29 Oct 2009


I gave a talk at a Chinese national meeting in October. The meeting was very well organized, and we are indeed experiencing tremendous progress in the quality of research in China. On the spot, I was also invited to chair a free paper session.

In a free paper session of scientific meetings, investigators present their work concisely followed by some discussion. In most meetings, the job of a chairman is very light. One only needs to read the title of the talk, and ask whether the audience has any questions or comments after the presentation. If no one speaks up, you just call for the next presenter (though most responsible chairmen would make up some questions themselves, i.e. pretend to be interested).

In China, the situation is different. I learned that a chairman had to summarize the presentation and comment on the quality of the work. This created some difficulties for me. Since I learned most of my medicine and basic science in English and the presentations were in Chinese, I had to guess if they were talking about stuffs like 'endoplasmic reticulum stress' and 'tumor necrosis factor'.

I was initially quite puzzled by this practice. What is the point of summarizing the presentation when the presenter has just done so? On second thoughts, this may not be a bad idea.

First, if a talk is lousy, at least one person has to remain awake and listen intently. Otherwise, how can he summarize the work?

Second, the summary by a chairman represents things that even an outsider can understand. These should be more important and noteworthy. In fact, I often discourage students from copying notes during my tutorials so that they may retain what is really important.

Finally, it is reassuring to see that the chairman does know something about a topic. This reflects the quality of the whole meeting.

As for the comments, I conveniently used terms like 'impressive', 'important', 'innovative' and 'intriguing'. Sometimes I mean it, but sometimes I was playing Sir Humphrey Appleby.

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