Wit & Wisdom

The art of the 15-minute talk

The art of the 15-minute talk

We’ve all attended conferences with those dreaded 15-minute talks and we have no problem picking out which talks were amazing and which talks were abysmal. However, when it comes to our own talks, it’s hard to judge them, find out how they can be improved or break away from long-established habits (such as our layout or talking pace). This week, Matthew Herman, postdoc at the Tectonophysics research group at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, guides you towards your best 15-minute talk yet!

At some point in your career as an Earth Scientist, you will hopefully have a chance to give a 15-minute talk at a meeting, a colloquium series, or simply in your lab group. This provides a great opportunity to advertise your hard work to your colleagues in an amount of time that is well within a human attention span. Ultimately, your goal in this talk is to effectively communicate your discovery to your audience. In the process, you get to explain the importance of your field, pose a crucial research question in that field, demonstrate cutting-edge analyses and applications, and, finally, provide an answer to that initial research question, sometimes for the very first time.

Despite all the latent potential for a 15-minute talk to captivate and teach the audience, many of these presentations end up being uninformative. I do not intend this as a judgment regarding the significance or quality of the science. I have seen incomprehensible talks from people whose research is crucial to our understanding of the Earth system. Alternatively, I have seen talks presenting incremental scientific advancements that were truly enlightening. But from all the diverse presentations I have seen, there are common elements that either dramatically improved or reduced my understanding of the subject matter. My aim here is to provide what I think are some of these key characteristics that make up a really excellent talk, so that next time you have the opportunity to present, you will inspire your audience.

I think there are two general things to keep in mind for your 15-minute talk: (a) you have limited time with your audience, and (b) the expertise of your audience can vary a lot. This means that you should design a presentation that fits your extensive understanding into a brief window and tailor the details for the particular audience that will be attending. If this makes it seem like it will take time and effort to construct an effective talk, that is because it is true! Even if you have a well-received publication, simply transferring figures, analyses, and interpretations from the paper into your talk is almost guaranteed to lead to an ineffective presentation – it will probably be too long, too technical, and too difficult to see from the back of the room. If you really want your audience to concentrate on your work for the full 15 minutes, take the time (potentially up to a few weeks) to craft a great talk. And one more thing: you really should practice your talk ahead of time. Actually, I cannot emphasize this point enough: PRACTICE.

Note: If you are short on time right now, I have included a checklist at the end to summarize the main points.

How long?

Imagine: you are in the audience and the end of the talk is not in sight. You shift in your seat uncomfortably as you glance at your watch. The speaker does not appear to notice the amount of time since they started, but you definitely do: 14:30… 15:00… 15:30. Finally, two full minutes after the end of the scheduled time slot, the speaker asks if there are any questions, but of course there is no time for that. Many otherwise good talks have been ruined for me by the presenters going into overtime. All I can now remember about them is by how much they exceeded the final bell. As a speaker, you have 15 minutes – choose a topic and present it in the allotted time frame. In fact, target your talk for 12-13 minutes so your audience can ask questions at the end.

This, and that, and these…

The detailed structure of the talk is flexible, but should probably contain the following items: background/motivation (Why should we, the audience, care?); a research question or hypothesis (What is being tested?); observations, models, and analysis (How is the research question being answered?); and interpretations and conclusions (GIVE US THE ANSWERS!).

i. Background
Try to avoid dwelling on the background for too long. I know many of us (myself included) enjoy pedantically explaining the rich history of our field leading up to the present day. But you do not have the time in a 15-minute talk. As you are constructing your presentation, you should budget no more than 2-3 minutes at the start to establish the context for your research problem. At that point, your audience should be oriented and ready to be amazed by your results.

