We’re not big fans of rigid hierarchy in academia, not even on big experiments like ATLAS with multifarious coordinators and project leaders. On the one hand, this means that nobody ever gives me orders — but on the other hand, it does mean that there are a lot of people who can give me “strong suggestions.” And sometimes one of those people decides to throw me a curveball…
Friday was a day of two work days. First I worked a pretty normal eight hours debugging code, then spent the evening at a few holiday parties before heading to the ATLAS Control Room at 11 PM for an eight hour shift. After I arrived, while waiting for the expert running things to let me do my shift so he could go home and get some sleep, I found an email in my inbox which had been sent only that evening. It asked me to give a talk at the ATLAS Inner Detector-wide meeting about the activities of the Pixel group over the previous week. All of the work to be discussed had done by others rather than me, and some of it I hadn’t even been aware of — and the talk was on Monday.
I had never received a request like that before, but believe it or not, I’m not complaining. Yes, it was rather short notice, but it wasn’t even a strong suggestion, really — I was allowed to opt out if I didn’t have time. But more importantly, after I thought about it, I decided that giving the talk was entirely a good thing for me. There are a couple of reasons I can think of to give an inexperienced person the responsibility of summarizing the work of the whole Pixel Collaboration. One is to give everyone who’s done work on the Pixel Detector a turn to make their participation visible to the wider Inner Detector community, even if their work contributed only indirectly to the material being presented. (In my case, the contributions were taking shifts and writing tools for analyzing calibration scans.) Another is to give the person giving the talk the opportunity to learn more about the broader work on the detector.
In my case, it was an opportunity I had to take quickly, so I sprung into action: I checked the agenda for Monday, found that the meeting wasn’t until 3 PM, and decided I could delay the writing of the talk itself until Monday morning. I did look at the list of topics to cover during my shift, and asked a few questions; then I printed out all the supporting material on Sunday night. But otherwise I continued with my weekend as scheduled. This required Monday to be a very productive day: I got up at 6:30 AM to start reading everything I had printed out, then got intto work by 8:30 am and started writing.
Most of the slides were summarized from elsewhere, or even provided for me. The most important part of what I had to do was to understand what was on them, so that I could provide context for the work and avoid sounding like an idiot if I had to go “off script.” The way I think about it was that the people who had done the studies had given me intermediate-level information to present, and nobody would expect me to answer really hard stuff during a summary talk, but that I absolutely had to have a command of the basic way in which the material I was presenting fit into the broader picture. I needed some help with that, and got plenty of it, from the experts who did the original work as well as from the person who asked me to give the talk.
By 3PM, I was ready, but also nervous about talking in a new venue and in front of new people. I hadn’t given myself time to be nervous up until that point, but I had plenty of it while watching the other four talks ahead of mine. My strategy during the talk itself was to try to sound confident that I understood everything, unless I actually didn’t know something and had to punt questions to the other pixel people in the room — which it turned out I never did. In the end, in fact, I was told the talk was clear and went well. So I suppose I managed to hit the curveball, and it definitely made for a more exciting Monday than usual!