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A Restful Seminar Indeed

All right, let’s take on a really important topic today. I noticed people on my Twitter feed yesterday talking about reading theirs during seminars, which led to comments about falling asleep during them (and waking up). So let’s hear them: your worst moments (yours or those you’ve witnessed) about people losing consciousness or focus during scientific talks. I’ve written before about awful talks, and those will certainly overlap, since the real stinkers tend to wipe out susceptible members of the audience. And I’ve also written about my (growing) intolerance for less-than-interesting talks in general, and maybe it would go better for me if I could just sack out in situ, but I never really do.

But I’ve certainly been around people who can! One guy in grad school tended to zonk out within the first ten minutes of most talks – impressive speed, and it made me wonder if he was getting enough sleep at home. Another grad school seminar comes to mind as well. It was a pretty deadly one – I don’t recall the exact topic, except I found it violently uninteresting and delivered at roughly dictation speed. The professor who’d invited this speaker in to bore us all into a coma threw the floor open to questions at the end, only to be met with a terrible gaping silence, one that looked fit to stretch as long as he was willing to let it. So he hurriedly moved to the “Well I have a question” mode, and said “You know, when you were talking about X, it reminded me of a problem that one of my own students is facing on his project. Do you have any comment on that, Paul?” Silence. Total silence. “Paul?” Silence. Someone hurriedly shook Paul himself awake, and came the bleary response “Uh. . .what was the question again?”

So let’s hear it: have you have been the person suddenly awakened and expected to come up with something coherent – you know, as if you’d been listening the whole time? Or has it been even worse?

87 comments on “A Restful Seminar Indeed”

  1. Isidore says:

    Second year graduate school, I dozed off in Enzyme Reaction Mechanisms (or such, I can’t recall exact title) class taught by eminent professor, while sitting in second row. After class I found myself in elevator with the professor who asked me, with broad smile on his face, if I found his lecture boring. I lost my nerve and instead of responding that, yes, I did and so did everyone else, I mumbled something about being very tired.

  2. Iulian says:

    I had a professor (in Romania) who was teaching Org. Chem. to us second year students. Ancient guy, still taught Kekule notations for aromatics, the works. Almost failed me for using the modern one in an exam.
    I fell asleep during one of his lectures, while seated in the first row. I came to class after a nght shift at the factory, so there’s that. I skipped most of his lectures after that since he was merely copying from some old textbooks (traditional here, unknown abroad because why would they be) and those I had since high school.

  3. MTK says:

    The one professor in our department always seemed to doze off during seminars. The amazing thing was that when the Q&A session started he would invariably ask one of the most thought provoking and insightful questions. I always wondered if he had pre-arranged something with the speaker, ala a late night talk show host.

    1. The Iron Chemist says:

      This wouldn’t have happened to have been at Stanford, would it?

      1. MTK says:

        No, it wasn’t, but I believe the prof I’m talking about went to Stanford!

        1. PokePhD says:


        2. Anon says:

          Ken Feldman? I know he always had closed eyes at seminars, but also always asked good questions.

    2. Harrison says:

      I had a professor like this at Duke. We used to joke that he wasn’t sleeping, he was just in “low-power mode.”

  4. b says:

    Two of the four professors on my committee fell asleep during my defense talk. To be fair, the room was completely dark and it was clear in the closed-door that they read the majority of my dissertation. Even I was completely bored of my research by that point- I defended 6 months after starting a real job.

    1. Peter Kenny says:

      The bigger problem is when they don’t wake up.

    2. Mad Chemist says:

      There’s a prof at my department who’s known to fall asleep during defenses. He fell asleep during one of my talks. He still managed to ask rather difficult questions, so I guess he managed to pay attention.

    3. Tantal says:

      My SO fell asleep during my defense

  5. magma says:

    I was once invited to give the first talk at a workshop. 5 minutes in, a guy in the first row starts snoring, first a bit, but growing louder, and louder, and louder. Towards the end, the entire audience of around 50 people can hear easily accross the entire room. I finish my undoubtedly brilliant talk and he then asks me a really good, insightful question, probably the best question I ever got when presenting this topic. The second presentation starts, and here we go again. And the third, and the fourth (repeat n times, with n>10). He then gives a pretty decent talk himself.

    The workshop was to bring different people together, so we were all mostly strangers to each other. As a result, nobody talks about the snoring, everybody hears (would be impossible not to), but all tipto around the subject,… pretty awkward and after a few talks in, brining it up becomes even harder. At the end of the day, about 10 of us, including Mr. Jet Engine, go for beers and finally, somebody cracks a blunt joke about it, we all laugh, and all was fine after that.

    In his defense, the guy was severely obese and flew in the night before, crossing 9 time zones.