Example of an introduction/background slide

ii. Research Question
Do not assume that your research question or hypothesis is obvious to everyone. People come to talks for a lot of different reasons; sometimes they are experts in the field, but other times they saw a keyword in your title or abstract, or maybe there were no other interesting sessions. In any case, it is likely that a good percentage of your audience does not know what specifically you are testing if you do not tell them. After setting up the background, verbally or on the screen state your research question or hypothesis.

iii. Observations, Models, and Analysis
This will be the bulk of your presentation. Tailoring your 15-minute talk for your specific audience means you will want to use just the right amount of technical terminology. You should assume some foundational level of knowledge because there is no way to define every term and present the complete theory for your research. But for the most part, I think you should try to minimize technical jargon (particularly uncommon acronyms) in talks. If and when you need to use a term repeatedly, then take 15-30 of your precious seconds to concisely explain the concept, ideally without patronizing or condescending. [Did I mention this was a difficult balance?] Incidentally, explaining a concept has the added benefit of forcing you to understand the concept sufficiently that you can distill its definition into a compact form for your listeners.

The precise minimum level of knowledge you assume for your audience depends on the setting. In the large lecture hall of an international meeting like the EGU General Assembly, the audience may be weighted towards less experience in your field, whereas a special meeting focused on your subject area will likely have a higher percentage of experts.

A related point is that you should avoid all but the most straightforward equations. The reality is that any audience member who does not already understand the equation is not going to understand it from your talk. There is not enough time, and the medium is not amenable to higher level math. Simple equations with a couple variables are okay, but anything with multiple terms, powers, derivatives, etc. are a waste of time.

iv. Interpretations and Conclusions
Honestly, most people are pretty good at this part. This is the most fun and exciting aspect of the talk, plus it means the end is near. A couple minor pieces of advice: (a) make sure you have drawn a clear path from the background through the analyses and into the interpretations, with the common thread being answering your research question; and (b) I think it is best to limit the number of conclusions to 3-4 (consider this in the preliminary design stage of the talk as well!).

Example of a results slide

Good looks matter

I try to follow the advice of the great Jim Henson when it comes to designing the look for my talks: “Simple is good.” I will not harp on making figures, because many other people have discussed how to design good ones. In a nutshell: make them big, use good color schemes and large fonts, and keep them uncluttered. Resist the urge to copy figures straight from papers to your talk. You will probably need to simplify a figure from the published version in order to make it optimal for your talk. Sometimes you just need to design and produce a totally new figure. In fact, making figures is where I spend at least 65% of my time when I am preparing a talk.

In terms of slide layout, use the whole slide. Borders, icons, and backgrounds can be pretty flourishes, but they take up valuable real estate. Every centimeter you use for a border is a centimeter you can no longer use for a making a figure nice and big. And remember there will be people, some with poor eyesight, in the back of the room. As on figures, limit the amount of text. When you do need labels or bullet points, use a classic, simple font (I will scream if I see Comic Sans one more time…) in a large size – I typically use no smaller than 24-point font Helvetica.

Closing remarks

Many of my suggestions are more like guidelines than hard rules. I enjoy seeing creative and innovative presentations. As long as you give yourself enough time to craft an excellent presentation, then take time to practice it in front of friends, it will turn out well. Hopefully we will all see a large collection of great talks in the next few meetings. See you there!

Remember: the goal of the talk is for your audience to understand your science!

• Take time (up to several weeks) to construct your presentation
• Practice before the date of your talk, if possible in front of a test audience

• Target talk length for 12-13 minutes (do not go over 14!)
• Limit background or introductory information to 2-3 minutes
• Explicitly state research question
• Link background, analysis, and interpretations to research question
• Limit conclusions to ≤ 4

Scientific Content
• Choose technical jargon at level appropriate for audience
• Define critical terminology in 30 seconds or less
• Limit acronyms
• Avoid complex equations
• Avoid tables

Visual Content
• Fill space on slide, especially with figures
• Make thin frames to not waste precious room
• Choose large font sizes (≥ 24 pt) in a standard font
• Adjust figures from published version
• Check figure color contrasts (avoid blue/black, yellow/white)
• Use perceptually linear color palettes (no rainbow!)
• Avoid cartoons, animations, and sounds

General Life Advice
• Use common sense (e.g., do not include pictures from the bar in your talk)

Convection in eggs

Convection in eggs

Happy Easter everybody! It is that time of year again when you wake up excitedly on Easter Sunday and run into the garden to find the chocolate eggs the Easter Bunny hid for you! What? That’s just me? Hm. Well, in any case, you will probably have a couple of extra days off from work and this should be celebrated with a themed blog post! As you know, geodynamics is about the large scale dynamics of the Earth. One of the most important and most studied processes in geodynamics is mantle convection. However, convection processes are not only present on this large (mantle) scale. In fact, you can find convection processes everywhere around you. Think for example about adding cold milk to your hot tea or coffee: a more beautiful example of a(n analogue) model of convection you will only rarely find. However, for this happy Easter occasion, we will focus on the convection in eggs! Yes, your eyes do not deceive you: real eggs!

