Is Using Prezi for Scientific Presentations Worth it?

I’m always looking for ways to improve the presentation of science, either to the scientific community or the public. If you’ve seen my last posts, you may have noticed that I tend to be big on visual presentation. This debate is not new. In fact, Andrew Gelman has a great couple of posts and slides on the difference between scientific data presentation (i.e. graphs) and info visualization (i.e. InfoViz, the pretty ways people come up with to display data). I leave it up to you to explore this further. That is not the topic of this particular post.

Instead, this post focuses on presentations. Not just graphs, but the actual format of presentations. Typically, science presentations are Powerpoint slides with bulletpoints, some graphs, and a some pictures. Very linear and standard. Animations and effects are frowned upon as distraction (as they ought to be). Good talks present very little text on the slide and don’t move through slides quickly. They force the listener to key on the speaker, rather than just reading the slides.

TED talks are a great example of how to give wonderful talks. If you haven’t seen one, there are many, and they are never a waste of time. Many TED talks use a different format than the typical Powerpoint slides. I learned that many speakers use Prezi to make their talks.

Prezi is a new style of ‘nonlinear’ presentation software. Talks are set up as one giant slide and the frame skips from area to area. This allows for great flexibility in how you plan your talk. It no longer has to be linear, you can move around in circles, show relations in different ways, etc. It features zooming and rotating, which in principle are meant to be used to show complex relationships between topics.

I’ve seen one scientific talk using Prezi, and I’ve watched a couple of more (most of them are public online at Prezi). I’ve not been terribly impressed. Most talks, including the science one, simply used Prezi as a fancy way to have fun slide transitions, rather than actually using the effects to link pieces of a story together in a visually explicit way.

However, because I love TED talks (they are masterfully done), and because I think Prezi can be a good tool for public speaking if used correctly, I wanted to see if I can use it for the defense of my dissertation proposal. I thought this would be a great chance to use Prezi to its full extent. My work is over several biological levels, and the zoom effect allows me to make this visually explicit. However, I kept slide transitions to a minimum and avoided rotation or anything else overly distracting. You can see the final product here. Let me know what you think.

I’ve not given my defense yet, so I can’t tell you how it went. Some people I’ve shown it to so far have loved it, others.. not so much. Jury is still out. However, I have formed a general opinion of using Prezi for scientific talks from my experience in trying to actually build one.

Here it is: Don’t. Except in extreme cases. Long talks, such as keystone speeches, job interviews, defenses, etc., are good choices for a Prezi talk IF you can master the format. Short scientific talks have no business being in Prezi format; there is nothing Prezi can do that Powerpoint (or, my new favorite, LaTeX Beamer) cannot. Couple that with uncertainty over file format compatibility at conferences along with the issues listed below and Prezi quickly becomes more trouble than it’s worth.

Others reasons to avoid Prezi:

1) It’s free for the basic service. Extra services will cost you. A lot. And it’s not a one time fee like most software. It’s a (very expensive) yearly subscription. Want to have a program to edit Prezi’s offline? Roughly $150 per year, please. Don’t want to pay? Then you’d better have a good internet connection, because you have to work on it online.

2) It still feels very much like unfinished software, which it may very well be. For example, there are effects to fade-in items (make them appear), but no way to make them disappear. My biggest complaint is that about the styles. Each theme has limited styles (i.e. colors) of shapes. Want to customize your colors? Better learn CSS/HTML, because you need to edit the CSS file. Know how to do that? Great, but Prezi doesn’t save the CSS file correctly, so you have to re-edit it every single time (including right before your talk). At least, this seems to be the case on my system.

3) Huge compatibility issues across browsers. Prezi works better on some than others. In fact, the CSS issue might be related to this. I use Chrome. Prezi doesn’t work well on Chrome. Want to cut and past objects in your talk to make duplicates of the same size and orientation? Better use Firefox, because this functionality is broken on Chrome and, I believe, Safari.

4) I hope you have a fast computer. Mine is six years old. It runs like new, it’s by no means the fastest thing on the market but it’s not slow. It gets bogged down in Prezi at points and it eats up my battery.

5) I feel like Prezi’s limitations are in part because it’s Flash based. There are similar, and free, options available if you happen to be good at HTML, called Impress.js, or jmpress.js (jmpress.js is actually impress.js with some extra functions). These are based on Java, run better, and are compatible across browsers and on mobile devices (see, iPhone: No flash playback). To use them, however, means you have to code them yourself from HTML, something most of us just don’t have the time or inclination to learn (NOTE: most ecologists I know are not nerdy computer geeks. Most are nerdy play-in-the-mud-and-water-and-forest-and-holy-crap-an-ocelot-I’ve-never-seen-an-ocelot! geeks [look at his tufted ears!]).

UPDATE: A seventh problem: 7) Prezi offered a free trial of the desktop editing software this morning (it was very convenient to this post). I downloaded my Prezi to try to solve the CSS issue there, except its even worse on the desktop. When I edit online, the changes work and remain so long as I don’t save in quit. In the desktop software, the changes never even show up. So in short, the desktop software works less well than online editor, but costs $150 per year.

In short, I sort of regret my decision to use Prezi. I’m too far along now to remake the whole talk in Powerpoint. I actually prefer 1) LaTex Beamer, 2) Apple Keynote which, although old, still rocks, and 3) MS Powerpoint if I absolutely must. (Speaking of, where’s the iWork update, Apple? It’s been 4 years! I love Pages and Keynote. Numbers, meh. But they show their age in places).