    1. Crocodile Chuck says:

      “I first met Francis [Crick] when I moved to the Salk Institute in 1999. He was quite a bit taller than I had expected. Beneath a head of silver hair he had sparkling eyes and an impish smile and the most impressively winged eyebrows I have ever seen. The first time I saw him in the auditorium during a talk, he sat alone in the front row. As the talk went on, his head began to sink and his eyes began to close. I felt the sad intuition that senescence was taking its toll on a great mind. But then the speaker made some seemingly innocuous interpretation of his results, and a small smile grew on the corner of Francis’ lip. He leisurely raised his hand, and in a rapid-fire Cambridge-accented karate-chop analysis, the speaker was re-educated. I came to
      recognize this as a regular occurrence”. [SNIP]

  6. Wavefunction says:

    Although I have fallen asleep a few times I’ve never had a moment, but one of my professors used to doze off all the time and then somehow open his eyes and ask a very insightful question at the right time. It was uncanny.

    1. truthortruth says:

      “One guy in grad school tended to zonk out within the first ten minutes of most talks – impressive speed, and it made me wonder if he was getting enough sleep at home. ”

      That could have been me. I get enough sleep, but meetings in the afternoon are a liability. I still catch most of the seminar in my, ahem, meditative state.

  7. Jake says:

    At some point after I turned 30 or so I completely lost the ability to stay awake during a talk, for a while I tried standing up in the back of the room, but that didn’t help as much as you might think. (Nowadays I just bring something to read, sit in back, and try not to make it obvious).

  8. TroyBoy says:

    The worst is when I went to a conference in a fairly remote region in Indonesia. I could stay awake on adrenaline the first 3 days, but on the fourth day, I couldn’t help myself and just crashed. The local scientists–who were very excited to be at a conference with researchers from all over the world–were very kind and understanding, but it was still embarrassing. Now if I have a conference on the other side of the world, I like to go 2 or 3 days ahead so I can be fresh and awake for the meeting.

  9. luysii says:

    Back in the day, interns weren’t coddled by 12 hour shifts. Already interested in neurology in 1966 – 1967, I got the afternoon off after being up all night to hear William Dement — — a leader in the study of sleep and dreaming. REM sleep had just been discovered. After a nice lunch, the lights went out for Dement’s slides along with me. I was prodded awake at the conclusion of the lecture and asked what I had dreamed by the person next to me.

  10. ROGI says:

    Gilbert Stork…. need I say more.

  11. justaguy says:

    I have a pair of stories. The first was in grad school where a student was unusually skilled at sleeping during classes, propping his chin on his elbow and going into deep sleep. One unfortunate day, his chin slipped from the elbow and bounced loudly off of the desk, requiring some minor medical attention. Later, in pharma, I had a colleague who also slept quite loudly and obviously during presentations. He, however, had a remarkable ability to (at least appear to) follow along and on several occasions was awakened by a question, to which he typically offered a credible and surprisingly lucid answer.

  12. Onrust says:

    That dull, thumping sound when a sleeping listener’s head hits the table in front of him… the French have a saying for this, which translates as “hammering nails”.

    1. T says:

      There’s a variation of this in old lecture theaters with rows of steep narrow wooden benches seating (which incidentally are uncomfortable enough to keep most people awake if not fidgety and inattentive). I remember the whole room being startled once by a very load bang. This guy sitting quite near the front had started to fall asleep and woken up/caught himself just before his head hit the desk in front of him, at which point he’d instinctively jerked upright, violently banging his head on the row behind.

  13. 10th Dan ppt says:

    Danishefsky came to our site once and gave a lecture – he must have been jet-lagged as he fell asleep at the lectern in the middle of his own talk. Being Brits, we were all too embarrassed/polite to wake him and sat there quietly until he woke up about a minute later, then just carried on as if nothing had happened.

    1. AformerMedChemer says:

      That wasn’t jet lag, just Sam’s style! He is another that could fall asleep in a group meeting, consulting session or talk at any moment, but immediately ask the most insightful question. Though I never saw him sleep while he was speaking!

      My best/worst story is making the mistake of sitting in the center of Columbia University’s lecture hall ~ 5 rows back for a Paul Wender “seminar” (verbal marathon). For someone who likes to drink coffee, a 2+ hour talk in a landlocked seat that requires climbing over 10 people to escape is not an optimal situation. I have never attended another Wender seminar!

      1. Anonymous says:

        Danishefsky gave a talk at Harvard (Pfizer Lecture Hall) in the 90s. At one point, he stopped, walked over very close to face the wall on the far side of the room, started fiddling with something in his mouth (a loose bridge? piece of stuck food? who knows?) for a noticeable amount of time and walked back over to the lectern and picked back up from where he left off. What I concluded from that was, if something is “off” and you need a minute to do something to keep your talk from sinking or to compose yourself, just do it (Nike Swoosh image here), except, perhaps to add an “Excuse me for a moment, please.”

