A while back — near the start of the year, in fact — Szymon Górnicki interviewed me by email about palaeontology, alternative career paths, open access, palaeoart, PeerJ, scholarly infrastructure, the wonder of blogging, and how to get started learning about palaeo. He also illustrated it with this caricature of me, nicely illustrating our 2009 paper on neck posture.

For one reason and another, it’s taken a long while for me get around to linking to it — but here we are in October and I’ve finally arrived :-)

With apologies to Szymon for the delay: here is the interview!

By the way, Szymon’s also done interviews with other, more interesting people: Davide Bonadonna, Steve Brusatte, Tim Haines and Phil Currie. Check them out!

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Last night, Fiona and I got back from an exhausting but very satisfying weekend spent at TetZooCon 2018, the conference of the famous Tetrapod Zoology blog run by Darren Naish — the sleeping third partner here at SV-POW!.

What made this particularly special is that Fiona was one of the speakers this time. She’s not a tetrapod zoologist, but a composer with a special interest in wildlife documentaries. She had half an hour on Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective, with examples of her own work. I thought it was superb, but then I would — I’m biased. I’ll hand over to Twitter for a more objective overview:


Darren Naish: Now at #TetZooCon: Fiona Taylor on music in wildlife documentaries. Fiona is a professional composer.

Ellie Mowforth: Next up, it’s “Music for Wildlife Documentaries”. I am SHOCKED to hear that not everyone shares my love for the waddling penguin comedy trombone. #TetZooCon

Nathan Redland: Nature documentaries are entertainment, not just education: and the composer’s budget comes from the studio, not an academic institution #TetZooCon

“If these shows were just a string of facts about animals, most of us wouldn’t watch. That’s why they carve out stories in editing, why they use intense music, and why they recreate the sound effects — because story-telling is what engages us.”
— Simon Cade.

Will Goring: Very effective demonstration; same image, 5 different scores = 5 different interpretations. #TetZooCon

… and here is the relevant segment of video, together with the script that Fiona used:

Picture of wolf

We’re going to play “What kind of wolf is this?” or perhaps a better question is: “what is the music telling us to feel about this wolf?” I written 5 brief musical clips in 5 very different styles I’m hoping will showhow very differently we can be led into feeling about one image.

  1. This wolf is bad, suspense, about to kill something cute.
  2. Preparing to spring into action, attack.
  3. This wolf is sad, it has just lost its pups, if it doesn’t eat soon, it will starve.
  4. This wolf is cute, and cuddly and very playful. You just want to stroke him.
  5. This wolf is noble, kingly, will survive because his race has always survived, with dignity.

Alberta Claw: #TetZooCon Taylor: Provides detailed analysis of musical accompaniment in several documentary clips. Only a few seconds long each, but incredible amount of nuance and thought goes into these decisions.

Dr Caitlin R Kight: I responded exactly as she predicted and would have even without the explanation, but it was more interesting to know why I was feeling what I was, when I was!

Samhain Barnett: At 25 frames a second, a drumbeat has to occur within 2 frames of a nut being cracked, for our brains to accept it as in sync. Computers have made composers lives a lot easier here. #TetZooCon

(I’d like to show the video clip that that last tweet pertains to, but complicated rightsholder issues make that impractical. Sorry.)

Alberta Claw: #TetZooCon Taylor: Given the power of music to influence emotions, documentary composers have responsibility to think about the effects of music. Peer-reviewed research has shown that musical accompaniment can impact motivation of viewers to contribute to shark conservation.

Here are two sketches from Sara Otterstätter, who did this for every talk:

First one: About music in Nature documentaries. Useful or manipulative? #TetZooCon #sketch #sketchbook

Second one: Show documentaries always reality? #TetZooCon #Sketching #sketch

And two final comments …

Filipe Martinho: Quite often the most interesting talks are completely outside my area. Fiona Taylor gave an amazing eye and ear opener on the role of music in nature documentaries and #scicomm. #TetZooCon

Flo: Thanks to Fiona Taylor I will from now on listen more carefully to the music accompanying wildlife docs. #TetZooCon #musicforwildlifedocumentaries


We both had a great time at TetZooCon. As I said in an email to Darren after I got home, “It made me wonder what they heck I’d been thinking, missing the last few”. I don’t plan to repeat that mistake.

Hearing the talks through the ears of someone without much background was an interesting experience. Some of the speakers did a fantastic job of providing just enough background to make their work comprehensible to an intelligent layman: for example, Jennifer Jackson on whales, Robyn Womack on bird circadian rhythms and Albert Chen on crown-bird evolution. There’s a tough line to walk in figuring out what kind of audience to expect at an
event like this, and I take my hat off to those who did it so well.

 

Imposter syndrome revisited

September 13, 2018

My wife Fiona is a musician and composer, and she’s giving a talk at this year’s TetZooCon on “Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective”. (By the way, it looks like some tickets are still available: if you live near or in striking distance of London, you should definitely go! Get your tickets here.)

With less than four weeks to go, she’s starting to get nervous — to feel that she doesn’t know enough about wildlife to talk to the famously knowledgeable and attractive TetZooCon audience. In other words, it’s a classic case of our old friend imposter syndrome.

