What was the first seminar you attended?

Do you remember the first seminar you attended? I do.

An assignment in my Writing in the Majors Evolution course at Cornell was to attend a seminar.* (One of these days, I’ll write a whole post on this course. It was truly life changing.) As I recall, I left this assignment until late in the semester, and went to the particular seminar I did because it was the one that fit in my schedule. Given that, it is somewhat amazing to me that I still can recall specifics of this seminar!

The seminar was about was the evolution of flight. I’m pretty sure it was by Kevin Padian. (I wish seminar schedules from the late 90s were available on the internet so I could check!) My memory on a lot of the specifics is understandably hazy, given how long ago it was, but I remember that one major question was whether flight evolved from the ground up or trees down. What I recall most, though, is that he did a demonstration of how birds fly. It wasn’t the up-and-down flapping motion that I thought! It was a figure eight sort of motion that I can still do, thanks solely to this seminar. I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, other than perhaps that I should start mimicking how Daphnia swim if I want people to remember my seminars almost 20 years later.

Why did I just remember this? Because my 5 year old was showing me how birds flap their wings, and we started talking about this and I gave her a demonstration of what I learned in that seminar. Given that inspiration for this post, I’ll answer the “what was the first seminar you attended” question for her: she went to a seminar by Bonnie Bassler when she was still an infant, worn in a sling.

It does make me wonder if these sorts of attend-a-seminar assignments tend to be effective. For me, one thing it helped with making me aware of these seminars and that I could attend them. I started attending seminars more regularly the next year, but that was largely because I had joined a research lab by that point and it was part of the culture. I remember that David Tilman and Peter and Rosemary Grant gave seminars on the same day while I was an undergrad, with a group of people hustling from Tilman’s seminar to the one by the Grants. I also remember that I crashed the grad student pizza lunch with the Grants and thought that whole experience was very cool. It’s funny to me that I can remember all these details about these seminars that I attended 15-20 years ago, but often can’t remember my own phone number.

Do you remember the first seminar you attended? What career stage where you at? Was it memorable? If yes, do you have thoughts on why it was memorable? My guess is that speaker charisma is probably more important than topic.


*A few years ago, I gave a seminar at Cornell. Beforehand, I got a fairly long email from the person who was TAing the Writing in the Majors section of Evolution, explaining the course and asking if students could attend my seminar. I was happy to say yes. 🙂

32 thoughts on “What was the first seminar you attended?

  1. My first seminar was in 1987, and I was an undergrad. I don’t remember the speaker or the content at all. But I remember the room and (unfortunately) the conduct of a senior faculty member. I’ll call her “Dr. Jones”. At my universities, undergrads – even honours students – didn’t attend dept. seminars (and no, I don’t know why). But I was interested, so I walked in. Dr. Jones looked at me and said “Why are you here? This is a seminar, not for students. There isn’t room for everyone”. I was pretty gobsmacked, but I did what I think was about half-way to the right thing: I said “Actually, there are quite a few open seats. Tell you what – if the room fills up, you can make me leave then”. And I sat down.

    It never filled completely, and if it had, I’m quite sure the other faculty would have made sure that Dr. Jones, not me, was the one to leave.

    Now, Dr. Jones hadn’t liked me before, and she really hated me afterward. (To be fair, I was kind of obnoxious in her advanced botany lab). But calling her out was a good move. It was one of my few early tastes of academic classism, verging on bullying. It helped me resolve never, ever to be That Person.

    I just wish I could remember what the talk was about. While it was going on, my neurons were all busy buzzing “holy crap, what did I just do?” at each other.

  2. If my memory serves me, the first big seminar I attended was in 1997. Daniel Simberloff came to Brazil and spoke to us at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. I was an undergrad at another university in another state at that time, and had to travel 10+ h by bus to attend the seminar together with a group of friends. In fact, he gave four seminars in two days. It was truly inspiring! Many years after I came back to the same university to work as a professor. The circle of life.

