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Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

From Goodreads.com

When I was getting ready for school in the morning as a tween-going-on-teen, I’d often have the TV on in the background, playing reruns of whatever television shows adults enjoyed in those days. So I’ve never actually seen a full episode of M*A*S*H, and really only know it by the sound of the helicopter blades in the opening segment, which was often playing as I walked out the door. But I’m definitely familiar with the actor who played Hawkeye in this show, Alan Alda. After Hawkeye’s tour was over, Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for 12 of its 15 seasons, and that show was most certainly not just background to my middle school mornings. For me, Scientific American Frontiers was a sit-down-stop-everything-else-and-only-watch-TV kind of show. Naturally, I decided I had to read Alda’s latest memoir, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, which encompasses his experience with scientific communication in an amusing and relatable way. As Alda says in the introduction, “Developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication, and are what this book is about.”

            Storytelling is an important aspect of science. When we’re giving a talk, we have to convince the people listening that the research is worth their time and attention. Alda argues that communicating isn’t just telling. It is simultaneously observing and determining whether the audience follows, and whether what you’re saying resonates with them. In many ways, it’s akin to a performance, which is perhaps why an actor with a prolific track record like Alda is so successful at it. Using small studies and anecdotes as evidence, Alda suggests in this book that things like improvisation or audience-synchronization exercises can improve presentation skills.

            His principle extends to written audiences as well. A writer cannot observe and react to a reader’s thoughts, confusions, or frustrations, but they can learn to think about a reader’s state of mind and anticipate the reader’s expectations. In essence, a writer can learn to be familiar with the experience level of their target reader and what questions they might ask if they were in the room, and adjust the narrative or delivery of the story accordingly.

            If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is a quick read, but that doesn’t hinder its capacity to home in on the important points above. This is not a how-to book; just reading it will not inherently improve your ability to communicate or your grant writing. But it may give you an idea of how to practice getting into your audience’s head and engaging with them in an easy and effective manner. Every audience will be different, and it is our responsibility – as researchers, as authors, as presenters – to be able communicate the intricate concepts of our research in a way that is readily comprehended by both scientists and non-scientists alike.

Five Things to Consider Before Attending a Conference

  1. Make a good poster.

To bring a good poster to a conference, you need to have an actual poster to bring, which means carefully planning when you assemble and send your poster for printing. Leave at least a few days, or even better a week, between printing your poster and the date of your departure or attendance.

Check for any poster guidelines provided by the conference; you don’t want to end up with a poster that doesn’t fit on the presentation board.

Think about how you want your poster to look, in regards to content as well as physical appearance. Find an organizational flow for your information and data that will allow readers and listeners to easily track your project through its various stages. While paper posters are format most researchers use, fabric posters are easily packed into a suitcase, making them a good option for airline travel. 

  1. Choose sessions to attend wisely.

Big or small, conferences have a lot going on. Daily schedules are packed, and with larger conferences, there can be a half-dozen or more sessions happening simultaneously. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, so be thoughtful about the scientific fields or types of research you want to experience while there. Pick a few sessions that are of high interest to you that you absolutely will commit to going to, and be engaged in those sessions: sit in the front, take notes, write down questions and papers to look up later. Aside from those key sessions–and depending on the size of the conference and its offerings–be judicious in how you add to your list so you can get maximum output from all of the input available there.

  1. Plan out a networking strategy.

Conferences can be as much about networking as they are about sharing and learning new science. During poster sessions, socials, career events, dinners, and coffee hours, you might be introduced to dozens of new faces. Figure out ahead of time what you want to get out of the social aspects of the conference beforehand. Do you want to find another lab to collaborate with? Is there a lab you are interested in applying to after graduate school? Do you want to get to know trainees from other institutions? Are there contacts in science-related careers of interest to you that will also be at the conference? Once you have a goal in mind for how you want to network at the conference, scan through the program to pick out events that will help you meet those goals and commit to attending those sessions.

  1. Prepare business cards.

If you meet a potential collaborator or career connection, having a business card to give them could make or break a follow-up after the conference. After all, we’ve all written down someone’s email on a note in our phones and then promptly forgotten about it until we find it again three months later. With a physical card, your information is in a more accessible and memorable format that shows you are both professional and prepared.

  1. Rest, rest, rest.

It is tempting to get wrapped up in the busy nature of conferences, but breaks are key to making it through without feeling completely exhausted by the end. Each day, run out for a quick coffee, go back to your room and take a power nap, or take ten minutes to just listen to some music in a hallway or quiet corner. Even a small pause in the hustle can refresh your brain and make room for even more great science 🙂 

On the Shelf…

For Work

Electronic resource: BrowZine

Location: Download from Apple or Android app store, or access online at: https://browzine.com/

BrowZine provides direct access to the library’s electronic journals, allowing you to browse full contents of current and older issues, create a personal bookshelf, and save and download articles for offline reading.

To get started:

  1. Download and open the app on your Apple, Android or Kindle Fire device, or go to https://browzine.com/.
  2. Choose Tufts University from the list of available libraries.
  3. Enter your Tufts username and password.

For Leisure

 After the Crash, Michael Bussi

Location: HHSL Leisure Reading, Sackler 4, Fiction B981a 2016

As summer comes to a close, make time for one more beach read with this thriller about determining the identity of the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Swiss Alps.