      2. fajensen says:

        a landlocked seat that requires climbing over 10 people to escape is not an optimal situation.

        I used to carry a pager for the control room, in case something blew up while me being out and about they control room would page me.

        After getting a new boss, who was truly terrible at presenting, we created a small control system application where one could enter the pager number and set a timer. On expiry, one would get paged and one just had to go immediately – duty and all that.

        This system worked well in the beginning; a bit too well later, when one day half the audience gets paged 20 minutes in – like the entire site is on fire or something and boss gets startled and starts to ask what is happening.

    2. luysii says:

      Interesting about Sam. He was certainly the heaviest chemistry grad student around 1960 – 1962 along with a rather stocky build. If he’s the same now, he could well have sleep apnea with very poor sleep at night providing a medical explanation for it.

  14. Wheels17 says:

    When I was an undergraduate, we had a guy fall asleep in an 8AM Calculus 3 class. We very quietly filed out at the end of class, explained it to the people coming in, and hung around outside peering in the door. He woke up about 10 minutes into Abnormal Psychology 302 or the like… The look on his face was priceless.

  15. MITO says:

    In graduate school, I fell asleep during an afternoon seminar (after an early morning rowing outing had worn me out) given by a distinguished visiting American professor. Unfortunately, I managed to fall asleep with my head tipped back and my mouth wide open. Not exactly inconspicuous. The hosting Professor was not best pleased given the murderous looks he was giving me after the seminar was over, and this convinced me that I probably had better avoid that particular seminar series for a while.

  16. Susan says:

    A couple of examples from physics…

    I was a PhD student at Glasgow. Seminar one day (fortunately I can remember neither the speaker nor the topic – it was 35 years ago!) in an old, steeply raked Victorian lecture theatre. Colleague comes in carrying huge pile of old-style fanfold computer paper, which he parks on the benchtop in front of him. Halfway through seminar, suddenly a quiet but persistent “whup, whup, whup” sound emanates from back of lecture theatre. Everybody tries unsuccessfully to ignore it – eventually we give up and look. Colleague has fallen asleep, his head’s pushed his stack of paper just that bit too far forward, and the fanfold is gradually, Slinky-style, depositing itself on the row below, a couple of pages at a time. Nobody’s close enough to poke him…

    Fast-forward a couple of decades. Collaboration meeting in Sicily, at the National Laboratory of the South in Catania. Very well-appointed auditorium with reclining seats (on balance, not a good idea…). Special guest lecturer, famous theorist in the field, very generous of him to come and try to explain it to us experimentalists. However, the experiment is still under construction at this time, so many in the audience are engineer types for whom the theory lecture is neither interesting nor comprehensible. Inevitably, halfway through lecture, loud snoring arises from somewhere in the middle of the auditorium, where our chief engineer has dozed off. Wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d done it during one of our own talks, but specially invited guest of honour…!

    One bit of name-dropping: Alan Guth, inventor of the inflation theory in cosmology and extremely bright guy, is notorious in MIT for falling asleep in seminars. He usually lasts about 5 minutes. However, to his credit, (1) he’s a very quiet and composed sleeper, no snoring, no drooling on neighbour’s shoulder and (2) like one or two people mentioned earlier, he’s entirely capable of waking up during the applause and promptly asking an intelligent, relevant question. I don’t know how he does it.

  17. a.nony.mouse says:

    One of my committee members fell asleep during my defense. He also left the room for about 5 minutes (though he’d warned me ahead of time, he had a call pre-arranged). Fortunately he was present and awake when it came time to sign the paperwork.

    And early in my pharma career, I was presenting at an Investigator’s Meeting, going over the requirements for good clinical practice and safety reporting (which are the same for every single clinical trial), which unfortunately was scheduled right after lunch. The bigwig KOL was sitting front and center… I watched him fall asleep as I presented. Lesson learned: schedule the boring stuff for before lunch!

    1. I Got The Captcha Wrong says:

      “…going over the requirements for good clinical practice and safety reporting (which are the same for every single clinical trial)…”

      I was just discussing this with a colleague this morning. Bless the poor souls at clinical sites that are forced to listen to GCP guidelines and safety reporting procedures at every single site initiation visit and investigator’s meeting they attend!

      I had a colleague at a previous company that would doze off at practically every meeting she was in as soon as it delved into scientific topics (she was in the legal department and obviously didn’t find the science of what we did very interesting). The thing I never understood is why she would so often sit in the seat right next to our CEO. He sat in the same seat in our big conference room every time so it’s not like she didn’t know where he was going to sit. How she kept her job I’ll never know.

      1. Adam says:

        @I Got The Captcha Wrong

        I’m not sure how they do it, but an AP Biology professor I had in high school was notorious things like that. Maybe in his case it was the 50 years of teaching at the same school, and thus knowing where every last skeleton was hidden.

