Thursday, November 17, 2016

On Academic Talks

I am beginning to suspect that most academics do not want to be heard. This is a paradox, given the number and regularity of academic talks. Indeed, some experts estimate that at least eighty thousand academic talks occur at any given moment, and that some three quarters of these are designed to fill up a time slot during the week which simply must be filled, lest we begin to think about what we used to do before meetings were invented. Most of the remainder are to distract the attendees from distressing events such as grant rejections, increases in conference fees, or foreign armies parachuting onto campus. Academic talks, like most variations of committee work, are becoming a polite form of debauch.

No matter. Regardless of how many talks they give, I still think these students, these professors, these men and women, do not want to be heard. Which is too bad. A talk, for me at least, is a chance to see, hear, and possibly smell the person behind the research. A talk injects red-blooded humanity into an enterprise which would rapidly become sterile without it. Journal articles and book chapters at best radiate a kind of cool elegance. Academic writing only tells me about what they think; I want to know more about what they feel. Where their passions lie. And when someone is talking to me in the same room they can't help but show some of those emotions, giving me a sense of why they are doing what they do in the first place.

Yet some of them would deny me even that pleasure. They talk to their laptop, or to the slides, but not to me. They use small font I can't read; complicated diagrams I can't follow; color schemes and animations that are in bad taste. I would be willing to forgive most of this if I could actually hear what they were saying. Usually I can't.

That has led me to outline six simple ways to improve a talk, any of which can be used profitably:

1. Suspense! If it is to have any worth at all, if it is to function as a stimulant and not a narcotic, a talk needs to have that essential ingredient of any effective story, which is suspense. When hearing a good story, the listener always wants to know what happens next: Who is this character, and what are his motivations? Why is there a note on the table and what does it say? What's the deal with those last two or three pages at the end of a book that are intentionally blank? So it is with good talks.

2. Dress well! A well-dressed speaker is a confident speaker, and a confident speaker is an engaging speaker. When in doubt, follow these "quick tips" on how to dress:

  • For Men:
    • Right way: Sport coat, open collar dress shirt, loafers, good pair of jeans.
    • Wrong way: Graphic tee with the words, "Legalize It."
  • For Ladies:
    • Right way: Pantsuit
    • Wrong way: Jeggings

3. Take notes! To be specific, have a friend take notes about you during your talk. Ideally, this should be a friend who is "brutally honest," also known as "being insufferable and pretentious when pointing out your flaws, and having it hurt even more because, deep down, you know he's right." Some people also refer to this person as "Dan."* No matter how much it hurts, remember that if you want to improve, you need to learn how to take criticism graciously! Also remember that when it's all over you can cut "Dan" out of your life completely.

4. Practice! The speaker putting together his slides at the last minute is guaranteed to embarrass himself and waste the audience's time. Since one of the major goals in life is to not be that one person everybody hates, avoid this by having your slides ready days in advance and doing at least two or three run-throughs ahead of time - preferably, in front of a live audience that includes Dan.

5. Eye contact! Try making eye contact with different people during your talk, but be careful of making eye contact for too little or too long. When in doubt, consult the following chart to make sure you hit the "sweet spot":

  • 1-2 seconds: Too little!
  • 2-5 seconds: Just right!
  • 5-10 seconds: Too much!
  • 10-15 seconds: Restraining order!
  • More than 15 seconds: This might be normal for, say, a serial killer

6. Lastly, find speakers you admire - and then imitate them. Really. Nothing helps your style more. Note their posture, the cadence of their voice, the way they carry themselves. Some rely more on humor, others have more of a quiet confidence; some tell stories that move the talk along, others tell you the point of the talk right away and never let you lose focus of it. But they all keep you wanting to know what happens next. They keep you in suspense.

Do not mistake this as recommending the substitution of humor for substance, of histrionics for actual thought. (The results are usually awful.) All I ask is that a speaker think about how he would want to be talked to, and then think about how seriously he has to prepare to meet that standard. Only then he begins to realize the gravity of his situation, no matter how small the talk or how low the stakes. In fact the stakes, when he thinks about it, are quite high. A typical one-hour talk attended by twenty of his colleagues can be either satisfyingly filled or grossly wasted, and a few simple calculations reveals a spread of forty attention-hours - a tremendous responsibility - all hinging on one man's decision about whether he actually wants to tell something and be heard. His choice is one between a successful talk and a crashing bore.

Now, I've witnessed more crashing bores than I would like to remember, and I've delivered more than I would like to admit. The fact is that there are far, far too many, and each one inflicts a serious loss on the audience - the loss of an hour they won't get back. (Were we not so complacent about what to expect out of a talk, we might feel more indignation.) Would they have wasted that hour anyway? Maybe. But a bad talk guarantees it.

*I specifically refer here to my labmate.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Society for Neuroscience 2016!

Dear friends,

I will be attending this year's Society for Neuroscience conference, arriving Saturday evening. I have no plans in particular, aside from catching up with my old lab on Sunday evening, and presenting a poster Monday morning about my latest paper in The Journal of Neuroscience. (By the way, the poster is 362.05/LLL21, 8am-12pm Monday; you should all come!) So if you see me walking around the posters with a vacant stare and you want to talk to me about something, feel free to do so, because:

1) I love hearing about any questions or comments you have about the blog, the videos, or anything related to academic life and neuroimaging analysis, as it gives me a fuller, more comprehensive understanding about what graduate students and scientists are going through in this fast-changing era; and

2) I need attention.

See you in San Diego!


Friday, November 11, 2016

Updated Functional Connectivity Tutorial using AFNI

As part of a new course in neuroimaging methods at Haskins Laboratories, I've begun updating videos on topics such as functional connectivity, context-dependent correlations, and how to accept bribes as a reviewer. The first topic we've covered is resting-state functional connectivity, a sophisticated-sounding name designed to make the subject think he is doing something of immense scientific importance by lying still and doing nothing, when in reality it's to distract him while we find out how to hell to hook up the experimental laptop.

Aside from its usefulness as a stall tactic, resting-state connectivity can also reveal resting-state networks, or correlations between the signal of distant regions of the brain. This provides clues to how structural connectivity - i.e., white matter connections - interact with the BOLD signal, as well as whether differences in resting-state connectivity is a marker for mental disorders such as Alzheimer's or schizophrenia.

The following video takes you step-by-step through functional connectivity analysis, using an online dataset from One major change from my previous tutorials is condensing all the information into one long video, and providing time markers for each segment in the "Show More" box. This way the viewer can jump around to the information that they need, without having to keep track of several different videos detailing different steps. I hope it's an improvement, and I would like to get feedback.

I've also posted the lecture on resting-state analysis given at Haskins Laboratories on November 3rd. You won't learn much new here that isn't in the video above, but it does have more information. For most of the lecture you can only see the top of my head bobbing around, but that's OK. Eyes on the slides, not the hair.


  1. Set the errts dataset as the underlay, and select "Graph". From the "Opt" menu, select "Write Center." Rename the output 1D file, and use 1dplot to see the timecourse. This can be used as a seed for another connectivity analysis.
  2. Other resting state networks include the somatosensory network, the visual network, and the language network. Research one of these networks, determine where the hubs are, and run a resting state analysis on a seed placed in that hub.
  3. Run correlations for a group of subjects, convert to z-scores, and do a second-level t-test using
  4. Modify the script to apply 3dRSFC to your data (see Example 10b in -help)