Alok Wessel working on laser mounting blocks in a machine shop.
Alok Wessel was a biophysics graduate student at the University of Goettingen in 2014. He is now a software development team lead at Abberior Instruments, a microscope company.
Alok Wessel

In 2014, I was in the final year of my graduate studies in biophysicist Christoph Schmidt’s group at the University of Goettingen. I had collected decent data from my project investigating the mechanical properties of Drosophila embryos, so my advisor encouraged me to present at an international conference in Boston that summer. 

The day of my poster presentation, I had spare time before my session. Feeling well prepared for the event, I explored the beach before heading to the conference venue. When I entered the presentation hall, I noticed two shocking details. First, most attendees were dressed in formal clothes, while I stood there in my shorts and flip flops. Second, and much worse, there were no poster stands in sight; instead, a giant screen stood at the front of the room. That’s when I pieced together that my work had been selected for an oral presentation, not a poster. 

Mortified about how I had missed this detail in the acceptance email, I experienced both cold and hot sweats simultaneously. I realized that I could flee the situation or face it, and decided in favor of the latter. I rushed to my hotel, grabbed my laptop, and loaded the digital version of my poster. When it was my turn to present, I projected the poster on the screen, zooming in and out of sections as I spoke. The situation felt awful at the time, but I survived. I even got asked a few questions at the end of my talk. 

Thankfully, my advisor found the situation amusing rather than upsetting. Another silver lining of my debacle was that it served as an excellent networking catalyst; people recognized me as the “poster guy” for the rest of the conference. 

Although the incident was embarrassing, I learned that there’s always a way to go on. Scientific presentations seem like a big thing as a student, but in the end, this problem wasn’t as catastrophic as it seemed. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.