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Do you have a funny story about yourself to tell to colleagues?

Feb 6, 2016

Suppose you had to tell a funny fact about yourself in front of people in your area of work. What would you tell them?

I just came back from a meeting in Washington D.C. where a panel of scientists review grant proposals from fellow neuroscientists for 5-year projects to conduct experiments on brain involvement in drug abuse, eating disorders, and stress disorders. The meeting is kind of intimidating.  About 20 neuroscientists, mostly people I don't know, sit around a big conference table in a D.C. hotel. Everyone has a name plate in front of them, and there are about 10 microphones scattered around the table so that when it's your turn to review one of the grant applications, you can be heard by everyone in the room, and by some government officials listening in on the proceedings. 

In order to 'break the ice', the panel administrator got the idea to begin the meeting with each person telling something about themselves 'that few people know'.   At each meeting there are new people, since membership is rotating.  What are you supposed to say to people you don't know well, but whom you might have a professional interaction with in the future, and who might even review one of your future grant applications?   One guy shared with us the fact that what everyone thinks is his first name is really his last name.  He is Asian and his first name was difficult for people to say, so in grad school he started telling people that his last name 'Tom" is his first name.   That was a great one.  That's what you're aiming for.  Nothing too embarrassing, but personal and disarming.

As I was driving in the car last week, I tried to think of a story I could tell.  My mind usually goes blank when I have to turn on the microphone and reveal my tidbit.  Then I remembered a story that might be appropriate. When I was about 10, I was friends with another little kid named Barak whom a lot of the panel members know because he also ended up becoming a neuroscientist studying brain/motivation relations.  Barak and I went into the neighborhood drug store and I suggested that we each steal a candy bar.   Barak, who's father's a rabbi, told me 'No, I wouldn't feel right about it,' and I told him he was just chicken.  But that story sucks.  At the end they have a heartwarming feeling about the rabbi's son who stood up to my dishonesty and taunting. Maybe they'll think I grew up to be a dishonest scientist who fakes his data. I realized that one's not going to work.

Then I thought of another thing that few people know. When I was in Jr. High School, I was on the Cross Country Team. After school, we'd have to run as a pack for many miles, several exhausting hours.  Often, I'd quietly veer off from the rest of the team as they were making a turn, and I'd head back to the locker room. So when the rest of the team finally arrived to the locker room, I was already dressed and about to head home.  The coach called me "The ghost of the locker room".  That's kind of funny, but do I want these scientists to think I'm lazy?  This one may be worse than the candy bar story.

Then I thought of a better one: About a year ago, I was invited to give a talk to the Biology Department at Brooklyn College.  I felt nervous about it.  Ten minutes before the talk I went to the men's room and my glasses fell into the urinal.  So I cleaned off my glasses thoroughly with soap and water, and put them back on and gave the talk.  And that's it. In this story, I'm not dishonest, not lazy, just a victim of circumstance.  This may not seem like a very interesting story to you.  But remember, this isn't a meeting of cowboys, just a group of neuroscientists.  For us, eyeglasses falling into the urinal counts as high drama.

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