When you have a new idea in a field so steeped in tradition as science or education, as a newcomer, how can you encourage discussion, at the very least, while still presenting yourself as a professional member of your new field? This was at the heart of some discussion that came up this weekend after Shawn and I presented his “Better Presentations” workshop. The HMSC graduate student organization, HsO, was hosting the annual exchange with the University of Oregon’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology grad students, who work at the UO satellite campus in Charleston, Oregon, a ways south on the coast from Newport.
The heart of Shawn’s presentation is built around learning research that suggests better ways to build your visuals to accompany your professional presentation. For most of the audience, that was slides or posters for scientific research talks at conferences, as part of proposal defenses, or just with one’s own research group. Shawn suggests ways to break out of what has become a pretty standard default: slides crowded with bullet points, at-best illegible and at-worst incomprehensible figures, and in general, too much content crammed onto single slides and into the overall presentation.
The students were eager to hear about the research foundations of his suggestions, but then raised a concern: how far could they go in pushing the envelope without jeopardizing their entry into the field? That is, if they used a Prezi instead of a PowerPoint, would they be dismissed as using a stunt and their research work overlooked, perhaps in front of influential members of their discipline? Or, if they don’t put every step of their methodology on their poster and a potential employer comes by when they aren’t there, how will that employer know how innovative their work is?
Personally, my reaction was to think: do you want to work with these people if that’s their stance? However, I’m in the enviable position of having seen my results work – I have a job offer that really values the sort of maverick thinking (at least to some traditional science educators) that our free-choice/informal approach offers. In retrospect, that’s how I view the lack of response I got from numerous other places I applied to – I wouldn’t have wanted to work with them anyway if they didn’t value what I could bring to the table. I might have thought quite differently if I were still searching for a position at this point.
For the grad student, especially, it struck me that it’s a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, you’re new to the field, eager, and probably brimming with new ideas. On the other, you have to carefully fit those ideas into the traditional structure in order to secure funding and professional advancement. However, how do you compromise without compromising too far and losing that part of you which, as a researcher, tells you to look at the research for guidance?
It occurred to me that I will have to deal with this as I go into my new position which relies on grant funding after the first year. I am thinking about what my research agenda will be, ideally, and how I may or may not have to bend that based on what funding is available. One of my main sources of funding will likely be through helping scientists do their broader impacts and outreach projects, and building my research into those. How able I am to pick and choose projects to fit my agenda as well as theirs remains to be seen, but this conversation brought me around to thinking about that reality.
As Shawn emphasized in the beginning of the talk, the best outreach (and honestly, probably the best project in any discipline, be it science, or business, or government assistance) is designed with the goals and outcomes in mind first, then picking the tools and manner of achieving those goals only afterwards. We sometimes lament the amazing number of very traditional outreach programs that center around a classroom visit, for example, and wonder if we can ever convince the scientists we partner with that there are new, research-based ways of doing things (see Laura’s post on the problems some of our potential partners have with our ways of doing research). I will be fortunate, indeed, if I find partners for funding that believe the same, or at least are willing to listen to what may be a new idea, at least about outreach.