What is convection?

Let’s start with the definition of convection. Feel free to skip this section if you are a diehard geodynamicist already. For those of you that are not: convection is a natural process of heat transfer where material flows (convects) due to material density differences that are caused by a difference in temperature. To go back to our coffee analogy: the coffee is hot, and therefore less dense than the cold milk. If you pour the milk in the coffee, the milk is denser (~heavier) than the coffee and thus sinks to the bottom of your cup driven by buoyancy contrasts. This heat transfer via the movement of liquids is called convection. It happens in your coffee cup, and it also happens in the mantle of the Earth. And is an egg really that different? Imaging that the egg white is the mantle and the egg yolk the core and we have a nice analogy (okay, the yolk can move, I know. Cut me some slack).

Why would you study the convection in eggs?

Good question. I also didn’t have no clue at first. However, as it turns out, studying the convection in eggs is very important for the food processing of eggs. People like to cook with actual, intact eggs, but there is always a risk that raw eggs contain salmonellae. Apparently there are pasteurised ‘liquid egg’ products on the market, but they can not be used in as many different ways as real, intact eggs. So, in order to make sure that you can safely lick the spoon used to make the cake batter, the idea of ‘pasteurisation of intact eggs’ was born. By pasteurising intact eggs, the illness-inducing salmonellae is killed, without actually compromising the great versatility of the egg. In order to determine how long you should heat an egg at which temperature to kill all the salmonellae (and without accidentally boiling the egg), one needs to know how heat is transferred inside the egg. Hence, one should study the convection of an egg.

So what does convection in eggs look like?

Denys et al., 2004 conducted a numerical study into the computational fluid dynamics of conductive and convective heat transfer in eggs. They used three model setups:
• a reference egg without a yolk
• an egg with a yolk in the middle
• an egg with a yolk at the top

They looked at the time evolution of heating of the egg, while also keeping track of the coldest point in the egg (which is a measure of the pasteurisation process). The initial egg was at a uniform temperature of 24.5 ℃. They then simulated the placement of the egg in a 59.4 ℃ water bath. The calculated velocity fields and time evolution are shown in the figures below.

Calculated velocity field (top) and contours (bottom) after 30s of food processing in a water bath for the three types of model setups: a) no yolk, b) yolk in the middle, c) yolk at the top. Figure from Denys et al., 2004.

Time evolution of the temperature in the model of an egg with a yolk in the middle after being heated in a water bath for a) 5s, b) 10s, c) 30s, d) 80s, e) 150s, and f) 300s. White line is the 53 °C temperature contour and the cross represents the coldest point in the egg. Figure from Denys et al., 2004.

Denys et al., 2004 conclude that the convection in the egg changes the location of the coldest point in the egg: if there was only conduction at play, the coldest spot would be at the geometrical centre of the egg, but the convection forces the slowest heating zone to the bottom of the egg.

This conclusion is of course not applicable to the Earth: the core doesn’t move through the mantle, like the egg yolk can move through the egg white. Still, studying the process of convection systematically across all natural scales ultimately leads to a better understanding of the convection process, which is beneficial for everyone studying the physical process of convection on whatever scale.

So now you know what happens during convection in an egg. It’s not quite the Earth, but with a bit of festive imagination we can go a long way. Hopefully this piece of convection trivia will come in handy during the long Easter weekend. Enjoy!

Denys, S., Pieters, J. G., & Dewettinck, K. (2004). Computational fluid dynamics analysis of combined conductive and convective heat transfer in model eggs. Journal of Food Engineering, 63(3), 281-290.

