Archive for: October, 2010

Your PowerPoint and You

Oct 27 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Original post date: Oct 27, 2010

I may have acute impostor syndrome like 85% of the time, but there's one aspect of academic science in which I'm solidly confident in my talents, and that's the art of the seminar. Giving a seminar combines two things I very much enjoy: public speaking and making something pretty. First you get to make something pretty, and then you get to stand in front of your pretty thing and talk about it! Does life get any better? Well, perhaps.

Having just put together and given a talk for my interview on Monday, all of my PowerPoint skillz were recently put to the test. I was very pleased with the final product and got some lovely feedback, so while it's all fresh in my mind, I thought I'd share some of what I think are the most important considerations when getting ready for a talk. Please add your own in the comments!

1. Tell a story. This is huge, and so few people do it well. Trust me, nobody in your audience is there to witness a data barf-o-rama, and nobody is going to think you're hot shit because you have 150 figures. Instead, they will be confused and/or think you're annoying and probably tune out. Pick your data that genuinely make sense to present together, and build your story around that. Start out by telling them why they should care about your topic, and take them through your thought process for how you decided on the experiments you did. If your talk is a two-parter, tell them that right up front; that way when you switch gears it won't come as a surprise. People love it when the things they were told to expect actually happen.

2. Pick a clean, simple look for your slides. All of your slides. The same look. This means no gradient backgrounds, no patterned or photo backgrounds, and keep the font continuous throughout. Sans serif (but obvs. no Comic Sans). Dark-on-light is far easier to read than light-on-dark, and the inexplicably popular canary yellow on royal blue makes me want to rip my eyes out. Don't do it.

3. PowerPoint slides are free! In other words, there's no need to cram six graphs (or a ton of text, for that matter) into one slide. Don't you want people to be able to see your data? If the answer is no, don't f%*king present it. If yes, blow that shit up, click "Insert New Slide" and spread it out. It will help keep your talk nice and paced, and it will keep the flow going better, as you won't have to start each slide with the maddening "I know these graphs are kind of hard to read, but if you look at this tiny data point on the 3rd panel from the right..." The more talking about data and the less making apologies you do, the more your audience will like you.

4. Come up with a concrete intro. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people start their talk by saying, "the title of my talk is blah blah." People can read, dude! Your title is there in like 74 pt. font. Tell me why you're here!

5. Plan your transitions. Whenever I feel like I have my talk basically done, I go through slide by slide, and write down what I think I'll say to move from one to the next. Nothing says "amateur" like a person who looks surprised to see the next slide that pops up. You know what else looks amateur? Animated slide transitions. Every time I see a talk where someone decided to have each slide "fly in" or do "venetian blinds" or whatever, I want to punch them in the face. Why are you trying to distract me? I'm a scientist, not a newborn.

6. Summarize along the way. Whenever you've presented a good chunk of data, it's a nice idea to have a slide to recap, because people have probably forgotten already. State 2 or 3 main findings for people taking quick notes, and they might actually remember what they learned from your talk after cookie time is over.

7. Lay off the laser pointer. Another one of my pet peeves is people who feel compelled to point at every word on every slide, like a bouncing ball in a sing-a-long. Not necessary! As noted in No. 4, People can read, dude. The laser should be used only to point at something that actually needs pointing at.

8. Practice for timing, you egocentric asshole. We've all witnessed the following: "Just 2 minutes left? OK, um, I'll just fly through these next 20 slides then...oh, but I really just want to show you this great new data we just got..." By the time 15 minutes have gone by, the entire audience is shooting eye-daggers at the speaker. Do you want to be the target of eye-daggers? I didn't think so. Practice your talk out loud--in front of your lab, your roommate, your significant other, your dog--I don't care. Practice it and make sure that you end when you're supposed to. You're telling a story, remember? Finish. The fucking. Story.

