This is my 100th blog post, and I thought it might be fun to return to a point near the beginning of my time in science writing and communication, the summer after my junior year in high school, when I went to what I now call “nerd camp.” At the end of this camp I gave my first scientific presentation to an audience.
Spoiler alert: It was horrible.
You: “I’m sure you did fine! You were 16 years old talking about a crazy laser radar system using math you barely understood. I’m sure people gave you the benefit of the doubt.”
Me: “Yes, they did, the audience was very kind and supportive. But have you ever seen a presenter confused by a question?”
You: “Well, I watched the Republican primary debates last year, if that’s what you mean. Of course, an experienced presenter would either admit confusion, or say I don’t know and deflect to something they do know. An inexperienced presenter would probably shrug, look at feet, and move on eventually”
Me: “Or, if they were both confused, tired, nervous and insecure, they might just stand there silently trying to think of an answer, like I did. For two long, awkward minutes. Honestly, do you know how long two minutes can be, when 20 seconds is already a lot of silence?”
Growing up, I loved science, but I also loved poetry and history. I loved literature, math, and geography. Whenever I had an enthusiastic teacher and interesting books, I liked school. I was a nerd with wide interests. But in 1993, I was approaching the end of high school, and it seemed the time when I might have to choose what kind of nerd to be when I grew up. As my parents were helping me decide what to do that summer, they encouraged me to apply to some summer science programs (in addition to my standard job as soccer camp counselor, and occasionally helping my dad on his contracting work). So I found myself applying to a prestigious (and free!) science camp called the Research Science Institute. Rising high school seniors of promise (yes, I was a little urban achiever) got to spend the summer at MIT, living in the dorms, being enriched scientifically, completing a research project and doing real science with actual working scientists, almost like a preview of grad school before college. It was clearly for “gifted” kids, and while I had done a few things here and there, I dubious about my chances. They only selected 80 from over 500 applications nationally, and a few even internationally. And these aren’t just other random people, but other nerds who want to spend the summer doing science, I reminded my parents. But I applied, and lo and behold, I was accepted. My family put off our yearly weeklong canoe camping trip until after my stay in Cambridge, and my parents drove me up and dropped me off.
RSI was a drink from the firehose.
It began with a week (or was it three?) of lectures from college professors on topics in science and math that were way over my head, but a good half of my fellow Rickoids loved it. But I’ll admit, it was invigorating, intoxicating even, being around other people who were just as enthusiastic about science and computers as I was. Then we were assigned to our individual projects. Mine was on lasers. I had been interested in filling in archaeology or psychology, as my area of interest, but my parents had worried that this might be seen as too soft, and might lower my chances of getting in. So I put physics, which I was also very interested in, despite not having much background (only a mediocre high school physics class). So I shipped off to Lincoln Laboratories, where the radar was invented, and where my project on laser speckle was being carried out. I was ambitious and curious but also an insecure junior in high school. So when the laser broke down (for the first two weeks!) I was basically left unattended. I sat there and played video games and tried to look busy. I think the researcher in charge of the lab was disappointed that I didn’t show initiative and try to learn stuff on my own. I think maybe this was because he said “Why don’t you show some initiative and try to learn some stuff on your own?”
But I did learn some physics, and more about lasers in particular, and how science works (hint: sometimes it eats your time and doesn’t care if you are a high school junior with only a month). At the end of my time at RSI, I had some results, a paper that had been through several drafts with a brilliant, supportive and patient graduate student (thanks Mike Mitzenmacher!) and a slot to give an oral presentation to an audience of the rest of the camp as well as many of the distinguished scientists that had mentored us.
I should mention one thing here. I was 16 years old, and I had made some great friends that summer. We were working all day, then often attending lectures right after dinner, so the only time we had to hang out was beginning at 8 or 9 or so. Needless to say, we all responsibly went to sleep around 10 or 11. Especially me, who had to get up early to catch the 45 minute shuttle bus to Lexington (where Lincoln Labs is located). As I was saying, we all stayed up until 3 or 4 every night talking, and wandered around like zombies during the day. This was MIT, so sleep deprivation was a badge of honor. We played at being college students, and if we knew one thing, college students stayed up late.
