Ceci n’est pas une chaise: a story of the chair experience.

Arguably the most important thing I had to do this week was co-chair a platform. Not that blogging isn’t super important (and you know the people at my own talk, I’m sure were blown away) but in my and my co-chair’s hands was the success of 8 scientists talks and the audience experience that surrounds them.

I had never given a talk at BPS until yesterday, and felt woefully under-qualified to help others do this thing I had never done before myself. To top that off I kept hearing people say, ‘You’re not making any friends by going over time, either as a speaker or a chair.’ The errors just pile up. Rumors fly (‘Did you hear session XYZ has completely phase shifted?’). Everyone is angry. No one gets to ask questions. What if this happens to me?

Fortunately, after only previously knowing one other person to chair a BPS session, this time a handful of my friends were also chairing sessions! I think this is maybe related to the fact that the ‘theme’ of this year’s BPS is basically what I do, and therefore also up-regulated in my friendship circle.

Anyway, I was able to get some friendly advice from people who had chaired the day before me, which was comforting. I learned there would be an IT guy who would take care of both setting up computers and setting up the timer, which was a huge relief. There’s this green light that turns yellow at the twelve minute mark, as a warning for the red light of doom that’ll come at 15 minutes. It was also suggested I get a pad of paper to take notes and jot down question ideas, because it is the chairs responsibility to not only keep the session on time, but also pay attention to the science and have a question handy.

This quickly became the most terrifying aspect of chairing. Especially as I noticed in other sessions how often this extra chair-induced question lubricant was necessary. Furthermore, I am not usually that great at thinking of questions in talks, generally getting my brilliant ideas a few hours after they’re actually useful.

So when the time came, I was a bit riled up, but luckily my co-chair turned out to be a relatively senior guy who seemed to know what he was doing, and I relaxed quickly. According to a grad student witness, the best part of the whole session happened before it even started: my co-chair’s phone alarm accidentally went off with a jazzy little tune, and I instinctively did a little dance, apparently visible to the audience because they laughed.

The first few talks went pretty smoothly: things were pretty much on time, and I was able to think of good questions! Then somehow we started slipping minute by minute later off schedule. Maybe because the talks were pretty cool ( phosphorylation near drug binding sites, green and black tea polyphenol’s effect on amyloid-beta formation in alzheimers, finding ligands that increase the probability of a particular protein-protein interaction, etc.), and I was concentrating on question duties. I think by the time we hit the fourth speaker and I was introducing the speakers instead of my co-chair (as part of our splitting-of-duties agreement), we were starting a full 7 minutes late. Then we had some technical difficulties. One of the speakers had to reboot their computer so it would be able to connect to the projector! Utter disaster.

What do we do? Do we stop letting people ask questions? Should I be making wild hand gestures in conjunction with the lights? But all the speakers are being really great about being on time, it’s just me with the questions and transitions that has been a little off. The little green light is surprisingly misleading, as it only relates to the speaker’s internal timing, not to the overall fact that we had already started seven minutes late!

Luckily it didn’t really matter that much. We’re here to do science. The talks were good. The questions were good. We started encouraging people to keep their questions quick, and overlapped questions with next speaker setup a little bit more, and I think ultimately we ended on time, with my talk at the end. At the end of it all, I think it all wrapped up well. I even had someone come up to me and say ‘Nice job chairing,’ then I must have made a surprised face or something, cause they followed up with, ‘Oh yeah, and nice job on the talk, too!’

This post first published on the Biophysical

Society’s blog as part of the 2015 Annual Meeting.

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