I’m Not Old, I’m ‘Refreshingly Contemporary’

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Whenever my mom has to learn some new-fangled technological thing, like how to program the DVR or how to update her cell phone’s bluetooth headset on her computer, she has a great sense of humor about it. She refuses to consider herself old or out of date. “I’m refreshingly contemporary,” she always says – no matter how long it takes her to figure out the technology.

I’m not even 30, but I had my own “refreshingly contemporary” moment during finals week, one that gave my research biology class a good chuckle. (Glad you got a laugh on my behalf, guys!) Rather than have an exam, our “final” was to give a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation on our antibiotic resistance project. (I wrote about my own experiments in an earlier blog post, Caffeinated E. Coli. Click on the link to read that post.) The goal was to emulate a scientific conference, where we, as the presenters, demonstrated what we had done through slides showing our data, tables, figures, conclusions, etc. In addition, of course, we also had to explain everything to our audience in a clear, concise manner. So our grade was to be based both on our oral presentation and on our slides.

My Research Methods in Molecular Biology class,
the day we gave our PowerPoint presentations.

And now for my “refreshingly contemporary” moment: As an almost 30-year-old, I have never, I repeat never, given a PowerPoint presentation. When I told this to my class and my professor, my lack of PowerPoint experience did indeed elicit laughs. “Never?” someone asked. “What did you use for presentations?” I thought about it for a second. For starters, I realized that I hadn’t given a presentation of any sort in a long time. And in school – way back in the day – I used posters and overhead projector transparencies. Yes, I’m old. In comparison to the undergrad youngsters I was talking to, at least. And there was another thing: “Well,” I said, “as a former journalist, I’m used to being the one asking the questions, not the one doing the talking.” My professor just smiled. “I guess the tables have turned then, haven’t they?” he said.

One side note: I had used PowerPoint once, but not for an actual presentation. I had put together some graphs and text for a previous class assignment, and decided that the slide page orientation looked better than an 8.5 x 11 page. So I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the software. But I had most definitely never made anything for the “big screen.”

I wasn’t really worried, though. PowerPoint is Microsoft software, which I’m pretty good at using. And when I had used it the previous time, I quickly realized that all the same copying, pasting, and formatting skills from Word would apply. Sure, I didn’t know how to make the presentation fancy – but I didn’t really care. I would focus on substance rather than style. Which is the main point anyway.

So I approached the presentation in the same way I would a lab report. Look at the data, decide what kinds of figures and tables are necessary, and then put those together. Then work out the analysis of the data, and the conclusions that I could make from it – analogous to the “discussion” section of a written report. And last, put together an introduction and conclusion. I found that my writing skills – both having a good understanding of sequence and how to use transitions – came in very handy in both writing the presentation and designing the slides. When I was done, I was confident in my work.

The day of the presentations, Dr. Kreher brought us bagels, coffee, and juice – “It’s not a conference without food,” he told us. I went near the end, and despite some technical difficulties (related to creating my presentations on a Mac and trying to run it on a PC … always an iffy proposition), felt really good about how things went.

The only downer of the morning was that after the last presentation, our class was officially over. My favorite class, the class that kept me going through this incredibly difficult semester. That thought saddened me. And then …

“Wait everybody, don’t leave!” shouted out one of my classmates. “I want to take a picture of the class.” So we all lined up in front of the blackboard, and smiled for his iPhone camera. “This will be fun to look look back on in 20 years,” he said.

Indeed. Fun to look back on a photo of the people with whom I truly got my feet wet in research. And fun to look back at the PowerPoint presentation I gave that same day, which, I hope, will be the first of many.