I took a risk this week, and though the outcome wasn’t perfect, I’m glad I did it.
If you follow our tumblr or know me personally, you know I’m a graduate student in an evolutionary biology lab at the University of Houston. I could talk about that forever, but I won’t (you can read a bit about it on the lab website.) I’m also vice president of the Bioscience Graduate Society at UH, so I plan a lot of student geared events, and last week I hosted the annual UH-Rice research symposium, where biology graduate students from Rice and UH listen to each other give 20 minute talks about their research. The day before the symposium one of our speakers dropped out, so the risk that I took was deciding to step in at the last minute and give an impromptu talk of my own.
I never had anxiety about public speaking prior to grad school, but public speaking is a huge part of my job as a scientist, and I was getting so nervous every time I had to give a talk that my doctor prescribed as-needed anxiety medication. The meds help a bit, but what helps the most is endless preparation, such that I know exactly what I need to say, when & how I need to say it, because I’ve already said it countless times. And what makes my choice on Friday a risk is that I had never practiced this talk before. I’ve given several versions of my talk, but the latest version was completely unrehearsed.
I probably wouldn’t have given it at all without the encouragement from a Rice student who saw the slides pop up and said, “Oh are you filling in for the cancellation? That looks like an interesting talk!” I explained that I was thinking about it but that it was unrehearsed, and the audience kind of cheered me on, so I did it. I opened with some qualifying remarks about how this was all new and how people should be nice, and they were. For the most part it went well. I could hear my voice shaking, and I completely froze up mid-way through (translation: worst nightmare). I stumbled for what felt like an eternity, smiled and admitted that I completely lost my train of thought, then took a deep breath, read the slide title to orient myself, and kept going. I made it through and managed to hit all the points I wanted to hit, and got some really nice questions at the end. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. Was it the worst talk of the day? Honestly, I don’t think so.
The positive feedback I received from this experience has been amazing. I joked with my labmate how I learned not to give impromptu talks, and she said that the stumbling only lasted ” for like a second”. Two students hung out after the symposium to talk to congratulate me for my efforts and said that I was too apologetic for slipping up, that it seemed that my impression of the talk was way worse than anyone else’s. The icing on the cake was an email I got that night from a third student, congratulating me on the event as a whole and for giving an awesome last minute talk, specifically. So nice, you guys. Grad students know how hard it is to give a talk, and they don’t think I’m the dumbest just for losing focus momentarily. I will not look back on this as a mortifying mistake, but rather as a risk that completely paid off in terms of experience points.
The image above is from one of my methods slides, wherein I define my central question and explain how I’m going to test it. I compared the fitness of specialist bacteria (blue and yellow) to the fitness of generalist bacteria (green) in each of the specialist’s environments. Maybe one day you can watch me give a TED talk about it, but not without a lot of prior preparation. -b