Appearing Briefly at Your Next Conference: “Whac-A-Mole” Speakers

3/31/14

Whac-A-Mole, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a fast-paced arcade game in which mechanical moles pop quickly in and out of holes on a large board. You earn points by whacking them with a giant hammer whenever they pop out of their holes. You need really good reflexes to do this, because the moles are fast, and their time out in the open is brief! I was reminded of the game during a conference I recently attended. Looking over the program, I saw the names of several people whom I hoped to meet and talk to. Unfortunately, they were not at the conference long enough for me to get a chance to speak with them. I’ve nicknamed these people “whac-a-moles” because, like the critters in the game, they pop in and out of meetings so quickly you have little chance to interact with them.

Whac-a-moles arrive at meetings shortly before they are scheduled to speak, give their presentations, and then depart straightaway for their next engagement. Spotting them in the meeting halls is easy. They’re the ones dragging their luggage through the conference venue (and sometimes onto the stage with them) because they’re departing immediately after giving their presentations. They may answer a question or two, but then it’s out the door of the hotel ballroom and off to the airport. I’ve seen this pattern many times. Some of them have actually printed up colorful “World Tour” T-shirts of the kind normally associated with famous rock bands, showing all of the conferences they have spoken at during the previous year.

It sometimes looks like these people are actively trying to avoid contact with those around them, just like the moles in the game. Here’s what I find irritating about their behavior: they’re at the conferences to share their latest data, but they don’t stay long enough to learn anything new from the other attendees. Information transfer is strictly one way, and that singular direction is from them to you. It’s also nearly impossible to talk to them one-on-one and get them to explain some of their ideas or data in depth. I see whac-a-moles at science conferences, but it’s likely you may run across this breed of individual in a wide variety of other settings.

I go to conferences for two reasons. The first is to learn something new from the experts that surround me. The second is to share my knowledge, either through my own presentation or through informal interactions, such as meeting someone new over breakfast in the hotel ballroom. A number of years ago I was attending a meeting in Tokyo and found myself seated next to a whac-a-mole during a session break before he gave his talk. We joined in a short discussion about the clinical prospects of a protein encoded by a recently cloned gene that this guy thought was very promising. He assured me that this protein was guaranteed to earn FDA approval and would be available in pharmacies within the next year (the reality: it’s 20 years later and it’s never been approved). It was clear from his remarks that he knew nothing about the drug development process, which wasn’t surprising for an academic investigator. I thought briefly about trying to educate him, but I hadn’t packed the industrial-grade tools needed to pierce the ego bubble in which he had enveloped himself. His monologue and the break soon ended, and the conference sessions restarted. He gave his talk and departed shortly thereafter.

The whac-a-mole genus can actually be broken down into two related, but separate species. Folks that lead federal and state agencies or large non-profits make up one species, the politicos; their demanding jobs simply don’t allow them to stay at conferences very long. Examples might include the heads of the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the leaders of groups like the Red Cross or American Cancer Society. The other species, which is far more prevalent, is populated by the ego inflatus. They are, by their very nature, an arrogant lot. They’ll tell you they can’t stay at meetings for more than a brief period of time because lectures about their incredibly exciting work are in such high demand. They can be easily recognized by the pissed off attitude they will affect if you have the temerity to ask when you meet them “So, what do you work on?” They are unlikely to know the subject of your research efforts (unless you’re a competitor) and are equally unlikely to care. Their research is special; yours isn’t. Only the most ignorant of researchers, of course, would be unfamiliar with their work, despite the literally thousands of investigators at work today, the hundreds of journals in which they publish their work, and the multitude of subjects that they study.

Between conferences, these folks will often stop by their labs just long enough to pick up the most recent data generated by their minions (i.e. their post-docs and grad students). One simple solution to curtailing their endless travels would be to simply send the people in their labs that actually did the work in their place. However, their humongous egos would never entertain this idea; why share the credit when there’s glory to be basked in?

It’s long been debated (in a chicken and egg way) how these people came by this behavior. Do all arrogant, egotistical researchers start their careers exhibiting whac-a-mole behavior, or do they learn this over the years and gradually become this way?

Numerous articles (also see here and here) have been written as to whether being a member of the ego inflatus species leads to rapid career advancement or holds you back. I’m sure it helps in some cases, but I’ve seen brilliant scientists whose careers flamed out because they treated their lab members so badly that eventually no one would work for them. Try getting anything done in the lab if post-docs, grad students, and lab techs studiously avoid you. There are plenty of smart researchers who treat the people in their labs with respect, so why would you choose to work for one of these jerks? I subscribe to the philosophy espoused by author Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who noted, “A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but is miles ahead in results.” Keep this in mind the next time you almost have a close encounter of the unpleasant kind with a whac-a-mole. The person who really missed out on a chance to learn something new is him, not you.

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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