Field of Science

On the Goal of Student Seminars

A requirement in most, if not all, biology related graduate programs is that the graduate students give seminars on their research progress several times during their training. In the two programs I am affiliated, students do this in their second and fourth years of training. (I am not including the oral thesis defense required to obtain the Ph.D. and I am only discussing Ph.D. programs as I do not have much experience with Master's programs.) Why do we have these requirements? Or maybe the better way to state the question is 'What is the purpose for having students talk about their research?'
A seminar (not given by a student)
This post is inspired by a recent minor conversation going on around our program. I was not going to post on it, because some of this conversation can be considered private. However, I have heard about this conversation from so many diverse people that the conversation is readily in the public domain. The conversation centers around the idea that specific faculty members are mean to students during their seminars. Seems simple enough, but we should probably define what ‘mean’ means at some point. Regardless, it is useful to establish the purpose of the student research seminar in order to determine what is and is not mean. So back to our initial question...

What is the purpose for having students talk about their research?

There are, of course, numerous purposes for the student seminar and I’ve listed four below. More purposes could be added and these four are not mutually exclusive, but these are the four I want to discuss.

1.    It allows program-wide evaluation.
2.    It sets foreseeable goal posts for progress.
3.    It is great practice.
4.    It allows for self-assessment. 

1.  The student seminar allows for program-wide evaluation.

Usually students discuss their research with an extremely narrow group of professionals. Namely their advisors, the lab head, and the members of their lab. Often there are joint laboratory meetings between a couple of research labs that work in similar areas, so there may be a few more professionals involved depending on the student. Regardless, students professional interactions with other scientists is limited.

The student research seminar allows the student to explain her research to a diverse group of professionals and other students still being trained. Conversely, is allows the program as a whole to see what is going on within the confines of the program. Our program has close to a hundred research faculty working in disparate areas such as bacterial biofilm formation, pain-associated with cancer, development of natural killer cells, etc. So it is unlikely that any one faculty member has a good sense of what is going on in the other ~99 labs. Here’s a dirty little secret, not only is the student being evaluated, but the laboratory the student comes from is being evaluated. How well prepared was the student, are the research questions being addressed solid or trivial, etc. This has longer term consequences that do not necessarily matter to the student, but does matter to the research group.

It also matters to members of the program, if the quality of the research being done falls off overall, those researchers doing high quality rigorous research may be less likely to participate or it may be difficult to recruit these researchers to join our program. Over time the prestige of the program can suffer making it more difficult to recruit the highest quality students. None of this rests on the shoulders of an individual student or group of students. It rests on the program and the student research seminars provide a window into the current health of the program.

2.  It sets foreseeable goal posts for progress.

As noted above, students generally meet often with their advisors and lab members in the semi-formal setting of a laboratory meeting. However, some advisors may have trouble keeping up with the progress of their trainees and scientists on a day-to-day level. If numerous exciting things are happening in the lab, it can be easy to overlook areas where things are stagnating. Students are also required to meet with their committees every year, but my experience is that this happens more like every 1 – 2 years and often not until year 3. Again these tend to be more informal presentations.

The student research seminars are formal presentations that are given in year 2 and 4. For the second year talk, the student has been in the laboratory a year or more, has defined the area of research they will work on, and should have made some preliminary experimental in roads to define their proposed research. The current format in our program is that students give a 20 - 25 minute presentation for their second year talk. Much of the talk is generally background defining the primary problem and specific research area the student is interested in and the preliminary studies setting the stage for the proposed research.

For the fourth year talk, the student completed their preliminary exams two years earlier and have been working full-time on their research for at least two years. The student should have a large body of experimental data devoted to their research question and have at least one ‘story’ well in hand. The current format in our program is that a student gives a 45 – 50 minute presentation for their fourth year talk. Here, much of the talk should relate the new findings generated by the student, of course with appropriate background information and a clear establishment of the specific question to be addressed.