Help us fight patriarchy, one comic strip at a time!

Help us fight patriarchy, one comic strip at a time!

Women in science/geodynamics: a topic we have discussed before and should continue to discuss, because we’re not there yet. In this new Wit & Wisdom post, Marie Bocher, postdoc at the Seismology and Wave Physics group of ETH Zürich, discusses a range of all-too-common encounters women face and a possible solution to awareness: comics (drawn by Alice Adenis, PhD student at ENS Lyon).

Credit: Alice Adenis

You know it is so much easier for women in science these days

“Oh I don’t hire female PhD students anymore: they get pregnant and then they’re lost for science”

“Yes, I remember you, you were wearing that red dress last time”

“Now that you have responsibilities, you can’t get pregnant again”

Oh, yes, they needed a woman for this committee, that’s why they asked you

And my two personal favourites:

“You should be happy that someone called you an angel [author’s note: in a professional setting], that means that you are beautiful, what are you complaining about?”

“I do not understand why women need to work, I mean, my wife did a marvelous job raising our children while I was working, I don’t get why this way of life has to change.”

These statements have been heard in real life, in the professional setting of the research lab (or at a conference), and were directed towards real humans, who share the particularity of being both women and Earth scientists (I know! Crazy, right?). If you have said similar things or think that some (or all) of these sentences are not that big of a deal, please go to the end of this article: I have a small text just for you! Anyway, I am pretty sure I’m not the only one to find this type of comments disturbing, to say the least. And I want to do something about it.

Credit: Alice Adenis

One of the first steps in the fight against sexism is to identify and describe the various ways it is expressed in our community. Research in geodynamics is definitely international, and patriarchy comes in different flavours all around the world. Each lab has its own blend of cultures and individuals that leads to different climates. That is also true for conferences and other events. As a result, the experience of working as a female in academia and developing as a scientist varies.

Credit: Alice Adenis

However, the patriarchal power structures and strategies are similar, even if the degree to which those are expressed in a specific setting varies. Here is a diagram that, I think, sums up the variety of barriers to gender equality we face in academia pretty well:

Diagram summing up the different barriers to gender equality in academia, taken from Holmes (2015).

Credit: Alice Adenis

The sentences I quoted in the beginning of the article, and illustrated by Alice Adenis throughout this post, are examples of sexist microaggressions (look up the interactional circle in the diagram!). Generally speaking, microaggressions are, according to Derald Wing Sue (2010), “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”. In the context of sexism, they remind women of the stereotypical roles society has assigned to them: we should be pleasant to the eye; our most important achievement should be to become a mother; we are not as competent as men in science, and therefore any attempt to reach parity in committees means that women are helped or preferred over more competent men… Taken individually, and depending on the person they are addressed to, they go unnoticed, they are annoying, or they are deeply hurtful. Put together and accumulated over time, they create a chilly climate for women in academia and contribute to discourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career.

Credit: Alice Adenis

These sexist microaggressions are the subject of an initiative to which I contribute, together with Alice Adenis, Claire Mallard, Maëlis Arnould, Martina Ulvrova, Mélanie Gérault and Nicolas Coltice: the project “did this really happen?!“. We gather testimonies of everyday sexism in academia, translate them into comics, and publish them on this blog. The aim is to show the nature of current everyday sexism in academia, to make it visible to people who do not see it, and to start a conversation in our community on how we can do better, be more inclusive and more respectful of each other. To achieve this goal, we need you, dear reader. You want to contribute? Here is what you can do:
• Enjoy reading the comics, and think about how you would have reacted in such situations
• Share the contents of the website on your favorite social media
• Print some comics and put them in the common room of your lab to start discussions
• Share one of your personal stories with us, anonymously or not, through this form

Finally, you can join the course on unconscious bias and the session on ‘promoting and supporting equality of opportunities in geosciences’ of the next EGU general assembly in Vienna!

Hope to see you there!

Credit: Alice Adenis









A text to those who do not see why I ‘make such a fuss’ about some people sometimes saying stuff which are ‘maybe a bit sexist’.

