How to present during lab meeting without new data

BrittanyCarson Brittany Carson

It’s your turn to present during lab meeting and you have nothing new to present. Whether you’ve worked night and day to optimize, troubleshoot, and generate data but have been unsuccessful, or have simply been busy enjoying your youth, at some point you will likely have to present during lab meeting without any new data to show. As this can be embarrassing and irritate your supervisor, most people would like to avoid this experience. So, when you are potentially faced with this situation, what do you do?

You can try to negotiate with your lab mates to switch slots with you so you can present next week instead. You can conveniently get stuck in an elevator somewhere or try to call in sick. You can claim ignorance and say you now have crucial experiments planned that would conflict with the meeting. For most of us, however, none of these options are viable. So then, how can you still give a stellar lab meeting presentation in the absence of new data?

1. Present your failures: OK, this is not the most exciting approach. Most supervisors will prefer to see new data, hands down. But, in the absence of data, you can show that you have made an effort to generate it. Failure is part of being a scientist, and likely your supervisor has also had to present during lab meeting without new data at least once. You can outline what you tried, why you think it didn’t work, and then proceed to how, because of this failure, you will now pursue a novel approach or a different direction in the future. Who knows? This change may even lead your study to a higher-impact journal than the approach you had previously. You can also open up the issues to the lab to turn it into a group discussion, encouraging input from your colleagues and supervisor.

2. Revisit your old data: Can’t teach a dog new tricks? Sometimes you can’t, but other times you can re-analyze your old data to frame it in a new light. More now than ever it seems that quantifying your data is essential for publications—even for seemingly qualitative changes. Quantifications can be powerful in that they allow one to definitively demonstrate a change in your experimental condition (or lack thereof) and apply statistics to show that your change is robust. Uncovering differences between conditions can let you make new hypotheses and design exciting new experiments—both of which will also fit nicely into your presentation. So, ask yourself, how can you quantify your old data? Or, can you quantify your old data in a different way?

3. Utilize analysis software: There is a plethora of bioinformatics tools or modeling platforms out there that you can apply to data previously generated by you, your lab, or data available online in repositories. Perhaps your protein of interest has a novel domain that no one has yet recognized, or your gene of interest has potential enhancer binding sites. Both could be very intriguing to your supervisor and lead to a change in your project or to a quick publication. Everyone likes publications.

4. Impromptu journal club: Most people like journal club for one reason or another. Some people like to show off what they know; others are happily in the back of the room on their social media platform of choice. Often there are cool new experimental techniques to consider or pretty confocal pictures to admire. Find a recent, exciting publication that you are interested in, convince your lab that it is an essential paper for the group, and then kindly sacrifice your lab meeting slot so that together you can spend time discussing it. Of course you can provide a brief update on your project after everyone has finished discussing the paper.

5. Make a new flashy diagram: A new diagram/model/schematic for you project can promote discussion of potential avenues to take that have not yet been considered. Some scientists are primarily visual people. If you take your previously acquired data and put it together with other findings from the literature, it can give your data context within the field. This could allow for a different perspective and inspire new experiments or ways to freshen up your project.

6. Be prepared! Another idea is to pre-empt this experience by making it your personal mission to never be without “extra” data. I know someone who had this approach in graduate school. She was sure to always do additional side experiments so she was always prepared if nothing else went as planned. I, however, am always excited by my data and would likely not be able to resist the temptation to present it once I have it.

One way or another, lab meeting is a chance for you to have a scientific discussion with your colleagues and practice your presentation skills. Your supervisor will always want more data, but if you still manage to get the group interested and excited about your project—and the future potential data—you will be successful.

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Brittany Carson

Brittany Carson

I am a post doc at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Institute in Toronto. I currently work on glioma, but have studied breast cancer, multiple myeloma and renal cancer, with a focus on cell-signaling pathways, translational regulation, the cell cycle and the cytoskeleton to develop novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets. My science journey has taken me through cell culture, flies, worms and mice and through many different techniques. I love photography (including microscopy), traveling and non-science reading.