The students know about these seminars when they enter the program and they serve as important ‘deadlines’ to measure productivity.

3.  It is great practice.

Science is not complete until it is communicated. Usually we think of the communication of science as the peer reviewed manuscript in a scientific journal. However, we also communicate orally at scientific meetings, during workshops and courses, and as invited speakers. Much like writing a scientific paper, giving a talk is a work of art and skill and takes practice. Ever been to a horrible seminar? Again, students frequently present their research at laboratory meetings, but this represents an extremely narrow focus. Everyone at the laboratory meeting knows the background and research area, so there is no need to logically and effectively lay out this information. Laboratory meetings tend to be informal, even ‘formal’ ones are informal compared to a research seminar. There is no need for the student to worry about acronyms and speaking in jargon, since everyone in the room speaks that same language. Your peers probably know, at least in a general sense, what you are doing so if there are issues with data presentation (labeled axes) it is often missed. Furthermore, there is a certain ‘lab-think’, where everyone is basically on the same page regarding the research and different ways of thinking about a problem are difficult to generate.

It is critically important for students to present their research to a diverse audience of scientists, because they might have the chance to present at a meeting or might even have a job interview at some point. I interviewed at a bio-tech company before taking my faculty position and I was asked to give a research seminar. Unlike the laboratory meeting where troubleshooting and hashing out experimental details is being done, in the seminar you are telling a story. Either a 20 minute story or a 45 minute story for our students. This is not trivial or easy and takes time to do well. Much of this can be done with your laboratory, but remember the issue with laboratory-specific language and mindset? That doesn’t go away. Our student seminars used to be much more hit-or-miss until the students took it upon themselves to practice with each other as a class. This brought diverse perspectives to the practice presentations, which helped the student learn what was actually general knowledge and what was laboratory-specific knowledge. The overall quality of the seminars improved several-fold. So in the relative safety (see below) of the departmental seminar, students can hone their skills for those times when the cost and payoff of their seminar matters most.

4.  It allows for self-assessment.

We have established the importance of the student research seminar as practice for the high impact presentations that the student will have to give. However, there is an immediate benefit, which is the ability of the student to self-assess themselves. When I give a seminar, as soon as possible afterwards, I jot down the questions/comments that were raised during the talk. This is useful for several reasons, it helps me hone my presentation and be better prepared for the next one. Was the question something I could or should have dealt with in the talk proper? Did I leave out some important details? I also assume a similar question will come up in the future, so I know to be better prepared for it.

Based on the questions and comments, you can identify weaknesses in the data, whether it is simply with how the data is presented or more substantial like the lack of a control. You can also identify weaknesses in thought. Is there a similar paradigm in another system you were unaware of? Did you overlook a body of literature that already addressed the long-term goal you propose to accomplish?

With those ideas in mind, we can now address the idea of members of your audience being mean. Again we need to establish what is meant by 'mean.' If an audience member interrupts your presentation with a question and prefaces the question with 'Hey dumbass...', that can be considered mean. Maybe a question/comment includes the phrase 'I have never heard anything so stupid in my life.' Obviously, the person making that comment can not be serious (unless they do not have children or have not taught undergraduates) and therefore can be considered mean. In my ten plus years of attending student seminars, a few of which were atrocious, I have never heard any such question/comment.

So what else could the students consider 'mean'? In my experience of attending student seminars, there are a handful of faculty members and other professional scientists who almost always ask questions, a set of scientists that often ask questions, and a cadre of scientists and faculty who rarely if ever ask questions. From my perspective this latter group could be considered 'mean'. In what way are they contributing to the four points described above? The quiet bodies in the room are not helping the student identify what works or doesn't work with the talk. They are not actively helping the student prepare for professional talks that carry a much greater risk. It's akin to giving a document to a colleague for feedback and the only thing you get in return is a great job or smiley is this helpful?

What about the two categories of professionals who ask questions?  Based on what we just discussed, it seems unlikely these people could be considered 'mean' could it? For the sake of argument let's entertain the possibility that one of these groups contains the 'mean' scientists. 