        He liked to explain fermentation by teaching the students how to make hard cider, then (once it was ready) leaving the room while telling them “I expect you to put this all down the sink while I’m gone.” He’d also take sips of whatever students were drinking in class, and once handed a student their (alcoholic) beer back with a “that’s some good root beer”.
        He also liked to play a recording of himself and a friend getting ridiculously drunk, then killing and cooking chickens.

  18. anon says:

    Oof I prefer to remember the opposite. Went to see Barry Trost give a talk ca. 1986-7. They couldn’t get the projector to work, so he chalk talked his group’s work on silyl allyl acetates (I think even on an actual chalk board!). The first Pd-catalysis talk I had seen, absolutely fascinating, and so well presented. Best seminar I’ve been to to this day.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I saw Trost give one of those chalk talks around the same time – it was very impressive indeed. I remember saying to a fellow grad student that this was a guy that I would never dare to try to BS something past if I were working for him.

  19. Russ says:

    Not at a seminar, but Herb Brown fell asleep in conversation in a faculty office at my undergraduate institiution. At the Departmental Christmas Party the faculty member was given a plaque that said “HC Brown slept here”.

  20. Ted says:

    I was with another US-based colleague (business/grant/funding guy) evaluating the technology that a UK company was offering. He’s a bit of a “low talker”, and he’s constantly jet-lagged. Two of us, about eight of them. They get through their presentation and then my partner starts in describing our company structure and needs. His words slur more and more, he gets quieter and quieter, and everyone is leaning in closer to hear what he’s saying. Then he stops. Chin on chest. It takes a few seconds before I realize he’s asleep. I look up, and everyone is looking at me, slightly breathless… I try my best to pick the thread back up (“As my colleague was saying, we need blah, blah, blah…) but the cumulative bemused looks were priceless and I kept cracking up… He sat bolt upright a couple of minutes later and walked straight over to the coffee offerings, poured a cup and picked up from me without missing a beat.

    I felt guilty that we turned them down. Further proof that I’m better off as the ‘technical support.’


  21. Anonymous says:

    I could add small replies to several of the posts, above, but it’s easier this way (one post). (Convert to real “forum software” for easier threading!)

    First, to undergrads and non-scientists who hear stories about so many fantastic seminars and “spontaneous” yet polished research talks. Very famously, RB Woodward would present multi-hour chalk talks (not slides or PPT!) with few or no notes. He would start at the top left and finish, perfectly, with the final structure on the bottom right of the multi-paneled chalk boards. Such talks are “spontaneously” crafted over years of research, modified and enhanced following each blackboard discussion with co-workers every single day. You see the finished products and they can be very impressive.

    I have dozed through many seminars, usually from a lack of sleep, not boredom. I was usually very quiet but once in a while would snore a bit and get poked by a helpful neighbor. A few famous profs were known to snooze all the time and pop up at the end to ask a really good — or really bad — question.

    Not a sleeper, but a student used to sit through his advanced thermo classes without ever taking notes. The old professor lectured from his own brittle, yellowing lecture notes. The student aced the exams and got an A and the prof asked, “How did you do so well without ever taking any notes?” He said, “I used my father’s notes from when he took your class 30 years ago.” 🙂

    ROGI: what was Gilbert Stork’s thing? Please do say more!

    Maybe I’ll post more stories later.

    1. Isidore says:

      George Whitesides is like that, I recall him presenting a fascinating talk on some broad topic like “Reinventing Chemistry” (in fact I think that this the actual title of his talk). He spoke for maybe 45-50 minutes with a handful of PowerPoint slides that contained images of the earth and the moon and of water and no chemical structures whatsoever. Nobody fell asleep.

  22. Stephen Davey says:

    Reminded me of a spoof job ad from @ProflLikeSubst

  23. Earl Boebert says:

    In the 1980’s I gave for-fee seminars all over the world. The first London seminar taught me a lesson. The attendance fee covered a catered lunch, which included wine. The lights dimmed for the segment after first lunch and it was like you dropped a blanket over the audience. After that I devised a rule: make the segment after lunch short and limit it to a recap of the morning’s material.

    I sympathize with the speaker who fell asleep at the podium. I never did (that I can remember) but sometimes near the end of a cycle (two two-day seminars a week, two weeks in Europe) I came close. Another lesson I learned: Hell is giving a highly technical seminar under simultaneous translation.

  24. Mark says:

    In my first undergrad year (late 80s) I did a wide variety of subjects, including zoology. One of the subject tracks was on embryology, which I (and most of the rest of the undergrads) found a deadly combination of boring and incomprehensible. The lecturer was obviously used to the soporific effect that this caused, as halfway through one of the lectures he advanced to the next slide, revealing a picture of a rather well-endowed blonde wearing very little clothing. “Ah,” he said, “I’d forgotten about that. She was one of my students. Got an ‘A’, as I recall.”, and then advanced to the next slide as if nothing had happened.

