What questions to ask after a scientific presentation?

With my PhD I am attending to a lot of speeches given by others. In these cases, I usually have the feeling that the questions mostly come from the same people all the time. It always makes me feel bad when I don’t have questions to ask to the speaker. It feels like I was not listening. A speech without questions feel awkward and makes the speaker feel bad. It raises some doubts to the presenter: What if no one was listening? Was I boring? I couldn’t make myself clear and nobody understood it? However, it is not always about the speaker. Many times, asking questions is about standing out. If you ask a question people look at you, if it is in a conference it may provide a start idea for others to approach you.

Asking questions is good for the speaker. It helps to find the flaws to an idea, or notice the weak spots that went unnoticed. So, don’t be afraid and ask questions! But if you feel that you have nothing to ask maybe you can find these tips useful.

Comparisons

One of the easy ways to ask meaningful questions is to compare. Comparisons require some previous knowledge so you will be showing that you’ve done your homework and read some literature. Some examples are

  • You showed that using your method you achieve result X, but the paper ABC, et. al. performed a similar experiment but got a completely different result. Why do you think that happened?
  • The result you showed seems very promising. However, based on my textbook knowledge I would have expected the contrary. What’s your explanation for that?

 

Future plans

Scientists like spending time in the future. A good question may be asking for future when you are lacking from field knowledge. If you got the basic idea it is easy to do idea-sex with your knowledge. A combination with your expertise with theirs may expand the possibilities to create awesome science.

  • What are your next steps for this project?
  • Which are the future experiments that you’re planning?
  • How do you think this could be implemented to improve society? (patients)

The origin

For the same reason you may look into the future you can look into the past as well. Reaching down to the origin of an experiment may provide insights and ways of thinking that may provide you with the tools to improve your idea generation.

  • How did you come up with the idea for the study?
  • How did you come up with the twist X to do Y?

Methodology

As a computer scientist I’m a huge nerd of the implementation because I know that the devil is in the details. There are plenty of thresholds, and not-so-elegant decisions that people made on the way because “it made the most sense”. Nothing bad about this, but to give an example in biology for homology search an expectation value of 10^-3 is usually chosen without a better reason that someone long time ago choose it as threshold.

  • How did you create the control groups?
  • Could you use this method in the Y area of research?
  • Can you elaborate more with the Z method?

Holy Grail

This is the most important part of all. These are the killers! If you do this you’re guaranteed to get a novel price. But careful “with great power comes great responsibility“. If you use these questions it is important that you nod, interrupt the speaker to rephrase what he/she said and sleep half way through the presentation (snoring will give you extra points) (this is a joke).

  • Guys, guys, guys, can we take a step back here?
  • What problem are we really trying to solve?
  • Will this scale?
  • Sorry, could you go back a slide?

Now that you learned some basics it may be a good idea to put them in practice. Go to conferences, symposiums and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The only stupid questions are the ones that remain un-asked.

 

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