So, you want to be a session chair?

Michael Lim is a MSc student in the Wilson Tox Lab and recently had his first experience as a conference session chair.  He shares his experiences in this post…

Why hello there! If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re likely in the same position I was in a few months ago; interested in an opening to be a session chair for a conference, but not quite sure what the job entails. Well rest assured, as I’ll share my recent experience being a chair at the 55th Canadian Society of Zoologists (CSZ) Annual Meeting based at Western University.

As a second year McMaster University Master’s student (try saying that 10 times fast!) in the Wilson Toxicology Lab, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend several conferences and meetings. In fact, I attended the 54th CSZ Meeting last year at the University of Calgary. If you’re a biologist, and especially if you’re Canadian, chances are that you’ve at least heard of the CSZ meeting, if you haven’t attended it in person. For those of you who haven’t yet heard about CSZ, their annual meeting serves as an opportunity for biologists from across the country and beyond to gather and share their research, celebrating ground-breaking studies and fantastic presentations across both platform and poster presentations. There is an incredibly wide variety of work, ranging from tiny organisms like daphnia all the way to multi-level African ecosystem dynamics.

As hundreds of members come to share their research every year, presentations end up being run in several consecutive sections throughout the day for the entire conference. Each platform presentation section is further split into different concurrent sessions which include research on a specific topic such as hypoxia, environmental contaminants, and molecular physiology. In order for each session to run smoothly and remain on schedule, CSZ members are asked to volunteer themselves as session chairs. This brings us to the heart of this post; what is a session chair, and what do they do? While I can’t speak for every session chair (there were over 20!), I can share some of my personal experiences and give some tips both on presenting and being a chair.

As I briefly mentioned before, this was my second time at a CSZ meeting, and this time around I decided I wanted to better understand how the conference was run and develop my presentation skills in a role that required more responsibility and flexible thinking. When the chance to be a session chair was offered, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity. That is not to say I had no doubts or questions. As a self-proclaimed introvert, like many scientists are, the idea of presiding over other researchers (some of whom are leaders in their fields) filled me with a sense of nervousness. What if I completely botch their name, or the name of the species they worked on? What if there are no questions and I subject the audience to intense awkward silence? What if I act like a literal “chair”, freezing up in front of the crowd? It is in moments of nervousness like these that I remember some advice I got from one of my teachers in middle school, which I’ll now pass on to you.

First, take a moment to step back and detach yourself. Becoming too focused and worrying about every tiny detail won’t help you. Prepare for things that are manageable, such as asking each presenter how they would like to be addressed and clarifying any pronunciation questions. In order to keep everything on schedule, I recommend setting up signals ahead of time with each presenter, preferably at least two signals spaced several minutes apart so that the presenter will have time to wrap up concisely. Some common signals to use include raising a piece of paper, or standing up at the side of the stage, but still in view of the presenter.

For everything else, you just need to accept that problems will always happen, and that you’ll just need to calmly address them one at a time. For example, during my session, there ended up being a scheduling conflict, which resulted in needing to move the speaking order around.

Second, being nervous is perfectly normal. Use it as a tool when preparing for your presentation, to focus on being as clear and direct as possible. During the presentation itself, turn the nervousness into energy to help your presentation stand out. This can come in many forms such as projecting your voice more strongly, using dynamic hand gestures, or even becoming spontaneously witty. This will not happen right away. It may even take tens to hundreds of presentations; but the important thing is to keep on practicing. If you don’t try to change, you never will.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, you must realize that your audience isn’t trying to tear you down. Without a doubt, you’ll come across a handful of people who enjoy making others feel awkward or uncertain, but the vast majority of your audience is genuinely interested in what you’re working on, and they want to see you develop and succeed as a researcher.

In closing, being a chair is something I definitely recommend everyone should try at least once in their graduate career. I know that it can sometimes be hard to know if your preparation and perseverance pay off, but in the words of someone who thanked me for running a good session, “As long as you keep everything moving and add your own fun flair, that’s all anyone can ask for.”

Did you know my students blog?

