What’s the best seminar you’ve ever seen?

Following up on Meg’s post from a few days ago on the first seminar you ever saw: what’s the best seminar you’ve ever seen? And what made it so good?

Some of the best talks I’ve seen were for special occasions. Tony Ives’ 2013 MacArthur award lecture blew me away. Calgary’s annual Darwin Lectures often produce outstanding talks. Tough to pick a favorite from those, but if forced to choose I’d go with Graham Bell’s, with Rich Lenski’s and Bree Rosenblum’s as close seconds. I find those Darwin Lectures are memorable because speakers often give unconventional talks befitting the occasion, rather than conventional research seminars.

For conventional research seminars, I remember great ones by Greg Velicer, Paul Rainey, Rees Kassen, and Ben Kerr. Can you tell I like experimental microbial evolution? 🙂 I remember really liking the first seminar I ever saw Mathew Leibold give, when he visited Rutgers when I was a grad student there. And I remember Geerat Vermeij for giving an amazing talk with no visuals save a few fossil snail shells he passed around. That one made me question a lot of what I thought I knew about the importance of visuals for a talk.

Besides the seminar topic, I find that the charisma of the speaker helps make a seminar memorable. Though I find it hard to define “charisma”–the people I listed above have a wide range of speaking styles. It’s not as if they’re all extremely high energy, or all cracking jokes, or whatever.

Every year I note the ESA talks that I liked most, but I find those short talks mostly don’t stick with me long term.

My ambition is to one day learn to stop saying “um” so much, so that I have some non-zero chance of giving a seminar someone else might remember for a long time.

18 thoughts on “What’s the best seminar you’ve ever seen?

  1. I suppose one could ponder a long time about what constitutes a “good” seminar (and therefore how to judge the “best”), but here I’ll go with the “memorable” criterion – a seminar I left with ideas or knowledge or anecdotes I didn’t have before, and that stuck with me. Someone could give an absolutely fabulous seminar, but if the content is already familiar, it won’t necessarily stick and be memorable. Two different seminars by Dolph Schluter had bits that stuck with me:

    (1) Repeated adaptation to freshwater (sticklebacks of course) means that “freshwater” alleles dribble out into the open ocean often enough to maintain them at low frequency, which greatly accelerates adaptation the next time colonization of freshwater happens. Cool!
    (2) When we we start a faculty job, we know how to do everything that happens in the lab. Slowly we know how to do less and less ourselves (e.g., molecular techniques, the latest stats), such that when the number hits zero, what do you know, it’s time to retire. (I feel myself slipping down the curve every year…)

    • “Repeated adaptation to freshwater (sticklebacks of course) means that “freshwater” alleles dribble out into the open ocean often enough to maintain them at low frequency, which greatly accelerates adaptation the next time colonization of freshwater happens. Cool!”

      Is that the current thinking on the rare “freshwater” alleles”? I need to ask my colleague Sean Rogers about that. I thought I had read somewhere that those alleles were much older than that, suggesting that they were and are maintained at least in part in some other way besides a low rate of migration from freshwater.

      “When we we start a faculty job, we know how to do everything that happens in the lab. Slowly we know how to do less and less ourselves (e.g., molecular techniques, the latest stats), such that when the number hits zero, what do you know, it’s time to retire.”

      Memo to self: don’t let Mark Vellend comment on Monday mornings, it’s too depressing.

  2. No idea what’s happening exactly with those freshwater alleles – great story, though. (Maybe colonization of freshwater has been happening for a really long time.)

    I actually took comfort in knowing that I wasn’t alone in my increasing reliance on students/collaborators for technical things – the same is true even of one of the most famous evolutionary ecologists there is!

  3. “Slowly we know how to do less and less ourselves (e.g., molecular techniques, the latest stats), such that when the number hits zero, what do you know, it’s time to retire.”

    Hmmm, the implication of this is that I’ll never retire because I’ll always know how to count pollinators visiting flowers or pollen grains on stigmas! There’s something to be said for lo-tech work 🙂

    • Well, unless technological advances produce a faster, more accurate way to do those counts. Or unless technological advances shift the sorts of questions people ask, so that nobody cares any more about numbers of pollinators visiting flowers or numbers of pollen grains on stigmas. 🙂

      • That might be right. Or it might be like a farrier back in 1900 or so saying “if riding horses to get from point A to point B was good enough for Henry VIII…”

      • I’m teasing you, but in my own case this is something I wonder about. There was a paper in TREE (?) a little while back arguing for use of automated image analysis systems for counting protists. I continue to feel that’s impractical and too expensive to be worth it. But I could be wrong, and if I’m not wrong now I might become wrong someday soon as image analysis technology advances. At which point my lab will either need to switch, or start facing tough questions about why we’re using an old-fashioned counting method that limits the size and replication of the experiments we can run.

      • We spent a lot of money buying a Coulter Counter for counting pollen grains and it was much slower than doing it by hand with a microscope. Also for video technology there’s the issue of whether species can be identified using just the images; for many taxa that’s not possible.

    • I’m with Jeff here (despite enjoying Dolph’s persective). I find it hard to keep up with the “best” kinds of stats (seems to change every few months), and I no longer try to be much of a molecular ecologist, but the contributions I’ve made that I consider the most original and interesting have been decidedly low-tech: digging out historical data, plant community surveys, experiments involving stuff you buy at a hardware store, measuring stuff with a ruler, digging through animal feces for seeds, pondering conceptual ideas, etc. In other words…fun!

  4. Some of the talks that I remember best from grad school were by Tyrone Hayes, Robert Sapolsky, and Doug Schemske. All were presenting interesting science and also are very engaging speakers. My close collaborator Spencer Hall also gives very memorable seminars. Part of that is how animated he is while giving them — he is clearly really excited about the science.

  5. I should add a speaker I mentioned in my post last week: Bonnie Bassler. Not a traditional EEB type, but she gives a great seminar and does really interesting work.

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