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Research Blogging: the post-partum brain

Oct 12 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Original post date: Oct 12, 2010

The Journal of Neuroscience Table of Contents arrived in my inbox last week, and like I do on most such occasions, I browsed it for research in my area and people I know. Very often I see papers that strike my fancy, but for some reason, when I saw this article, I really wanted about it. Or blog about it, I suppose. So without further ado, I bring you my very first Research Blogging post.

Dendritic Growth in Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Cognitive Flexibility Are Enhanced during the Postpartum Period J Neurosci. 2010; 30 13499-13503

Benedetta Leuner and Elizabeth Gould


If we were playing a game of word association, and the word I gave you was "postpartum," chances are you'd come up with "depression," am I right? It's totally natural. Postpartum Depression (PPD) is a well-known disorder that affects somewhere around 10% of women who give birth, and whose symptoms are similar to that of Major Depressive Disorder--feelings of sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, and disrupted sleep and appetite, to name but a few. While these kinds of symptoms are clearly not good for anyone, they're especially bad for new moms, who really need to be on their game in order to adequately take care of a newborn. It's generally thought that PPD results at least in part because of the large fluctuations in hormones that a woman's body undergoes right after she gives birth, but not a lot of work has been done in postpartum animals to really find out what's going on in brain areas commonly associated with depression.

One of the major hormonal changes the postpartum body undergoes is a sustained increase in glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids are primarily thought of as stress hormones, as they're released during stress and can help bring your body and brain back to normal states after you're done with all that fight-or-flight business. However, too much exposure to glucocorticoids can be a bad thing, and many models of chronic stress involve subjecting animals to repeated glucocorticoids. This has been shown to cause changes in neuronal morphology in two major brain areas associated with depression--the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the hippocampus. In male rats, prolonged glucocorticoid exposure can lead to reduced spine density in these regions, which theoretically could mean less opportunity for these neurons to connect to other neurons. Animals exposed to glucocorticoids also are impaired on some cognitive tasks that we know are governed by the PFC and hippocampus, and thus the general dogma is: high glucocorticoids---> fewer spines---> impaired brain. It's much more complicated than that, but this'll do for my purposes here.

So the authors of this paper thought, OK, the postpartum brain is just swimming in glucocorticoids, so maybe the glucocorticoids are causing spine loss and thus the PFC isn't functioning properly, and that's why women get PPD! They tested their hypothesis by comparing postpartum and virgin female rats' performance in a cognitive task known to require an optimally-functioning PFC called attentional set-shifting, and then looked at the rats' spine density in the PFC. They thought that the postpartum animals would be impaired at the task and have fewer spines when compared to the virgins, but in fact, things went in the complete opposite direction! The postpartum dams had greater spine density in the PFC and did better on the attentional set-shifting task then the virgin females. Counter-intuitive, no?

No!! The authors re-evaluated what their results meant in the context of PPD, and I like what they came up with. When you think about it, most women don't develop PPD after giving birth; in fact, most do a pretty good job of taking care of their babies, which it's my understanding is no small feat! It requires being able to nimbly switch your attention between tasks, and make decisions about what's the most important thing at any particular time--activities mediated by the PFC. The authors think their findings may mean that under normal circumstances, the brain responds to giving birth by increasing spines and ramping up PFC function, which could help women better deal with the multi-tasking the postpartum period requires. Perhaps, then, women in whom this response fails to happen are the ones who develop PPD--they're lacking the natural adaptation that the brain needs in order to successfully handle early motherhood.

It's difficult to study psychiatric illnesses in animals, not only because these are very complex--and often very human--disorders, but because they're relatively rare. If only 10% of the population is afflicted with a given affective disorder, what are the chances that your n=12 rats are going to be in any way representative of that 10%? Pretty slim, I'd say. What I think researchers are now understanding better is that if we want to learn about the pathophysiology of mental illness from animals, the most valuable insights are going to come from looking closely at the extreme ends of the response spectrum, rather than the norms.