Shayen Sreetharan is a new MSc student in the WilsonToxLab this year but he isn’t really new to us.  Shayen started working in the lab during the 3rd year of his undergraduate degree and we have convinced him to stay.  His first project involved describing Lake Whitefish development, a project that has lead to a publication in the Journal of Fish Biology.  Now undergrads that publish are not rare in my lab but undergrads with first authorship on a published paper prior to graduation?  That is very special.  Shayen did his senior thesis in my lab in 2014-2015, working on a multiple stressor effects in the rainbow trout cell line, RTG-2.  Now he has started graduate school but doing it in his own way.  Shayen’s project is a bit of a stretch for us fishy folks because he is working on mice in a  collaboration between the WilsonToxLab and Dr. Doug Boreham’s lab at NOSM.  Below is a post from Shayen, describing his new science blog:

Dose, Dose Rate & Depolarization: A Blog of Science

I started the blog: Dose, Dose Rate & Depolarization on my website as a means of sharing interesting papers, news or just random thoughts on the two (albeit unrelated) areas of radiation biology and paediatric cardiology. I’ve always been interested in blogging and seeing the appeal of blog posts by Dr. Joanna Wilson here on the WilsonToxLab website helped make the decision to create one of my own!

Being co-supervised by Dr. Douglas Boreham, Director of Medical Sciences at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) for the past few years, I have had a growing interest in radiation biology. Previously, my academic background prior to joining the lab was focussed on physiology (including whole animal/human anatomy and physiology, cell physiology, pathophysiology and physiological adaptations to stressful/novel environments). As I learned more through reading papers for my undergraduate thesis and just working alongside Doug’s graduate students, I gained an appreciation for the intricacies of radiation biology. What was truly of interest to me was not only the biological effects of ionizing radiation exposure but the area of low dose radiation biology. The harmful effects of high doses of radiation are well known, however there is active discussion regarding the effects at the low dose and low dose rate region.

The other half of the blog features a rather different area: paediatric cardiology. Working for Dr. Robert Hamilton , a cardiologist (electrophysiology) at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto should make my interest in the field self-explanatory. My supervisor focuses on various rhythm disorders in children including a number of diseases that I’ve been a part of: ARVC/D, Brugada Syndrome  and Long Q-T Syndrome. I have been fortunate to be involved in both wet-lab (working on CRISPR/Cas9 of a cardiomyocyte cell line) and clinical research experience allowing me to be involved in ameliorating patient care from the lab bench.

Feel free to check out the blog and leave any thoughts or questions in the comment section!

First Conference Experience – Kristine Tells All

From Kristine Hammill, a MSc Candidate in the WilsonToxLab, about her first conference experience at SETAC 2015!

DSCF4006As a Master’s student in the Wilson Lab I’ve been experiencing many of my graduate school firsts. Most recently, this month I attended my first large-scale conference, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry’s North America 36th Annual Meeting, otherwise known as SETAC Salt Lake City.

Having completed my undergraduate degree in environmental science, SETAC was an acronym I heard a lot, but yet knew very little about. Needless to say, I was stoked to have the opportunity to attend my first SETAC, but extremely nervous for my first significant platform presentation that awaited me in Salt Lake City.

My nerves were quickly calmed upon my arrival as I received a warm welcome into the SETAC family. Throughout the course of the week, I couldn’t help but think of the event as a “Toxicologist’s Christmas” or a “Contiki Tour for Environmental Scientists”. By day you were nerding out with some great environmental tox talks, and by night you were rocking out on the dance floor with your new found friends and the scientists you admire. There was even time in there to explore the city.

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to hear about what else was going on in the world of environmental toxicology outside of my own little niche. Once joining the ranks of grad school it’s easy to get lost in the depth of your project and lose touch with the breadth of knowledge that comes naturally in undergraduate studies. It also provided a peace of mind to my inner environmental scientist: it doesn’t matter if I’m not tackling all the environmental issues, rest assure, there are many individuals out there working on their piece of the puzzle to contribute to the bigger picture.

As for my presentation, it turns out I had nothing to worry about. Before I presented, I was told it was a very forgiving crowd at SETAC, and my experience as both a presenter and audience member reflected that. Above all, I was happy to see that no one was being egotistical with the question period. Intelligent questions were asked with poise, and many questions were backed with their own explanation so it was understood where the asker was coming from.

All in all, it was a wonderful first experience at SETAC. I’m looking to head out into the working world after my Master’s and can’t say when I’ll be back again, but I hope that I’m lucky enough to find an employeer that will support my attendance.

With that, I’ll leave you with my top 5 tips for first-time SETAC attendees:

1. Participate in the buddy program.  My seasoned SETACer showed me the ropes, gave me great tips for the conference, provided insight into the consulting industry and government sector, and was able to introduce me to her network. Added bonus – she had a second first time attendee buddy who was also the only person from her lab attending, so we were able to navigate the waters together.

2. Sign-up for structured activities.  Not only do you benefit from the actual activities, which was my own initial draw, but it’s a great way to meet people. It’s a lot easier to start a conversation with someone when you’re sitting at the same lunch table then when you’re walking into a warehouse sized room with hundreds or thousands of people.

