Standing up for the chair

30 September 2015 - By: Cornelia Eisenach

Standing up for the chair

By Cornelia Eisenach

Most postdocs never get the opportunity to chair a session, let alone a session at a Gordon conference. Here, Cornelia Eisenach (University of Zurich) gives a personal account of her recent experience chairing a session at ‘Breaking Technical Limits: Electrophysiology and Cell Biology of Organellar Channels and Transporters’,  co-organised by Haoxing Xu (University of Michigan, USA) and Enrico Martinoia (University of Zurich) with Vice-chair Ildiko Szabo (University of Padova, Italy). She also includes some very useful tips for anyone taking on this role for the first time (or old-hands looking to refresh their approach).  

I had been slightly overwhelmed but also flattered to be invited to take on this role, which not only involved chairing the session, but also giving a ten-minute introductory talk on its topic. I have always enjoyed giving talks and interacting with people, so I soon came to see it as a challenge and looked forward to it. Entitled Ion Transport in Plant Vacuoles, my session featured presentations by Eduardo Blumwald from the University of California (USA), Alexis De Angeli from the I2BC-CNRS (France) and Ekkehard Neuhaus from the Kaiserslautern University of Technology (Germany).
Chairing duties are quite complex: the chair’s success (and even that of the session) can stand or fall on preparation, management, delivery and moderation. Preparation is everything: I emailed all the speakers in advance to ask them what they were intending to talk about, so that I could set the three topics into a broader context. Seeing that this conference was the first of its kind and brought together plant and animal scientists working on intracellular transport processes, I decided to give a very broad overview of vacuolar transporters and their many and varied functions in plants, almost akin to a review. Having recently co-authored a ‘Quick Guide’ on Plant Vacuoles [1] I had a good basis on which to focus my introductory talk. As I travelled with my supervisor, Enrico Martinoia, to the conference venue at Bentham University near Boston, I spent the greater part of the flight re-reading the latest relevant papers of my session’s speakers and preparing talk show-host cards on them. As it turned out, I didn’t need the cards, but the exercise had served its purpose in helping me to stay calm and increase my confidence.  

Managing the session was my next task: Being first up on the day, I had made sure I arrived at the venue well ahead of time, equipped with a fully charged laptop and laser pointer-slide-advancer, ready to greet the speakers and help them up-load their presentations. Thanks to Eduardo Blumwald jokingly telling the assembling audience that any scientists complaining about the hardship of patch-clamping animal cells were “sissies” compared with those attempting patch-clamp on plant cells, a convivial atmosphere was generated from the start. This embodied the general mood of the conference, which I found extremely open, inquisitive and friendly.  

Finally came the ‘live part of the show’: delivery and moderation. During my 10-minute introductory talk, I took the opportunity to use Prezi [2], a presentation programme that I had always wanted to try out, but had never found appropriate for my data-heavy talks. It features a zoom function that enables you to navigate in and out of a ‘bigger picture’ - a great visual aide to set the different session topics into context. Sitting back and relaxing after my introduction was not an option; it was now time to focus on moderating the speaker talks. One of the duties of the chair is to be prepared to ask questions, in the event that none is forthcoming from the audience. Taking notes during the talks, almost as if back at University, enabled me to focus much better and come up with questions easily. However, with the delegates churning out stimulating and invigorating questions, I only once felt the need to ask my own. In the event, however, I decided to hold out and, instead of stepping in, I waited for the audience. It was worth withstanding the ‘fear of silence’ and a lengthy and enlightening Q&A session ensued. I was really pleased with this outcome and learned that being able to bear these critical moments gives some people time to digest the content of the talk and others to conjure up the courage to ask their question.  

Having been on first, I didn’t have any standards to go by. But the response from fellow delegates was positive and I think I did a pretty decent job. As well as the opportunity to gain chairing practice, the role also helped me to get into conversation with delegates more easily during the course of the conference. It put me in the spotlight and gave me a great advantage for introducing my own scientific findings. I would recommend the experience to early career researchers. Even though it may seem quite daunting at first, sitting in the chair makes you stand out! 



1. Eisenach et al. 2015, Curr. Biol. 25 R136 

Category: SEB+
Cornelia Eisenach-RS

Cornelia Eisenach

Originally from Berlin, Cornelia completed her PhD research in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology at Glasgow University. Apart from researching plant ion channels she also helped to establish and contributed to the GIST, a Glasgow-based popular science magazine, worked at science outreach events with kids and gathered work experience at the BBC. Since 2013 she has been a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, and works as a science writer for the SEB, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and SciViews.