    It definitely woke the audience up, and I never did work out how he managed to keep his job….

  25. MrRogers says:

    I was seated near the back of the room at a Gordon conference when someone came into the darkened auditorium sat down two chairs over, and propped his feet (clad with orange-patterned socks under his shoes) on the seat in front of him. A few minutes later, the snoring started. After another speaker, it got loud enough to make it hard to follow the lecture. So, I turned to poke the offender and realized it was Jim Watson. What is the protocol for waking a Nobel Laureate? In the end I got an extensible pointer out of my bag, poked him on the thigh, and looked innocently forward as he struggled to consciousness.

  26. Res says:

    Worse than falling asleep is a giant rip-roaring fart in the middle of a seminar. This happened once at the first conference I went to, in some old lecture hall with long wooden benches so the fart reverberated along the entire bench. The perpetrator was some old dude quite famous in the field. My lab mates and I spent the next 20 minutes trying not to burst out laughing, which was not helped by the speaker drawing a graph on the board that looked like a pair of tits. I don’t think we went to any more talks that day – it would’ve been impossible to keep a straight face.

    1. Anonymous says:

      “Worse than falling asleep is a giant rip-roaring fart in the middle of a seminar. This happened once at the first conference I went to, in some old lecture hall with long wooden benches so the fart reverberated along the entire bench.” Something similar happened during a solemn church service except it was not only loud but malodorous. Others slowly slid away to other seats and before long the perpetrator was left sitting in his own pew. 🙂

      1. miles says:

        That’s an old boarding school trick….we used to wait until prayers on the hour long Sunday service and someone would do a banger. Four hundred boys shaking with silent laughter and the housemasters making up lists for detention.

    2. john adams says:

      LMAO !!!! Thank you

  27. luysii says:

    Falling asleep during a talk has actually produced something useful medically, according to an apocryphal story among neurologists.

    Mary Walker was an intern who fell asleep in 1934 during a lecture on myasthenia gravis (which had no treatment then). She woke up after the lecture, walked up to the great man and asked how to treat myasthenia. The great man, irritated, said “It’s just like curare poisoning”. So she went off to the library, looked up curare poisoning, found the treatment (physostigmine), administered it to the next myasthenic she saw and became famous.

  28. NotHF says:

    At my Ph.D. institution there was an organic professor who would fall asleep, usually in the front row, of every single seminar. Every week, predictable as an atomic clock – 10 minutes in and he was out. Hilariously, unlike some of the others mentioned, he never asked insightful questions. Usually he’d wake up at the end to ask a question that was answered in the first quarter of the talk.

  29. I'm an ologist! says:

    My post doc advisor was a wonderful man, but was notorious for falling asleep while we presented at lab meetings. We quickly learned to keep moving but avoid, at all costs, waking him up. If we did it invariably meant we’d said some something dumb and he would call us on it……it was uncanny and awesome at the same time!

  30. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    I took P-Chem at the ungodly hour of 8AM. The professor assigned seats so he could remember names, and would often just call on people by name. As luck would have it, my seat was in the first row.

    So I had just started dozing off when, semi-conscious, I heard him say, “Now, here we have to take the limit, and both the numerator and the denominator go to zero. So what do we need to do? Ummm… Mr. Shenkin?”

    I opened my eyes and said “L’Hôpital’s Rule”. The class tittered as the professor (as I imagine it) held tightly to his chalk to avoid dropping it.

    It was what they call a peak experience.

  31. ScientistSailor says:

    Spring ACS meeting 1996 in San Francisco, Barry Sharpless gets up in front of a crowded room, puts down a blank overhead (remember those) and pulls out a sharpie. Starts rambling “here’s and idea I had on the plane on the way up here…” and begins to describe how we need ways to assemble building blocks faster, and thus was born ‘click chemistry’.

    1. Radi Awartani says:

      Shrapless is Amazing. He visited me at Petra Research around 207-8 and I still have his hand written notes on Click Chemistry. always insightful.

      1. Anonymous says:

        There are many participants here who have sketched out fresh, new ideas on chalk boards, white boards, napkins in the cafeteria (I’ve saved a few), Zen Garden sand boxes, paper, e-paper (tablets; electronic sketch pads), or any other available drawing surface. Very few ever have the opportunity to test those ideas in the lab and they remain in obscurity.

        I have occasionally lobbied for someone to provide a place to publish unfunded research proposals and rejected papers. Example: Douglas Prasher’s proposals to exploit GFP from the gene that he had cloned were rejected by the NIH and never saw the light of day … until 20+ years later when Shimomura, Tsien, and Chalfie shared the Nobel Prize for developing GFP from clones provided to them (T and C) by Prasher. Do you think that Prasher is a rare example?