    • I’m now ashamed that when I was a grad student at Rutgers, we thought of it as a pilgrimage to drive down the road to Princeton once in a while to see their seminars. Their seminars were late in the afternoon, so you had to fight rush hour traffic. It took *45 whole minutes* to get there! What a pain! #firstworldseminarattendanceproblems

  3. Not sure if it was the first one I attended, but the first one I remember was at Williams where I was an undergrad. Just looked up who it was by, because I only remembered the topic. I *think* it was by Stephen O’Brien on a population bottleneck in cheetahs (http://www.pnas.org/content/90/8/3172.full.pdf). So this would’ve been 1993 or 1994, when I was a sophomore or junior

    Other candidates (all of these would’ve been when I was a junior or senior, I think):

    -the talks at the benthic ecology meeting, spring 1994. The meeting was in Mystic CT that year, where I taking an off campus “sea semester” program. I thought at the time I wanted to be rocky intertidal ecologist, so I remember being pretty excited that the students in my program got to attend the benthic ecology meetings for free. I remember in particular a talk using some scanty data to make a speculative (and apparently, false) claim about decapods. I remember it because the sea semester program director, Jim Carlton, was in the audience and he just schooled the speaker in the question period. I mostly remember thinking “man, I didn’t know Jim knew so much about decapods!” (he was an invasion ecologist). But it probably reinforced my developing sense that it was ok–indeed, vital–for scientists to ask one another tough questions, even in public.

    -Bruce Levin’s seminar at Williams. I don’t remember what he talked about, but I remember it was really good. I think it was about his ideas for multidrug combination therapy for HIV? (e.g., http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/7/7/pdfs/01-7704.pdf). I remember getting to go to have a private q&a with him afterwards with several other undergrads, and later being very proud to hear that he’d told one of the Williams faculty “Man, your undergrads are as sharp as grad students!”

    Typing this now, having just read Marco’s and Stephen’s comments, I’m reminded how fortunate I was to be able to attend seminars as an undergrad at a place that encouraged this, and that was not a 10 hour drive away!

  4. I don’t remember much, but I know it was during my first couple of weeks of undergrad (long before I traded in my history major). I don’t remember what field it was…astronomy? anthro? Something that sounded interesting, and it was just across the quad from my dorm, and I had a vague sense that I was Supposed To Be Attending Campus Events, at least the ones I found interesting. My SLAC had a weekly science lecture rotating through all disciplines. The bio department had its own weekly seminar series, but I don’t remember when I first went to one of those. I do remember going regularly to the bio ones senior year (we were required to for a course) and realizing that I finally could understand most of the speakers.

    • “and realizing that I finally could understand most of the speakers.”

      In general, most ecology and evolution talks are quite accessible to undergrads. A few undergrads here at Calgary attend the EEB seminars with some regularity, and the first time they do so they’re always pleasantly surprised that they can follow the talks easily.

  5. My dad teaches at a SLAC with unusually delicious chocolate chip cookies, so as a kid I got into the habit of attending seminars in his department because (1) if I attended the seminar, I got to eat a cookie and (2) if I stayed until the end of the seminar and there were cookies left over, I got to eat a second cookie. As a teenager, I realized that (1) I could totally understand the talks if I actually paid attention and (2) the talks were actually really interesting, so after school I started occasionally attending seminars in other departments that more closely matched my interests. This made departmental seminars at my undergrad university much less intimidating, even though there it was virtually unknown for undergrads to attend. Since one of those seminars inspired my undergraduate research, which in turn led to my PhD research, I’m incredibly grateful for my academic privilege (and for the magical bribery power of cookies)!

    • Delicious chocolate chip cookies sounds like an excellent motivator to me! That’s fantastic that you began attending seminars so early!