Marie Bocher

You might feel like I’m attacking you. I am not. I’m against sexist behaviour – not against people. I am not fighting against men, I am fighting against patriarchy. I have very rarely encountered profoundly sexist people, and I am convinced that the people who did say the sentences I gave as an example meant no harm. Moreover, I have also said sexist (and racist) stuff and will probably say more in the future, because – like the majority of researchers right now – I grew up and live in a white-supremacist and patriarchal society, and this affects my behaviour even if I don’t want to, even if I am a convinced feminist, fighting for a world with more equality.

That being said, here is how I interpret the example sentences and why I think they are not acceptable:

“You know it is so much easier for women in science these days”
This sentence is a classical variation on the concept that women are now favoured over more competent men because of parity issues. While the discrimination against women during the recruitment process has been documented (see for example this article on CV selection, this article on the letter of recommendations, and this article on the same topic), I am still trying to find a study on all these incompetent women who steal the jobs of competent men…

“Oh I don’t hire female PhD students anymore: they get pregnant and then they’re lost for science”
By saying that, you suppose that every woman will systematically want children and renounce her career plans as soon as she becomes a mother. This results in restricting women to only one of the many lives they could choose for themselves. This is also gender discrimination and illegal in a lot of countries.

“Yes, I remember you, you were wearing that red dress last time”
When you say that, you send the message that you are paying more attention to my appearance than to what I have to say. This is objectifying and out of place in a professional setting.

“Now that you have responsibilities, you can’t get pregnant again”
Choosing to have a child or not IS A PERSONAL DECISION. Please do not give your opinion on these matters unless your colleague actually asks for it.

Alice Adenis: Cartoonist, Data Scientist, and PhD in geophysics

“Oh, yes, they needed a woman for this committee, that’s why they asked you.”
You are implying that I am not competent for this committee, but only selected for my gender. That is insulting.

“You should be happy that someone called you an angel [author’s note: in a professional setting], that means that you are beautiful, what are you complaining about?”
See the red dress remark.

“I do not understand why women need to work, I mean, my wife did a marvelous job raising our children while I was working, I don’t get why this way of life has to change.”
Again, this restricts women into one role, that does not necessarily fit everybody.

 Holmes, M. A. (2015) A Sociological Framework to Address Gender Parity, in Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices Toward Parity (eds M. A. Holmes, S. OConnell and K. Dutt), John Wiley & Sons, Inc, Hoboken, NJ. doi: 10.1002/9781119067573.ch3
 Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Maintaining a good work-life balance is essential for a steady career and happy life in academia. However, like with all good things, it is not easy. In this new Wit & Wisdom post, Jessica Munch, PhD student at ETH Zürich, explores how to achieve a good work-life balance.

Jessica Munch
Credit: Manon Lauffenburger

Research is a truly amazing occupation, especially in geodynamics (okay, that might be a bit biased…). However, disregarding the position you have academia, research is also a job asking for a lot of commitment, an ability to deal with pressure, (very) good organisational skills and an ability to deal with everything on time to (hopefully) stay in academia (if you want to learn more about stress and pressure effects on researchers, there are plenty of articles related to that on the web – if you did not experience them by yourself already – yay!) Hence, it seems that this dream job can sometimes turn into a nightmare, which could partly explain why so many people quit academia.

The solution to avoid having to make such an extreme decision as quitting? The legendary work-life balance: how to reconcile a job that you cannot get out of your mind once you’re done with your day (it’s not like you can easily switch off your brain once you leave your office and forget about all the questions you are trying to answer with your research, right?) with your private life, hobbies, and families?

I wanted to try to figure out what a work-life balance really means. At the very least, I wanted to find a more meaningful answer than wikipedia’s definition:

Work-life balance is a concept including the proper prioritisation between work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, leisure, family)

The definition I would give based on my limited experience, is that a work-life balance is an (often rather fragile) equilibrium between academia and your private life that allows you to stay efficient and motivated about your research without losing the link with/neglecting the world outside. All of that while being happy and healthy. Easy, no?

Given my restricted experience with this balance, I wondered how other researchers at different stages in their career deal with this. I contacted several researchers and they took the time to reply to my questions although they had a very tight schedule (thanks you very much!).

