to multiple lab environments. P.S. My cells are now healthy and alive.

So, whether it’s a new job, field of research or complete diversion from your usual activities, there is always one constant challenge, that is, to LEARN. It’s always tough at first, but the lessons prepare you for an amazing future. Of course, I still have a lot of challenges on the way, but as long as I continue to learn, then I have nothing to lose, right?

Academic presentations: how to get them right!

Can you recall the last time you listened to a presentation or lecture for two and a half hours, and still wished it could last longer? Honestly… I cannot either. After Albert Einstein’s two-and-a-half-hour presentation during his tour in Japan, the audience did something uncommon, especially in Japanese culture…. they complained. For Einstein, this was received as a complement rather than a complaint – the people in the audience asked for the longer version of his presentation! This is a rare occurrence. In addition to the intellectual brilliance of Einstein, he was humble and soft spoken in his delivery, and this is thought to have enhanced the impact of this particular presentation.

Unfortunately, many brilliant academics fail to adequately communicate their message during presentations, due to failure to address a number of considerations. Using various sources of information and guidance from my supervisors, I have gained skills that have enabled me to present my work effectively, and as a result, I have won numerous awards in research presentation competitions across the country. In this blog, I share some considerations that one should take into account in the pursuit of delivering effective academic presentations.

Myself after presenting at a local conference in 2018.

Professionalism, especially during the current era of virtual presentations

Similar to the concept of ‘love at first sight’ in romantic relationships, the initial perception the audience has of you as a presenter affects the level of attention they will pay throughout your presentation. Perhaps, the first and most important thing to consider prior to a first encounter with your audience is ensuring maximum levels of professionalism. Simple things like arriving on time and dressing up properly can go a long way in achieving this.

In the era of COVID, where we have shifted to virtual presentations, technical glitches are bound to happen, and this can negatively affect the professional outlook of your presentation. Some of these technical glitches can be avoided. Firstly, being ‘punctual’ for your online presentations helps you to identify and rectify any potential glitches and try to rectify them before the audience joins the platform.

Secondly, connectivity issues can really spoil your presentation and indeed your entire day. Unpredictable as these issues are, one way to avoid them is to have at least one alternative internet source, should your original one fail. I have found that my computer is much slower in terms of performance and connectivity when it is updating. So, to avoid connectivity issues, I usually check for updates the previous day and pause updates on the day that I am presenting. Finally, it is quite daunting to lose connectivity in the middle of your presentation due to load shedding, which we are currently facing in South Africa. Therefore, to avoid such, you should check the load shedding schedule for your area, and plan to be in a region with power during the time of your presentation.

Knowing and capturing your audience

In addition to professional etiquette, one other factor to keep your listeners engaged in your presentations is ensuring that you tailor your message for the specific audience you are presenting to. Professionals within your field of specialty can quickly get bored when you explain technical terms that are common within the field, and they are more likely to be interested in hearing your specific findings and what new and exciting information you bring to the field.  On the other hand, when presenting to a broad and unfamiliar audience, using technical terms without further explanation can confuse the audience as they would consider it all jargon. Such an audience would be more interested in how your findings affect their lives personally, and would likely not be very concerned about the bit of new information you are bringing to the field.

In addition to tailoring the presentation for a specific audience, it is also important to capture listeners from the beginning of your presentation. The first few seconds of a presentation are critical, as they determine the level of interest and attention that an audience would pay to your presentation. Here, it would be good to start off with a shocking fact, or statistic that your audience immediately relates to and want to hear more about. Once you have captured your audience, you then need to keep them interested until the end of the presentation. The enthusiasm and energy you put into explaining your work plays a huge role here, people tend to pay attention to an enthusiastic, energetic speaker, and the opposite is true.

Clear and concise slides

Finally, one thing that can make or break your presentations is the clarity of your slides. A common mistake that people make is to try to add a lot of information on slides so that they can convey the volume of work which they did in their respective studies. This usually clutters the slide and forces the audience to read slides rather than listen to what you have to say. My general rule is: if I can represent the information in a picture, rather have a picture on the slide rather than having text (see example below). In addition to avoiding cluttering the slides with too much information, it is important that each slide is centered around a single key point, as this allows for better emphasis.

I could go on for the entire day providing tips and tricks on how to effectively communicate via online presentations, as they are many other points to consider. Fortunately, there are various sources out there that one can use to obtain more information on how to present effectively. One particular book that has enhanced my presentation skills is “The Craft of Scientific Presentations” by Michael Alley, and I highly recommend for individuals aiming to effectively communicate their work through scientific presentations.

An extract from one of my presentations, where a concept is explained through an annotated picture, rather than text.