  32. Hypnotised says:

    Talk in the early days of computer graphics. Speaker hands out cardboard 3D glasses which audience dutifully don and lights duly dimmed. Speaker drones on for a while, lights come back on and audience all remove glasses… except for the HoD who reclines head back, 3D glasses in place and well away with the fairies well into the next talk. Can’t beat leadership by example.

  33. Hudsons desk says:

    Bro you don’t sleep in grad school! No time! Not with trivia night, movie night, dungeons and dragons night, walk around the mall might, and pool night how is there time?

  34. Jchem says:

    Dean toste would play games during seminar talks

  35. PUI Prof says:

    I once heard Oliver Smithies give a talk, about 15 years before his Nobel. He was a fantastic speaker, bit this was in the days of slide projectors and a secretary was advancing the projector when he said next slide. Suddenly, he asked for the next slide but didn’t get it. He turns to look, announces “Oh she’s fallen asleep. Well let me just tell you what comes next”, and proceeds to describe the slide and interpret the results. The way I remember it, the talk was even better without the slides

  36. 858Anon says:

    In the mid 1980s during graduate school, the Wednesday mid afternoon seminars were killer. Twenty minutes in, an invited speaker made an unusually long pause. The hosting faculty member, who used to doze off during every single seminar, woke up at that moment and assuming that the talk was over started to applaud. No insightful questions asked.

  37. HFM says:

    In high school, I was a notorious sleeper. I worked nights, and was usually bored in class, so…while you can legally require me to be present and non-disruptive, you can’t require me to be conscious. Had one substitute teacher wake me out of a sound sleep, intending to make an example of me. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what the question was, but I had this uncanny sense that the answer was Abraham Lincoln. So I wiped the drool off my mouth, and then answered, “Abraham Lincoln”. The sub collected their jaw from the floor, and stalked off. Nobody messed with my nap-time again. #winning

  38. peptoid says:

    I was notorious for falling asleep in group meetings, lectures, etc… I countered this by standing up and meandering around the room for group meetings, but this wasn’t exactly feasible in a lecture hall. I also noticed that there’s no correlation between how interesting a talk is and how likely I am to fall asleep in it. I’ve sat wide-eyed through some of the most excruciatingly boring talks, yet very frustratingly fallen asleep during some really good ones and had to fill in the gaps after. For example, my whole group shuffled into a crowded hall some years ago to watch Phil Baran give a plenary talk. It was wholly engaging, but didn’t stop me from dozing off. Every time I did (I was a first-year PhD at the time) I got a hard punch in the arm and a filthy look from one of the enamoured postdocs.

    I’m not sure what causes it, but it’s likely a sleep phase disorder. My partner suffers bad sleep apnoea, and it means I can only get to sleep by forcing myself up as long as I can, otherwise her snoring prevents me from settling into bed. Even then, I only get a decent amount of sleep in the hour between her waking up and I doing the same, which really messes up my sleep pattern…

  39. DRUGDEVDOC says:

    I worked for a French pharmaceutical company and had the pleasure to attend a scientific meeting on ALS in Grenoble some 20 years ago. The fancy lecture hall had stadium style seats with high backs that would lean back. One would rarely see the top of a head as everyone sat low in their seats. Having worked in France for a number of years, I already knew the drill for that special first-day reception luncheon: multiple courses, multiple cheeses, desert and many bottles of top bordeaux. I do not remember the plenary session topic after lunch, but I vividly remember the many scientists with excessive tissue in their nasal passageways: the deafening snores prevented us from hearing the speaker and the seats prevented us from sourcing the multiple guilty parties. The subsequent coffee break was timely.

  40. DrOcto says:

    Once had a friend fall asleep next to me in a 1st yeat uni lecture, and he had the audacity to lie down.

    Only problem was that they were self lifting seats, so that when he eventually rolled onto the floor, the entire room turned their head to see what had caused the thump thump thump thump sound of four seat flipping up in quick succession, ust in time to see him poke his head up above the desk.

    After that day I always nudged him awake if he nodded off.

  41. Anon says:

    I gave a seminar once and the dean (main prof in the field) fell asleep in the front row. I was gutted because I was hoping to catch up with him to talk about my research after, so I stepped up to him, put my hand on his shoulder (which woke him up) and asked if he was OK or needed an ambulance. He stayed awake after that.

    1. Matthew K says:

      oh well played

  42. Fluorine Chemist says:

    I remember when I was a TA at a Big 10 University in the Midwest. I used to TA the Organic Lab course. The Lab Lectures were scheduled Friday, post lunch. I used to have a massive lunch at the all-you-can-eat Indian buffet and come over to the lecture. Being TA’s, we had to sit in the front row. No problems – within 5 minutes, I used to be totally out! Once, the professor asked a question addressed to me – I had no idea as to what was going on, and my expression too must have said so. He coolly asked me to go back to sleep, which I did!!