  6. My first (memorable) seminar was as an undergrad in 1972-1973. Otto Solbrig visited the University of Iowa and talked about apomictic dandelions and their ecology. He did a great job communicating to an audience ranging from faculty to undergrads (some people can lecture for 45 minutes effectively, including Carl Sagan and Steven J. Gould in my experience) He even inspired me to read some of his papers on the subject. The 40 minute trip to Iowa Cita was well worth it.

    • I’m impressed by the folks who really went out of their way to attend seminars as undergrads. I don’t think it even would have occurred to me to try.

  7. Thomas W. Schoener opened up our seminar schedule my semester year in grad. school, in the fall of 2008. He talked about the eco-evolutionary dynamics of whole-island manipulations of Anolis lizards in the Caribbean. I had remembered it rather vividly though grad. school and revisited it recently when I was cleaning out my office and disregarding my seminar notes (I have to strongly control my propensity to hoard). It set a pretty high research bar at which I’d like to strive to work someday. Yeah, someday I will have those means :)!

    • 🙂 I joke that, since the first seminar my daughter attended was by a National Academy member who gives a very good talk, it set a very high bar for all future seminars.

      • Ditto our daughter’s first scientific talk: Steve Carpenter’s MacArthur Award lecture at the 2001 ESA meeting in Madison. Great talk (I still remember a joke slide from The Onion in there), although I think she slept through most of it.

      • That’s just it. I don’t have a “first remembered” one — or even group of ones. I didn’t go to seminars (if there were any — there must have been some) as a computer science undergrad. So it must have been grad school. But those all sorta blur together… Oh wait! I guess the first seminars I ever went to were actually as an undergrad — I used to attend the department of environment’s “soup seminars” semi-regularly. Both my boyfriend and one of my best friends were environmental science majors and I went with them. And uh, I guess they were influential as a whole (though not any one specifically), since here I am…

      • Aside from the Hannah Chair job talks (see below), two talks really standout from when I first started grad school. I think they may have both been in my first year, but am not sure. The two other ones I remember were by Robert Sapolsky and Tyrone Hayes, who both gave really interesting and entertaining seminars.

        I went to breakfast with almost all of the seminar speakers in my first year of grad school. They always needed someone to take the speaker to breakfast, and I’m a morning person so getting up then was never a problem for me. Some of them were clearly confused about why I was taking them to breakfast (in cases where there wasn’t much overlap in research interests), but it seemed like a good idea to me to try to meet with a broader group of speakers.

  8. The first seminar I ever tried to attend was ( maybe) 1969 at U Michigan School of Natural Resources [ I was a fisheries undergrad there, a senior]. It was Paul Martin talking about his Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis; there was so much interest among the wildlife Mgt faculty/students that the room overflowed into the hall, and anyone who got there late, like me, had to try to listen from afar. I could hear nothing, went away, and recall many people milling in the hall when it was over; people were very excited. Don’t recall if the majority agreed/disagreed.
    As a first year entomology grad student at Oregon State a year later I recall just one seminar; It was George Varley talking about his long term study on the population dynamics of Winter Moth…one of the early/best attempts to understand what drives change in population size, and where in the life history density dependence is present. I met George that evening at a grad student party, and found him difficult to talk too; but then I was probably a very young grad student trying too hard. I found his techniques very useful later in thinking about fish population dynamics.

    • Ok, I spoke too fast; I remember one other seminar from the grad year at OSU. It was a job seminar in the Zoology Dept :
      JM Emlen talking about his work on Optimal Foraging. The room was packed, and all the grad students were a buzz; I did not understand any of it….many of the other students acted as if they did understand. But Emlen did not get the job either. A year later when I began working on OFT I realized that Emlen’s work was real important; wish I had seen it during his job visit to OSU, and talked with him; but it did not happen that way.

      • I was very lucky in that, in my first year in grad school, there was a search for a new Hannah Chair at Michigan State, to replace Guy Bush. Each candidate gave two talks (one on campus, one at KBS), so we got to see multiple talks by some very prominent folks. I still remember some of Doug Schemske’s slides from his talks.

