It sounded good at the time, so a couple of weeks ago I signed up to give a presentation on the current state of my research at the Grad Student Brown Bag Seminar. Every Wednesday from noon to 1 pm the grad students and any interested faculty bring their lunch to listen as one of the graduate students takes center stage.
I gave my first public presentation to my fellow 5th graders demonstrating how to make cupcakes from a Jiffy white cake box mix. Earlier that morning – I’ve always been an early riser – I announced to my mother that I needed cupcakes for class that day. What would my presentation be without real cupcakes? Off to 5th grade I went with a Jiffy box to be mixed in front of the class and a plate full of freshly baked white cup cakes.
Since that less-than-prepared entrance into the world of public speaking, I make it a practice to present a polished product: I do not leave loose ends, I double/triple check the spelling on my slides, I wander around the house presenting out loud. I do not go in unprepared. Cheerful readers, I tell you this so you understand my anxiety over presenting at Grad Brown Bag on Wednesday.
Discussion and feedback constitute a primary component of the brown bag. This I knew, and this I wanted to harvest. Several aspects of my research procedure need fine-tuning and what better place than a room full of scientists and engineers to help me come up with alternative solutions? I prepared a brief presentation and based on the format expected (hoped) to spend most of the hour discussing my research conversationally. I did not feel good about my lack of a finished product, but I gamely started in.
Standing in front of a full audience, including professors and the department head, I gave a brief synopsis: my research will determine the tensile strength of rock by over-pressuring pores and using strain gages to measure axial and lateral changes in the core sample when it ruptures. So far, so good.
Take a deep breath and set the ego aside. The vulnerability manifested when I announced, “These are the things about my procedure that I do not know:
- Should the strain gage run the entire length and diameter of the core specimen or will a portion suffice?
- Should I use gas or liquid to saturate my cores? Pros and cons exist for both
- Gas – should it be CH4, CO2, He, N2?
- Liquid – a 2 or 3% KCL brine?
- Does the test need to be conducted in a pressure vessel in a load frame or can I fashion a confining stress using a hinged steel sleeve?
- If using the sleeve option, how do I measure the confining stress?
- If using the GCTS RTR-1000 (rapid triax testing load frame) can I run gas through the ports if that is what I want for my saturating fluid?”
My presentation went for about 20 minutes, including my litany of unknowns. Scientists and engineers take a minute to process information, so I stood up front in silence while my colleagues ruminated.
And then… the ideas flowed! For me, the best part of the entire hour came in the conversation leaping back and forth. Sure, you have enough money you can solve any engineering problem, but I am paying for this myself and the budget is less than shoe-string.
Put a bunch of problem solvers in a room, give them the requirements and limitations, and step back.
My most terrifying presentation experience turned out to be my most fecund.