Wanting to reassure her about how common this is, I posted a Twitter poll:

Question for academics, including grad-students.
(Please RT for better coverage.)

Have you ever experienced Imposter Syndrome?
(And feel free to leave comments with more detail.)

Here are the results at the end of the 24-hour voting period:

Based on a sample of nearly 200 academics, just one in 25 claims not have experienced imposter syndrome; nearly two thirds feel it all the time.

The comments are worth reading, too. For example, Konrad Förstner responded:

Constantly. I would not be astonished if at some point a person from the administration knocks at my door and tells me that my work was just occupational therapy to keep me busy but that my healthcare insurance will not pay this any longer.

What does this mean? Only this: you are not alone. Outside of a tiny proportion of people, everyone else you know and work with sometimes feels that way. Most of them always feel that way. And yet, think about the work they do. It’s pretty good, isn’t it? Despite how they feel? From the outside, you can see that they’re not imposters.

Guess what? They can see that you‘re not an imposter, either.

If you are within striking distance of Claremont, come watch me cross the streams of my amateur and professional careers as I talk about the intersection of astronomy and paleontology. And if you can’t make it in person, check out the livestream on the Raymond M. Alf Museum page on Facebook. Show starts Saturday, April 14, at 2:30 PM PDT. https://www.facebook.com/AlfMuseum/

This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited

After my short post on what to leave out of a conference talk, here are few more positive thoughts on what to include, based on some of the SVPCA talks that really stayed with me.

First, Graeme Lloyd’s talk in the macroevolution symposium did a great job of explaining very complex concepts well (different ways of mapping morphospace onto phylogeny). It was a necessarily difficult talk to follow, and I did get lost a few times. But, crucially, Graeme offered lots of jump-back-on points, so I was never out of the game for more than a minute or so.

I think that concept of jumping-back-on points is important (albeit clumsily named). It’s easy, if someone is describing for example a detailed osteological point about a bone in basal tetrapods that doesn’t even exist in the animals we know and love, to tune out and lose the thread of the rest of the talk. There is an art in making it easy for people in this situation to tune back in. I’m not sure how it’s done: it might be more a matter of style than of content. I’ll think more on this one.

Also: several times as I watched Graeme’s talk, I internally raised an objection (such as low explanation-of-variation values of PC1 and PC2 in the plots he was showing) only for him to immediately go on to note the issue, and then explain how he deals with it. This should not be too difficult to emulate: anticipate possible objections and meet them in advance. This is something to have in mind when rehearsing your talk.

It was a talk that had obviously had a lot of work put into it. Another talk, which I shall not attribute, had very obviously been thrown together in 24 hours, which I think is flatly unacceptable. When you know you’re going to have a hundred professionals gathered in a room to listen to you, do the work to make it worth the audience’s while. Putting a talk together at the last minute is not a ninja move, or a mark of experience. It’s simple unprofessionalism.

Neil Brocklehurt’s talk was based on a taxon that was of very little interest to me: Milosaurus, and the pelycosaur-grade synapsid group to which it belongs. But his presentation was a textbook example of how to efficiently introduce a taxon and make it interesting before launching into details. There is almost certainly video out there somewhere — the SVPCA talks were filmed — and I recommend it highly when it becomes available. For fifteen glorious minutes, I was tricked into thinking that Carboniferous synapsids are fascinating. And it’s left me thinking that, hey, maybe they are interesting.

 

I deliberately left a lot of things out of the poster I presented at SVPCA: an abstract (who needs repetition?), institutional logos (who cares?), references (no-one’s going to follow them up that couldn’t find what they need in other ways), headings (all the text was in figure captions) and generally as much text as I could omit without compromising clarity.

In the same way, I found myself thinking a lot of the talks at his conference could have done with leaving some conventional things out — especially as talks now take place in 15-minute slots rather than 20 minutes.

Here are some things you don’t need to do:

  • Don’t start by saying the title. We can read it. Instead, while the title slide is up, tell us something about why we should care about your talk.
  • Don’t introduce yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the last year of your Ph.D, or starting a postdoc with such-and-such person. We care about your science, not your biography (at least during your talk).
  • Don’t reiterate your conclusions at the end. We just heard them: if we can’t remember what you told us less than 15 minutes ago, we have bigger problems.
  • Don’t say “thanks for listening”. We’re here to listen to you. It’s why we came to the conference. You’re doing us a favour, not the other way around. (Matt persuaded me that this one is wrong: see below.)
  • Don’t read the acknowledgements out loud. Nothing is more boring to listen to(*). Just leave the acknowledgements up on the screen as you finish, and we can read them if we’re interested.
  • Don’t say “I’ll be happy to take questions”. It’s the moderator’s job to invite questions — and indeed to judge whether there enough time.

Why omit these things? Most importantly, because they waste time, which you want to use to tell us your story. Your work is fascinating and we want to hear all about it. Do all you can to make space for it.

[See also: Tutorial 16: giving good talks (in four parts)]

 


(*) Except talks about mammal teeth, of course.