A first insight comes from Susanne Buiter, Team leader at the Geological Survey of Norway: “I guess the fact that I am writing you in the weekend, on a Saturday evening says something about my balancing work and private life at the moment!”. Sounds quite tough, but then she gives some explanations. She appreciates that everyone is very dedicated to their research in our field. This often leads to long and rather unconventional working hours for research and teaching duties. This is fine as long as it is voluntary, but it should not become an expectation. Susanne’s take on this is that there should be flexibility from both sides, and that it is absolutely fine that some weeks are very busy as long as other times can be more relaxed. Considering her research not only as a job but also as a hobby seems to allow for a lot of dedication while keeping being her both happy and motivated. She also raises the question if anyone is able to actually do all the work he or she has to do when only working regular hours.

A second opinion on this precious work-life balance comes from an early career researcher, Marie Bocher, a postdoc at ETH Zürich. When discussing with her, she first points out that a work-life balance is not necessarily a condition to do a good research: one should not directly link the lack of balance in your life to a burnout. For Marie it is okay to work a lot, as long as her research is meaningful to her and she is efficient and motivated. Sometimes you work really hard, do not have a real balance, have no time for hobbies, etc., but this does not necessarily mean you are going to end up with a burnout. These kind of moments can actually be enjoyable, because you often notice that you are efficient and making progress, which is quite rewarding. Hence, what you need in research (even more than a balanced life) is a meaning to what you are doing or a reason for going to work every morning. This is what will prevent you from having a burnout and will help you to be a happy researcher. Support and validation from peers can also help.

However, Marie wonders if the work-life balance issue has always been an issue in academia. She mentions the fact that sometimes people feel pressure to have a balanced life according to someone else’s definition. Sometimes colleagues comment on the fact that you work late and that this is not normal, and that you should have a hobby (pressure to have hobbies, quite paradoxical, no?). This might result in you pushing yourself to do activities even though you would prefer to for once hang out at home and relax during your weekend. Not everyone needs to have an hyperactive life. Instead, people should just try to live a life they enjoy.

Finally, she raises the point that work-life balance is actually a dynamic equilibrium: it is something that changes depending on your situation. You cannot organise yourself the same way if you are single, if you have a partner, or if you have kids. It is a hard to find balance and that evolves with life and responsibilities.

Potentially dangerous/lethal way of working on your work-life balance
Credit: Antoine Grisart

Speaking about kids and family, the third and last (but definitely not least) thoughts on this topic come from Saskia Goes, lecturer/reader at Imperial College London. For her, having a balanced life means having time for other things besides works and occasionally time for herself – a definition she is not sure she could apply to her own life where she constantly has to juggle between work and family. Saskia explains that it is a continuous challenge to do enough work to keep the department happy and functioning, but to also say no to enough work so that she still has time for her own research, students and her family. She also points out that she has very little time to do research herself – only a few hours now and then. Her main research activity at the moment actually consists in working with students and postdocs on their papers.

When asked how she reconciles family life with her work, Saskia replies that it is doable, but only with sufficient support in the form of a partner, school care, family or friends. Moreover, she emphasises that you need to accept that you simply cannot keep up with people who work 60 to 80 hours every week and can attend three to four conferences a year. Some types of research do not work with a family, unless you have a partner who can significantly help out for a while. Bringing up the fact that a job in academia often implies a lot of moving (research positions in different countries, etc.), Saskia mentions that until now, she only moved once with her kids. The main challenge was then the lack of support (for instance from friends and family) when you move to the new place.

Finally, when I asked her for tips on how to manage all of this, she suggested to make lists to keep track of what needs to be done when, and to then divide and plan the tasks day by day, week per week so that they look manageable. The main challenge lies in trying to balance the amount of things you take on with the time you have!

According to these different insights on the work-life balance, a universal definition seems impossible. Instead, the precious balance appears to be quite personal. It depends on your situation in life, on how much your time you can actually dedicate to your project, and your ability to manage the tasks you need to do (or refuse to do). Hence, the work-life balance is a very personal concept everyone has to figure out for him/herself. Ultimately, it is just a matter of being happy with what you do.