Monday, August 03, 2009
Can't get much worse than this: soaking my shorts before my 1st conference talk. Other bad experiences?
Well, I was talking with some people recently about someone who had a bad experience giving their first talk at a scientific conference. And so I said - you think that is bad - how about this? And I told them the story below. But before telling the story I am asking here for others to post comments about the worst thing that has happened to you during a talk at a scientific conference/meeting. Please fire away.
OK - so my talk. It was 1995. The SSE (Society of the Study of Evolution) meeting was in Montreal. And somehow I was going. I am not sure anymore how I ended up registering for the meeting. I do remember other evo-grad students who were or had been at Stanford like David Pollock, Joanna Mountain, maybe David Goldstein, maybe Sally Otto, Sarah Cohen, and a few others were going. And so I registered, got accepted to give a talk on the "Evolution of RecA" and made plane reservations to get to Montreal.
I arrived the night before my talk, found my dorm room on the McGill campus, and then went wandering around town for the Jazz Festival which was going on that night. After staying out pretty late, I got back to my room and had a bit of a panic attack when I looked at the schedule and found that the session in which I was talking started at 8:30 in the morning the next day and I did not have an alarm clock, nor was there one in my room. (I note, fortunately I was using real slides and could not spend the night modifying my talk in the way I do now with Keynote/PPT). Anyway - I pretty much knew I would sleep late without some work and so I made some notes with my room # and a plea to others to bang on my door if they could by 6:30 or 7 AM and I slipped these under the other doors in the hall. Fortunately in some ways, I barely slept b/c I was so scared of missing my first talk.
So at 6:30 AM or so I headed out to the conference area. I think I got some coffee and then headed to the room where my talk was to be. Nobody was even there so I wandered around for a bit and came back and the projectionist was there getting the room set up. When I said I was one of the speakers - he said "Are you planning on doing any side by side slides where you need two projectors?" Well, I had not thought of doing this, but now that he mentioned it, it sounded perfect b/c the main point of my talk was that the phylogenetic trees of RecA and rRNA were very similar to each other (see my 1995 J. Mol. Evol. paper on the topic here), supporting earlier suggestions by Lloyd and Sharp that RecA was a potentially useful phylogenetic marker. So I said "sure" and proceeded to load up two slide carousels for my talk. We checked them out and all looked good.
As the room started to fill up (I recall there were a lot of people interested in the "Molecular Evolution" session I was in) I decided to go grab a seat (in the far back on an aisle - I was a lurker even before blogging from meetings) and try to relax. I think I was the fourth talk and while speaker #3 (Michael Purugganan) was getting started I got nervous about the side by side slides so I went over to ask the projectionist if all was OK and he said it was. Alas, someone had grabbed my seat when I was up. I saw a table in the back back of the room with some misc. fliers on it so I went there to sit down for a few minutes and try to relax. And here was the trouble.
The table was also being used to hold some pitchers of water for people. And alas, someone had just spilled an entire pitcher of water on the table and I did not notice. I sat in the puddle. And there I was, in my tan shorts, now dripping wet. Minutes before my first talk. Looking like I had gotten a bit too nervous. Underwear showing through. As I desperately looked around to borrow a sweatshirt from someone to tie around my waist, the chair said "And our next speaker is Jonathan Eisen ...". Holy Crap. I was on.
So I went up there and I had thought to myself to crack a joke about just getting in from a swim. Or something. But as I still do, I entered another zone for my talk and forget everything but the talk. And so - there I was - dripping wet in my see through shorts - turning around and pointing to the screen talking about RecA as though all was fine.
Only when I was done with the talk did I re-remember that I was basically doing a "wet-shorts" contest for all in the audience. Yay. I can say truthfully that when I start to worry about things going wrong in talks, I remember this one and say "well, it could be worse ..."