Leuner B, & Gould E (2010). Dendritic Growth in Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Cognitive Flexibility Are Enhanced during the Postpartum Period. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 30 (40), 13499-503 PMID: 20926675

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That time I was on TV

Oct 07 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Original post date: Oct 7, 2010

Perhaps I peaked too early. My first paper in grad school was accepted with minor revisions to a NPG journal that let me know soon after I'd sent back the proofs that they'd be putting out a press release. I didn't really know what that meant as far as I was concerned, but felt happy that the higher-ups thought my research would be interesting to the public.

"Becca," my PI warned me, "I don't like that this is your first experience, because it is not usually this easy. Enjoy this, but know that in the future, getting your work out there is going to be much more of a struggle." She is clearly a very smart lady. I, of course, was all "uh-huh?" and waited for the phone to ring. Which it did. A lot.

First there was WebMD, and then a couple of newspapers from my grad school city, a newspaper from a nearby city, a few lesser-known websites, and Ladies' Home Journal (my work happened to be in female rats). I started to feel like Tom Hanks in Splash when he gets to work and his secretary's like, "you had calls today from NBC, CBS, ABC, Newsweek, Sea World, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and Mrs. Paul." Except I didn't have a secretary, obviously.

The highlight of the whole experience came when I got calls from two local news stations that wanted me to come in for a live on-air interview. As in, ON TV.

I was nervous as fuck, but the day before my small screen debut, the station emailed and asked me to send them questions for the anchorperson to ask me. PERFECT, I thought, and emailed back what I thought would be easy questions to help them walk me through my research:

1. Why did you do these experiments?

2. What were the results of your experiments?

3. What are the implications of your findings?


When I got to the studio bright and early, the news people were like, "Oh hai. The anchor lady is up in Capital City, so what we're going to do here is put this Secret Service-style thingie in your ear, and you can see her on the monitor and hear what she's saying through the earpiece. There may be a tiny delay, mkay?"

Mkay. No problem, I'm thinking, since I gave them those questions. I am totally prepared for this!

But when we finally went LIVE ON AIR, the anchor person looks at me (or rather, my face on a monitor), and in my ear she basically says, "So! Your research [which remember, was in rats] shows that estrogen is like, really bad for women!" And over the course of the next 1.5 seconds, my brain went, Gah! NO! Remember how I gave you those questions to ask me? But I obviously couldn't say any of that out loud, and so my next thought was OK, let's just pretend she asked you the questions you gave her. So I said something like, "well, let's back up a bit and I'll tell you why we did these experiments."

And so on. The anchor lady kept trying to get me to say these really crazy things about women and how screwed they were because of my research, but each time I only told her the truth about my research in rats. When I got back to lab, my advisor was sooooo proud of me. "All the media want to do," she said, "is turn your research into some exciting little snippet for their viewers, when in reality it's of course so much more complicated than that. Nice job not letting them run away with it."


I was reminded of this story by Scicurious's recent post about a horrid piece in Scientific American that spews a whole lot of scare-mongering hyperbole about how the birth control pill is OMG changing the structure of your brain. Go read Sci's analysis, because she lays the smack down. And if you have the opportunity to talk to the mainstream media about your own research, keep them on track as best you can! I'd imagine this group whose work appears in SciAm is getting tons of angry and/or scared emails right now, and all for a paper whose implications for the general public are actually pretty nominal. I'm not saying that any of this is their fault--for all we know the SciAm writers got a 2-minute phone interview and did the rest on their own interpretation. But still, maybe if they'd requested to see the piece before it came out they could have helped tone it down a bit, and get it focused on what the public should actually take away from their work. As scientists, I think we have a certain degree of responsibility for helping the mainstream media--and even science journalists--portray our research as accurately and hype-free as possible.

Oh, and somewhere buried deep in the bowels of my apartment, there's a VHS tape with the very excellent and very hilarious interview on it. Good god but I'm lucky all this went down a year or two before the advent of YouTube.

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