Friday, February 11, 2011

Humorous Aside: Chutzpah in Science, part 2

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning: impressive cheekiness, brash, informal shameless audacity.

When I was a PhD student, the department that I was enrolled in (Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto) had an annual set of student seminars. Every year each graduate student needs to give a 20 minute talk followed by questions on their research project. The talks are presented in front of the whole department and they are often stressful on the student.

I began my PhD after completing 2 computer degrees and had negligible levels of biological and medical knowledge. When it came time to give my first student seminar I was really nervous. I rushed through my 20 minute presentation in 15 minutes and generally could have done a lot better.

By the time my second year rolled around I was back to my chutzpah-filled self and was pleased to be able to give a cheeky introduction to my research project in my student seminar. Incidentally, in our second year as graduate students our student seminar was not only graded, but would go on our permanent academic transcript.

I decided to make use of humour in introducing my research area of computer-aided diagnosis of breast cancer from state-of-the-art MRI examinations. I began with a self-deprecating introduction: I said something to the effect of: Why would we be interested in using MRI given that it has all of these problems?

I then listed a series of MRI's shortcomings, such as how it is expensive and involves the injection of a contrast agent. I then mentioned that MRI can also be hard on the patient and showed the room the following Simpsons video of Mr. Burns getting an MRI (note the video has sound):

I then commented that the reason we are interested in using MRI is because it has been shown that it heavily outperforms x-ray mammography in catching cancer in women at high risk for developing the disease. 

Now incidentally, the chair of the department (and one of the people responsible for marking me on my presentation) is also named Burns. Peter Burns is an exceptional Ultrasound researcher with multiple patents and highly useful scientific contributions. His lab also produced the technology known as pulse inversion doppler ultrasound which is extremely useful and widely available on clinical ultrasound machines.

In my presentation I still had a picture on the screen of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons who had just had an MRI. I had the picture of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons morph into Peter Burns, the chair of our department who was also in the audience.
While the morphing was completing I asked "Why not use Ultrasound?" and used the parlay to comment on how MRI was outperforming Ultrasound in this application of screening high-risk women for breast cancer.

I got lucky - my jokes went over well, it got a lot of laughs from the room and best of all I have an "A" on my permanent academic transcript for that presentation!  Yeah for Chutzpah!

Jacob Levman