  9. I remember the first seminar that I remember was from my undergrad, by Lloyd Kiff, who at the time was directing the recovery effort for California Condors and they had to do a lot of basic behavioral work to get the recovery started. The main thing I recall is how the condors were imprinting on the keepers, and were more interested mating with the keepers but not other condors. (Condors now have positive population growth, so they’ve fixed this problem. It involves hand puppets.)

    • We show the hand puppets and costumes they use for whooping cranes when we teach the animal behavior lecture. The students get a kick out of the costumes, and it helps get across the idea of imprinting.

  10. I can’t remember which was the first seminar, period, because as an undergrad, I was totally unfocused, and resolved to go to seminars in any department as I pleased. As a result, I have a hard time keeping the timing straight. As a freshman, I remember wonderful seminars from Elinor Ostrom on common-pool resources, Bill Labov on the history of sociolinguistics, an extremely memorable talk by Nathan Lewis of Caltech on the future potential of solar power, etc. And because I was spreading so much of my intellectual energy across a lot of disciplines, I was not a regular at ecology/evolution seminars. But I do recall seeing Dolph Schluter present that year; other than that it was a fascinating and (to me, at the time) enigmatic talk, all I remember is that it was…something about sticklebacks. Unsurprising, perhaps.

    The talk I remember most vividly from my undergrad days at Michigan State was Paul Fine responding to Angela Moles’s dismissal of latitudinal gradients in herbivory. : )

  11. Not sure if this counts but it was my first experience of a university academic giving a talk – when I was at secondary school in the 6th form ( for non-UK readers – the last two years of secondary education from when you are 16-18) our Scientific Society organized visits and talks. On one occasion we went across to York University (I was at Ripon Grammar School) where we listened awestruck (well at least I was) to a bushy-tailed bright-eyed young lecturer, waving his arms about and talking about food webs and dragon flies – it was John Lawton 🙂 I have taken great pleasure over the years whenever I have had to introduce John as a seminar speaker of bringing this story up and making him feel old 🙂

    • That’s a great story Simon.

      And it reminded me that I may need to change my answer. Back in high school (so, 6th form for UK readers), a doctor came into our class and gave a talk on the ethics of medical trials, including some horrifying examples of trials that exploited vulnerable or disadvantaged groups of patients.

  12. I went to my first seminar when I was 15 – I had just started getting seriously interested in birds and wanted to get involved in bird projects. The local university in my town was starting a series of seminars on monitoring birds and I wanted to prepare for doing Breeding Bird Surveys later. The first seminar was by a retired and very renowned ornithologist in Bulgaria. What I remember most vividly was when he said that back when he started surveying birds, it was common practice to shoot a bird, go take a close look at it, and then identify it. I was so surprised and slightly scared that if I want to become a real ornithologist, I would have to kill birds. Thankfully he talked about more modern techniques afterwards.

    I was the youngest one there by around 10 years, but nobody said anything about it, we mostly talked about birds. Back then I just thought that birds are super cool and thoughts like ‘Is this allowed, can I even be here?’ didn’t even cross my mind.

    Now I’m a 4th year undergraduate student in the UK and I try to go to all seminars on topics that interest me – for both inspiration and learning. Quite often I am the only undergrad, which made me feel a bit awkward at first, but now I tend to focus on the science and the discussions around it, not on the age/position of the people present. In any case, I have learned a lot from seminars and I am looking forward to one day hopefully being a speaker, as well as an audience member.

    • When I teach about some old ecology studies (e.g., chainsawing mangrove islands into pieces), I point out that we no longer use those methods to do studies. Sounds like I would need the same sorts of disclaimers if I taught ornithology! 🙂

  13. Pingback: Taking a writing-intensive evolution course was transformative for me | Dynamic Ecology

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