Maybe we should consider the types of questions that could be asked. Questions can be considered either passive or a aggressive.  Passive questions are like 'What do you think about X?' or 'Have you thought about doing X?' Basically questions with no correct answer and a plethora of valid answers. These questions have value, but are also the kind of questions used car sales reps have no trouble dealing with. For example, a well trained and prepared student can take these questions and provide some important insights, but a poorly trained student who does not really understand the field they are in can often song-and-dance their way around an answer. (Of course it's the kiss of death for a student that can not handle these softball questions at all.)

Aggressive questions may prevent this.
Aggressive questions are different in nature. Aggressive questions are those that call into question the data or interpretation of the data. Aggressive questions challenge the student to explain something they failed to or did not explain well. Aggressive questions confront the student with poorly presented data, such as graph lacking labels or presented in such a way as to mislead the audience (see data from FOX gnus). Aggressive questions bring up other systems or data sets that contradict the point(s) being made by the student... Actually those scientists asking aggressive questions do sound like a bunch of assholes calling out the students and challenging them, but are they?

Remember our four purposes to give a student seminar? Let's see how they hold up against the asshole accusation.

1.  The student seminar allows for program-wide evaluation.

By asking questions that challenge the student it is possible to assess how the well the student understands their area of research. It is possible to ascertain the depth of understanding in the experimental details including the intrinsic limitations with an experimental approach. This serves to promote programmatic rigor, but more importantly let's other students know that the program has standards and there are scientists who will ensure those standards are maintained.

2.  It sets foreseeable goal posts for progress.

Aggressive questions do not truly apply to this purpose, neither do passive questions, except from the standpoint noted above. By seeing what the expectations are in the second and fourth year, students in the earlier years can be aware of where the bar is and what to work towards.

3.  It is great practice.

Absolutely aggressive questions are relevant here. If you are at an important meeting and one of the leaders in the field notes your experimental deficiencies (in the presence of every other leader in the field) and you cannot respond, you are fucked. If you are criticized or contradicted, what are you going to do? Explain why you are correct or at least most likely correct or tap your shoes together muttering 'there's no place like home, there's no place like home.' Don't you think being able to handle aggressive questions will help you in a job interview?

4.  It allows for self-assessment.

Most students, I have found, want to be top notch scientists and appreciate challenging questions. Even those students who are not necessarily aggressive themselves, understand the importance of being able to handle themselves under pressure. Most students either understand or are taught why they should value the challenge and how it helps them improve.

You are
a winner!
The conversation that inspired this post, much like previous conversations along these lines, is driven by the newest students, not the more experienced students. Presumably these newer students are not used to the actual practice of science. It makes me wonder what they think the purpose of the student seminar is. Maybe they think the student seminar is simply a trivial hoop they need to jump through with no other purpose than to get a free snack or lunch. If so, they probably feel they'll deserve a big high-five for taking time out of their busy days to grace us with their presentation. If this is true, it suggests the program needs to do a better job explaining the purpose of these requirements and not simply assuming it is known.

For full disclosure I consider myself to be one of those scientists that almost always asks questions. If I don't ask a question, it generally means that the presenter has convinced me that it is not worth my time to ask questions (the other possibility is that I dozed off).


Rosie Redfield said...

I think you're missing the most fundamental reason for giving a research seminar.

A public seminar, even one by a student, is genuine scientific communication. They're not just practicing for some more important future presentation, they're reporting their findings right now.

Not taking the science seriously enough to ask critical questions would be an insult to the student. The questions shouldn't be any harsher than those for a seminar by a senior researcher, but they shouldn't be any gentler either.

The Lorax said...

I absolutely agree that the public seminar is genuine scientific communication and is important. I think I make this point and refer to this fact at several points. However, I did not raise it to its own 'purpose' because I think I am already giving a variety of reasons why presenting a seminar to your department/program is important.