Monday, November 4, 2013


One of the requisite skills for my job as a scientist is the ability to communicate the details of my work to a wide range of audiences, from the general public to a group of my peers. For this latter group, one form of communication is through publication of my research in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, another equally essential avenue is to be able to give oral presentations at various scientific conferences. By the time I was an assistant professor, I had given talks at several dozen meetings and experience had taught me how to give an effective presentation. During my first year at the university, I was invited to give a talk at a conference in Japan. It also turned out that one of the senior professors in my department was also attending the same workshop. During the presentation the audience of about 100 scientists seemed to follow along with my talk and I got a number of very good questions when I was finished. At the end of my session there was a coffee break and I had further discussions and answered questions from a number of other individuals. Everyone I talked with commented that they enjoyed my talk and that I had given a strong presentation.

Just a few minutes before the next session resumed, my senior colleague called me aside in the hallway and began to tell me how disappointed he was with my presentation and that he believed the room was abuzz with dissatisfaction with my talk. As he was a full professor in my group and we shared a research grant, I did my best to hear him out. However, I knew that my talk was good and I had heard from more than a dozen folks who specifically told me that I had done a good job. Something wasn't right here. I wasn't until we got back home that I learned that the government agency that was considering our latest funding proposal had rated my part of the research proposal significantly above that portion proposed by my colleague. It seemed that his attack had nothing to do with my presentation, but was entirely associated with his bruised ego. He was aiming to try to put me "in my place".

There is an important lesson here for all of us when we move to have a serious talk with someone or to criticize their work or their effort. We all need to search our hearts to understand our motives. If we aim to have strong, frank words with someone, we had better be certain that they do not come from a place of selfishness, of envy, or of pettiness, else we become Godzilla. Ultimately my colleague and I learned how to work well with each other and, in fact, we still interact regularly on research more than 15 years after this episode.