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Academic Careers

Family Stories in Scientific Presentations

Maybe I’ve just not been to the right conferences before, but it has always seemed to me that references to personal life don’t fit well in the context of scientific conferences.

But here in Dublin at ESOF 2012 I have seen several speakers use examples drawn from family life to convey a scientific message or concept. I found the strategy effective at driving home a point and helping the audience remember it. It also helped me relate to the speaker on a deeper level and made me want to listen closer.

This morning, during a session on adaptation to climate change, Heather M. Stoll of the Department of Geology at the University of Oviedo, in Spain, tackled the question of why we should care if climate change is due to natural anthropogenic forces. She took the example of some porcelain that her grandfather had hand painted and that she was conserving among her most precious possessions. She said that it was one thing to perhaps one day have it destroyed by a natural disaster like an earthquake or a volcano eruption–Pompei, near Vesuvius in Italy, is full of broken China, she said–but it would be quite another to leave her precious porcelain on the sofa at the mercy of anthropogenic forces. The photo of two somewhat mischievous-looking little boys helped us see her point.

I was pleased that it is not only women who used their family life in their
presentations. Yesterday, social neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the University Medical Centre Groningen in the Netherlands used a picture of his baby daughter while explaining brain development. He also used personal stories, describing how one day, when he was cooking with his wife, he saw her cut her finger and shook his own hand at the perception
of pain–an illustration of the empathic brain, which the couple researches together.

Some people might not want to share their private, family lives with an audience of strangers, but for those who feel comfortable doing so and can pull it off, it’s a great and effective way to enhance scientific presentations.