3. Take advantage of the technical content.  It’s great to hear about what else is going on in your particular area of focus, and to pick-up some tips and tricks for your own project, but SETAC is also a chance to explore the other areas of tox that you’ve always been interested in but may not have time for. Some sessions are even recorded and posted online so you can listen to what you missed at your own leisure.

4. Attend meetings/advisory groups.  SETAC is an inclusive group and you don’t need to receive a personal invitation to check out advisory groups or attend meetings (albeit those that are for the executive will be flagged). If you work with pharmaceuticals, go check out the Pharmaceutical Advisory Group. If you work with metals, go check out the Metals Advisory Group. It’s a great way to see how academia, government and industry work together and how research in the field is being shaped. Also be sure to check out the North America Student Advisory Council (NASAC) Open Assembly and hear about what the students of SETAC have going on.

5. Explore the vendors…ALL of them…As a Master’s student looking to graduate in less than a year’s time, I planned to hit up the vendors to network and ask those burning questions to potential employers. I set out to tackle the consulting companies and hadn’t considered exploring the publishers. I’m not getting a PhD – what use would I be to them? Well, after being sent to Wiley’s booth during the Career Navigation event, I learned that there are opportunities for MSc grads with a passion for science communication that sound right up my alley.

Annual Whitefish Meeting

One of the major initiatives in the lab is our work on Lake and round whitefish.  These species are super cool (ha ha) because they are fall spawners.  They don’t spawn until about the middle to end of November, when lake temperatures are dropping and below 10 degrees C.  The Great Lakes are a bit of a beast in late fall, early winter. Strong winds, high waves, rough conditions for a boat.  Both species have short spawns, only about 10-14 days.  If we are lucky, we can get out for about 2 good weather windows for fishing.

The project on whitefish is very collaborative and involves Drs. Chris Somers and Richard Manzon from University of Regina and Dr. Doug Boredom from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.  Because of the distance and the number of trainees in each of the labs, and a shared field season, we hold an annual two day meeting where all the trainees present their research progress and we discuss our research plans for the next year.  This year we met in Doug’s backyard, at the Vale Centre for Living Lakes in Sudbury.  Next year, we will head to Regina!

What is amazing to me about this collaboration is the cross training our students get.  We talk about development, growth, morphology, cellular responses to stress.  We have lab and field based research.  We have two species.  We focus on temperature, chemicals and radiation.  And when we get through the effects work, we switch gears and talk about the populations of fish we study – the habitats they use and their genetics.  It is a great environment for students.

On top of all that great science, we also have a lot of fun together.  Annual meeting is a chance for out students to hang out, with us and on their own.  I believe science collaborations work best when you really like hanging out together.  And this crew?  They are awesome.  Go Team Whitefish!FullSizeRender 12

Women of Distinction

 

Lana Shaya, PhD candidate in WilsonToxLab, Drs. Rosa da Silva, Joanna Wilson, Juliet Daniel, and Robin Cameron at WOD Hamilton Awards

Lana Shaya, PhD candidate in WilsonToxLab, Drs. Rosa da Silva, Joanna Wilson, Juliet Daniel, and Robin Cameron at WOD Hamilton Awards

Last night, Hamilton held the 2015 YWCA Women of Distinction Awards and I won in the Sciences, Trades and Technology category.  It was totally overwhelming and I feel so grateful to be chosen among some really awesome and inspiring women researchers.  On top of that, the award category was sponsored by McMaster University and so I was presented with my award by Dr. Allison Sekuler, the AVP and Dean of Grad Studies, and a professor in Psychology, Neurosciences and Behaviour, where I am an Associate Member. It was so nice to receive this award from a female researcher that I greatly admire.

I didn’t do a long list of thank you’s in my speech, deciding instead to talk about the lack of recognition of women in STEM fields. The news this week that two leading female researchers resigned from the selection committee for the Hall of Fame at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology was foremost in my mind.  Two years running and not a single female nominee?  Just ponder that a moment.  The researchers in question have made suggestions for how the process can be changed to encourage female nominees but changes do not appear to have been made.  Indeed, Dr. Judy Illes has been quoted in the CBC as saying “To have zero women two years in a row signifies a failure on our part to really reach out as needed.”  I thank her for these words, for she is correct, we need to urge institutions to be inclusive.   I find it troubling that the museum seems to think that the root cause is too few women in STEM.  I disagree with this idea and firmly believe that if there are women in STEM, there are excellent women to be recognized.

I would like to thank my nominator and colleague, Dr. Robin Cameron, and those that submitted support letters for my nomination.  I appreciate that you spent time nominating me!  Above is a picture of me, with just a few of the amazing women in Biology who shared such a special evening with me!