  43. Chris Phoenix says:

    In 1986, I took Freshman Chemistry at 8 AM in a 200-student lecture hall. The professor was well respected for inventing the glue that sticks Teflon onto pans. (His name was something like Matejavich, if I remember correctly.)

    Being young and eager, I had sat in the center of the second row on the first day of class, at which point it was announced that we had to occupy our chosen seats for the entire semester. And, being young and foolish, my sleep habits were not the best.

    One day I fell asleep, and woke to a completely silent room. The first thing I saw was a close view of the face of the eminence, who was leaning on the first row of desks watching me. He said, “I’ve been waiting five minutes for you to wake up. Go and get some sleep. It will be good for you.”

    I did not fall asleep in his class again.

    1. ignonomous says:

      I was in that lecture and recall it well. He could be amusing when he wasn’t being arrogant and condescending. Fortunately, I say in back the first day.

  44. Ursa Major says:

    My PhD supervisor was only a few years from retirement, so as senior member of the department it was his job to introduce speakers. He would then sit in the middle of the front row and promptly fall asleep. When he woke up he would always ask the same question about how much money could be made by commercialising the work.

  45. Ex-London Chemist says:

    Worst moment? Falling asleep in a meeting

    There were only 2 of us in the meeting……..

    (It was a few months after the birth of my son and he wasn’t sleeping well, so I was spending most nights on the sofa with him while my wife slept. Luckily, my colleague understood……)

  46. Soma says:

    Sitting in a mandatory graduate seminar at a northeastern university listening to a pompous windbag authority on compound solubility drone on…two rows over in the back, 2 adjacent students dose off. Dr. Windbag notices, and slams the “pool cue” pointer (this is back in the ’80’s) on the desk to wake them up to no avail…followed by an airborne blackboard duster that admirably landed quite close to their seats way high up in the stadium-style seminar room. They both woke up…and slunk out shamefacedly.

  47. James says:

    My open defense – my committee members sitting in the front row, labmates sitting behind them. About half-way through my presentation, I looked over at my committee and saw one of the members in full nap. The look on my face at the time caused my labmates to chuckle (went white as a sheet and jaw hit the floor – picturing not graduating…). I did get everyone to sign off eventually – and he did have some interesting questions (subconscious attention?).

  48. one_man_CRO says:

    during my prelim at Duke (Vosburgh Conference Room), the inorganic professor they stuck on my committee came in late…with Burger King…then fell asleep. in the closed section of the exam he asked me a ton of stuff that was covered during his nap then asked me to draw a plot of lnK vs 1/T and asked what that was called. when i said “van’t Hoff plot” he said “no!!” and then there was a really awkward silence. Professor Toone politely reminded him that was indeed the name

  49. Gene says:

    At a Water Environment Federation conference in San Francisco in 1989 (the year it was interrupted by the Loma Prieta Earthquake), one of the state regulators was on a panel, sitting on the stage at the front of the room. He wasn’t the one speaking at the moment and we watched him slowly start nodding off. He caught himself once, the second time he went completely out and tilted off the stage onto the floor.

    The next day the quake hit and the conference was ended.

  50. ignonomous says:

    Then the comment on the evaluation: “A very refreshing presentation”….

  51. anonymousBerkeley says:

    I wiitnessed a guy who, during a particularly boring inorganic seminar on perovskites, not only farted so loudly it caught the speaker’s attention, but it also woke him up from the slumber he had fallen into. Impressive.

  52. Anon says:

    Prof. Amir Hoveyda…..this fellow has an explosive temper. In one of those ACS meeting in Boston (his home ground) while delivering talk, we could all hear conversations outside the hall. He excused himself, went out and vented his verbal assault and then back to start where he left off.

  53. Marie says:

    Freshman year, Meteorology 101 (nothing to do with my major, but I was interested in it) at a large Midwestern university. 8AM lectures in one of those 200+ seat sloped-concrete-floor, ampitheater-style rooms, mostly full. I was waitressing graveyard shift 4 nights a week at the time, would get off work at 7, change, fill a travel mug full of truckstop-grade coffee, and hop a bus straight to campus. I usually sat in the back and generally managed to stay awake for most of the class (although I was truly grateful for the note-taking service to which I’d subscribed!).
    One morning the coffee didn’t take effect in time to save me from the dimmed lights of the slide presentation. When I dozed off, I lost my grip on my (metallic) mug – and was awakened by the clatter as it slowly rolled downslope most of the way to the front of the auditorium.

  54. synthesizeallthethings says:

    Oh my god this is honestly my biggest personal problem with being a career researcher. I fall asleep almost anywhere where I am sitting and being passive for more than 10 minutes. I have fallen asleep in probably more than 50% of talks, somewhat uncannily almost exactly 10 mins into the talk and wake up in the thankyou slide, just before the applause. I can’t see any correlation between amount of sleep or interest in talk either, which is super annoying, especially when it’s a great speaker and a good topic. I don’t have an excuse to offer.