So, back to my presentation. I had stayed up several nights preparing it, and we had ordered the Vu-Graphs (that’s what they called transparencies) and I had practiced what I would say for each one. Looking back on it, my god, I can’t believe I could have produced anything at all intelligible. This must have been one of the last days of the institute, and I was exhausted. But I got up there, and I gave my presentation as best I could. As I was going through it, I knew I hadn’t done a perfect job, but I thought I had presented my lack of results in a positive way that would make my research mentor (and the other 40 or 50 people in the crowd) satisfied with my progress. I got to the end, and there was mild applause, then the moderator asked if there were any questions. Someone in the back raised their hand and asked, in a completely gentle and supportive way, a perfectly reasonable question about the results. I don’t recall the exact question, but I think it was a classic scientific question of the form “Is this the case you are making? And if this were the case, why wouldn’t you see that particular pattern in the results?” I think it may have even reflected a misunderstanding about some of the foundations of the experiment, since there is a high chance that I was confused on some of the important details. So I listened to the question, and I . . . just . . . froze. I tried to process it, but I simply couldn’t. I am sure I stood there, staring off into space for over a minute (which is an eternity for a public speaker). Maybe two. I kid you not. I think he may have rephrased it to see if he could jar me into saying anything. But I didn’t. Eventually, I think I produced some awful non answer, and then sat down. Later my mentor tried to reassure me, but also explain how the answer was not really that hard. He resisted saying that this was something I should have remembered from the first few days in the lab. I am sure I was missing some of the fundamentals of, oh, the wave-like nature of light or some inconsequential detail like that. I know this now, even though I can’t piece together the details, because I have seen this same thing happen with college students at their poster presentations. Sometimes you get a walk through, and can see how much work they have done, but you ask, “What exactly did you measure and how did you measure it?” and they are flummoxed.
Now that I look back on this, I pick this event apart from my point of view as a teacher and mentor myself. What was the meaning of my first scientific presentation? Did it speed the end for my physics ambitions, or did it help me rediscover how much I loved psychology? Did it cripple my public speaking self-esteem or did it help me begin to get over my public speaking anxiety? Was it good to be in totally over my head?
On the positive side, I had an awful presentation, and I didn’t die. There was a competition, and not only did I not win anything, but I failed to even come close. And then I had pixie sticks and acted like a teenager. I was around many other people who loved science, and thought about science, and could laugh openly about math jokes. There is an important moment in the development of every nerd where he or she is in a group where a math joke is told and everyone gets it, and everyone chuckles without any fear of it reflecting on anything but being a funny joke about a cool concept.
On the negative, I’m not sure that treating 16-year-olds like graduate students was really the best way to introduce me to the joys and rigors of science. My research advisers were excellent practicing scientists, not to mention kind and gentle people. But this does not mean they knew how to mentor a horribly sleep-deprived 16-year-old who didn’t know what to do when the laser broke. Maybe this was my own fault too, since I had declared my interest in physics, but had frightfully little background knowledge in optics. For their parts, the scientists who mentored me did not sign up to teach me the intro (and higher level physics) that their previous mentee had known.
Now, when I think back to RSI, I have a few real regrets. I wish I had kept in better touch with my friends Rahul, Reagan, Ramesh and Will. Our lives didn’t cross much in college, but now I think we would probably find a lot to like about one another again. I wish that I had realized earlier that I liked psychology and neuroscience, and I could’ve gotten started earlier. But then again, there’s no guarantee that road not taken would have been better. I had no background in psychology or neuroscience then either.
But I am glad for having experienced that presentation. I am not sure whether it made me a better presenter or not, or a better scientist, but it has made me more compassionate for my own students, and more accepting of the inevitability of failure. Thinking back of it also makes me realize how hard this teaching business really is. The lessons we remember are not necessarily the ones that end up being the most valuable. I remember the embarrassment of the presentation and the feeling of being utterly outclassed by the other uber-nerds. But could that summer have also given me the confidence that I could apply (and attend) Harvard? Could that experience have given me the confidence that failing in front of a group of people is not the worst thing that can happen to you? Could my difficulties with the physics concepts have laid the groundwork for my first published work in the cognitive psychology of (mis)understanding physics concepts (“intuitive physics“)?
These sorts of questions remind me of the importance of humility in evaluating educational experiences. It is easy for me to dismiss my mentors as doing a crap job in mentoring me. They should have realized that most 16-year-olds were not going to read college physics textbooks for fun, or request impromptu lectures from imposing senior scientists when left to their own devices. But this casual dismissal is too easy. Sometimes a little boredom and a little failure can be useful teachers too. I’m reminded of Robert Krulwich’s recent commencement speech about his path through law.
For those of us who become teachers, science or otherwise, I think it is a good thing to have experience with forking paths and dead ends in our own journey to our current profession. As you can tell by this post, I also think it is a good idea to share them.