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June 2001
Vol. 10, No. 07, p 7.
For Openers
Scientifically Speaking, “Get Real”

opening artOne of the benefits of being an editor for Today’s Chemist at Work is that I get to attend scientific meetings. Some are more interesting than others—indeed, some are more scientific than others—but all are filled with people who labor in some fashion in the service of science.

I recently attended a conference in Europe where a wide range of papers was presented, some orally and others in the form of posters, on various aspects of analytical chemistry. There were plenary lectures from distinguished speakers and a plethora of papers from people just starting out in their careers. Topics included chromatographic applications in biotechnology, environmental monitoring, and polymer chemistry. Papers dealt with instrumentation, separation theory, and even clinical chemistry. There were six days of papers and speakers from around the world. And while some lecture presentations and posters were very good, some of them sounded stilted and monotonic like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Why was that?

We seem to expect that people who present papers at scientific conferences must lecture in ways that remind us of Cotton Mather or Captain Ahab. And besides the deep stentorian tones, there apparently is also a secret rule that requires three or more modifiers for all nouns. Complicated words are to be used whenever possible. We can no longer say “protein chemistry”—how 1970s. Now we must say proteomics. Even the press conferences we attend as editors on behalf of this magazine often have speakers who try to bolster their talk with the “faux” erudition of their words. Indeed, sometimes it seems to me that the less important the work presented, the more gravity the speaker tries to give it.

Yet the lecturers I remember most vividly from all the scientific meetings I’ve attended were those where I felt the speaker was talking directly to me. I once heard Robert Burns Woodward speak at an IUPAC conference. (He, of course, is the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who first synthesized such compounds as chlorophyll and tetracycline.) His talk was about the most intricate aspects of organic synthesis and the then-nascent organizing principles of carbon ring chemistry that became the Woodward-Hoffman rules on pericyclic reaction chemistry. There were parts of his talk that covered complex organic reaction mechanisms, laboratory practice, and even quantum theory. His lecture was brilliant, but more to the point, it was understandable and enjoyable, even to one who had just started his graduate career. I don’t think he ever left anyone in the lecture hall behind. He stood at a chalkboard for 90 minutes and more or less just told us what he had been doing for the last year. He was mesmerizing.

I’m not saying that everyone who gives a talk at a scientific meeting has to be as compelling as Woodward. We’re obviously not all wired that way. But at the same time, most of us aren’t nearly as turgid as Ahab, either. What we can do at meetings is “get real”, be ourselves. The best lectures, like the best writing, are those in which the speaker engages us without artifice, without pretension, using the everyday communication tools of art, insight, humor, and intelligence. After all, speaker and audience have chosen to spend 30 minutes or so together explaining data and postulating theories. Straightforward communications should make it a worthwhile experience for both.

James F. Ryan

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