    Things I’ve tried: sitting closer to the front, eating entire bags of candy, energy drinks, coffee, tea, a combination of all of the above. I’ve never liked the taste of coffee, but started drinking it in my late university years exclusively before lectures where I knew staying awake was required to make a good impression (I didn’t do it regularly, because I didn’t want to develop a tolerance). But while the coffee stops my eyes from closing, my mind is too wired to pay attention, and I can’t focus on the talk. But once you’re out of university, the only thing that really matters is making a good impression. Now I’ve moved to a country that serves coffee too weak to keep me awake, and anyway it’s not polite to drink or eat during meetings. And yes, I mean meetings in a small boardroom, not even a lecture hall. Being able to fall asleep on any form of transport is great, but the downside might ruin my career.

    I did find that having a single headphone in playing music allowed my to remain awake and attentive, but that is of course as unacceptable in a professional workplace as falling asleep. I can’t win. If anyone has suggestions, I’m open to advice. My current method involves skulling 4 espressos and a red bull immediately before any meeting or seminar. I have no idea how I’m going to handle a my first professional 4-day conference coming up. (And yes, I get enough sleep, that’s not the cause).

    Unfortunately, I do not have the skills to save face with insightful questions. One day… if I don’t get fired for falling asleep in a meeting first…

    1. Cedrus Libani says:

      I used to be that person. Throughout college and grad school, I don’t think I stayed 100% awake through a single lecture, meeting, or seminar. Literal zero. I got very close on several occasions, but the moment I stopped paying attention, I would blink out. Didn’t matter how rested I was, or how caffeinated. Didn’t really matter how interested I was, either.

      What fixed it for me was going on a strict ketogenic diet. When I’m in ketosis, I don’t microsleep. When I’m not, I do.

      I’m most likely a zebra on this one (as in, when you hear hoofbeats, don’t think of zebras). But still, there may be a medical cause, and it may be worth insisting on a thorough workup.

    2. Anonymous says:

      Another request for real forum software so I can get some “likes” for my joke (above) about “sitting in his own pew.” But now, some suggestions for SATT:
      Clockwork Orange Eye Clamps.
      Do not bring a pillow or nice soft cushion. Bring an engineer ruler to sit on (triangular cross section – link in my name).
      Thumbtacks to sit on. Tape some to the seat back so you don’t lean back and doze off.
      Fill back pockets (or undies) with something uncomfortable.
      I’m not an Apple Watch person: is there an app to make it vibrate every 5-10 minutes?
      You can use the one ear plug trick if you can convince people that it’s one of those cheap $10 hearing aid devices. Frankly, I can’t stand it when speakers think they don’t need a microphone but surely do. AND, speakers need to REPEAT THE QUESTIONS whispered by the person in the 1st or 2nd row before answering for all to hear – the Q&A is not for your private 1-on-1 whispered discussions.
      Chemical suggestion: How long does it take one of those iron filing / charcoal heating packs to warm up? They get uncomfortably hot (75 C – 80 C) and should never be used on bare skin. Start one up, slip it into your shirt or pants so it becomes unbearable near your usual nodding off time (10 min in; 30 min in).

    3. cantstayawake says:

      This is a huge problem for me as well. I even asked my doctor about it, but she wanted me to do a full sleep study to investigate whether I have sleep apnea, which I’m sure I don’t have. No matter how well rested, I always fall asleep. I’ve found tapping my leg furiously helps a bit, and taking notes helps a bit. But really, I have no silver bullet. I’m also curious what suggestions everyone else has.

  55. Anonymous says:

    Here’s a mind-blowing story that I heard happened in the Harvard physics department in the 90s. A prospective faculty member came from Germany to give a job talk, and one of the grad students nodded in the talk. The visitor angrily slammed the wooden pointer down a few inches from the grad student’s hand to wake him up and said “In Germany a student like that would be expelled!”

    The grad student, who was very talented and went on to a postdoc at MIT, woke up out of a dead sleep and shot back “In Germany I would be put in a concentration camp!” (Indeed, a generation of his family had suffered that fate.)

    The visitor stormed out of the room, followed by the grad student and the grad student’s advisor. The grad student apologized profusely and offered to leave the talk.

    Afterwards the student’s advisor said that in fact his retort had been highly appropriate, adding that it was a damn boring talk.

  56. Scott says:

    There seems to be a significant lack of military veterans in Grad School and beyond…

    For the blessedly uninitiated, the 3 basic rules of military service are:
    1. Never stand when you can sit.
    2. Never sit when you can lay down. and
    3. Never be awake when you can be asleep.

  57. GSW says:

    One time I drove with other grad students uptown to another campus of my university just to attend a talk. Sat down, immediately fell asleep, woke up to clapping at the end of the talk and trundled back to the car. A lot of trouble to go thru for a nap.

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