It is sometimes hard to comprehend all the work that goes on in the scientific community. This is because there are multiple disciplines in science and these can overlap and get complicated. Confusion occurs because sometimes the scientific terms used can be different depending upon which community you talk to. For example, physicists and chemists will call nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Physicians who use NMR to do imaging do not use the acronym NMR; they say MRI for magnetic resonance imaging. In my work, it was important to talk to the chemists, physiologists and physicians to be current on all the latest research. To do this, I attended conferences and meetings by NMR chemists and MRI physicians.

I was attending a conference on NMR and doing a poster presentation. Because of some last-minute changes in plans, Dr. Dillon could not make the meeting. I had attended one or two scientific meetings before, and given presentations before. So attending without Dr. Dillon was no problem. It’s nice to have one’s supervisor there because in my case for example Dr. Dillon could introduce me to other people and discuss our work compared to others’, but everyone needs to learn to fly solo at these conferences sooner or later. So now it was time for me to go it alone. Dr. Dillon and I prepared my presentation and I practiced it over and over. Many people had told me I was good at giving talks and presentations, so I was not too worried about form, but there are always people out there who know more than you, so I am always concerned with content. B.S. is not recommended at scientific conferences because the facts are always out there and someone is going to have the detailed factoid. Admitting, “I do not know” is much better than being caught in a guess later proven to be wrong.

I was listening to a talk by a highly respected scientist who was doing some very high tech and cutting edge experiments. His talk was on getting the maximum amount of information out of an experiment in the shortest amount of time. Time is money in business and time is data in science. So more data in less time is like a greater return on investment in a shorter time frame. He alluded to some information in his talk but did not give the details. The information he passed over seemed important, but he didn’t explain it. I really wanted to learn more about it, but had never asked a question at a big scientific meeting. Normally I could whisper a question to Dr. Dillon and get clarification, but he was not here. I was sure other people would ask the question that was bothering me at the end of his talk. But when his talk concluded no one was asking questions. I was very anxious for that information and reluctant to ask a question at such a prestigious meeting when I was not even a Ph.D. But my hand shot up almost involuntarily, so I stood up and asked the question. The moderator asked me to identify myself and my institution; as was customary at this conference, so I said,

“Joe Clark, just a graduate student from Michigan State.”

The speaker graciously took the question, and said it was one that gave him time to address some things he didn’t have time to go into during his speech proper. He then spent a minute or two answering the question and finally thanked me for the question. The information he provided was important to me and to my research. It really didn’t change what I was doing, but it showed me that what I was thinking in my work was similar to what he was thinking. Some fellow graduate students from Michigan State came up to me afterward and congratulated me on the successful question. We all knew that actively participating in a meeting (without looking like a fool) was a big achievement for any one of us. The old adage in such circumstances is, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” I had managed to open my mouth, ask a cogent question, and be treated as a peer by experienced colleagues I admired. I felt a little more grown up that day because I was taken seriously and treated like an equal by all those well-known and seemingly all-knowing scientists. I was really excited about this and the first person I wanted to tell of my triumph was Ann.

Ann was politely supportive of my story about speaking up at the conference, although she said that I participated in lots of discussions at home so she did not really see the significance of the different venue. Perhaps she had a point. Maybe participating at home and at a conference was essentially the same, but to me it felt different because I was out of my familiar environment. I guess I needed to think of the arena of talking science as my home.