If you want to use Prezi, just be sure you’re comfortable being the center of attention and are very good at ad libbing in case your presentation gets messed up or crashes, because with Prezi, it’s nearly inevitable.

UPDATE: I love the idea of Prezi, but the software isn’t there yet. Also, Prezi works great if you just use their set themes. If you try to go beyond that into customizing your talk, the software shows its youth. In summary, Prezi is great if you use the provided templates and themes and if you have a powerful computer and fast internet. If you don’t have all three of those, stick with the standard slide format.

The future of the forest in the clouds

Increasing temperatures associated with global climate change have resulted in subtle but noticeable changes in the way species act in both time and space. For example, spring flowering and budset for many plants has come earlier and earlier, birds migrate and nest earlier in the year, and insect outbreaks have become more severe. One area where climate change is predicted to have an especially dramatic impact is in tropical mountain cloudforests.

Unless you’ve spent a lot of time trekking around the Andes or retracing Alfred Wallace’s steps in Indonesia you have probably not noticed that most tropical mountain cloudforest trees are already responding to climate change. These ecosystems are highly diverse, unique ecosystems because the forest is constantly engulfed in clouds and fog, creating an eerie yet fascinating ecosystem where life is literally clinging to every surface.


Inside a tropical mountain cloudforest where every tree trunk and branch is covered in moss, orchids, and bromeliads.

On the eastern slope of the Andes this cloudforest is created when warm moist air moves westward across the lowland Amazonian jungle and runs into the very steep Andes. When this air hits the mountains it is forced upwards, cools, condenses and drops most of the moisture as precipitation or fog. Similarly, if you were to walk up this same mountain you would notice that temperatures decrease rather quickly as you ascend the mountain. What you may not notice is that the composition of the species present on the mountain also changes as you climb. Species turnover is so high because most species on these mountainsides are adapted to live within a narrow belt of temperature and precipitation, which is associated with a specific elevation. Moving just 300 vertical meters in the Andes can result in a complete change in the forest, from the species of trees to the birds and even down to fungus found in the soil.

As temperatures increase these species need to migrate upslope towards cooler, higher refugia because temperatures in their current range will quickly become too hot. This could lead to several scenarios where species shift their ranges in response to increasing temperatures. However, the most likely migration scenario is that species will slowly move upslope at the high elevation edge of their range but lose habitat at the lower edge of their range (Figure part D). This would lead to range contractions and elevated extinction risks in this hyper-diverse cloudforest ecosystem. In fact range contractions are already occurring on many tropical mountains including insects on Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo, lizards and snakes in Madagascar, and birds and trees in Peru.


The majority of tropical mountain cloudforest species are predicted to move upslope with changing climate. How they migrate upslope is important for the future conservation of this ecosystem. In scenario A the species range does not move upslope but the relative abundance of individuals within the range shifts upslope. An alternative is that the entire range, both the high elevation and low elevation edges shift upslope (B). One unlikely scenario is that the species high elevation edge shifts upslope and the low elevation edge remains the same (C). The most likely and most common scenario is that the high elevation edge of a species range does not shift upslope but the low elevation range does (D). Species will experience range contractions as the species continually lose area at the low elevation part of their ranges but do not gain elevation at the high end. Figure taken from Feeley, Rehm, Machovina. 2012. Frontiers in Biogeography.

As climate change biologists we are desperately trying to figure out how species will respond to increasing global temperatures so we can make informed conservation decisions yet our understanding of many ecosystems is so basic that we do not have much confidence in our ability to predict the future. Regardless of our predictions, we already see many species in the diverse tropical cloudforest systems suffering from increased regional and global temperatures. Unfortunately the pace of contemporary climate change far exceeds the capacity of most species to adapt to their environment and will result in major biodiversity losses in cloudforests and ecosystems worldwide.

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Merging Science and Art: Innovative and Appealing Websites

Relaying scientific information to the non-scientist public is a crucial part of ecology and science, in general. The internet has provided researchers with the means to connect directly to the public via twitter, blogs, websites, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t think we take advantage of these tools to their fullest extent. Most lab homepages follow a standard formart: home page, lab personnel, research descriptions, publications, etc. These webpages, in general, are pretty basic. Boxes with text, some links, maybe a photo gallery.  I’ve browsed many of these websites for various reasons. Some of the websites are well-designed but rather boring. Some are super informative, but poorly designed. Some researchers take the approach of putting everything they can think of online and leave it to the reader to sift through tons of text and information. I see very few websites that break the mold of traditional website design and try to do something visually appealing and informative. Something that would capture the attention of non-scientists and conveys important information without being unnecessarily dense.

My website certainly was no exception. My first iteration was abysmal, it looked like one of those old geocities websites that I had designed in fifth grade. My second iteration was an improvement, but not particularly innovative or appealing. I realized that we can and must do better. I got it in mind to redesign my website to make a researcher homepage that was completely innovative. For inspiration, I looked at websites for artists, photographers, and painters. After all, I think science and art have much in common. Both seek (or should seek) the most visually appealing way to convey as much information as possible as simply as possible. Photographers, for example, can capture the essence of war or culture in a single photo. Their websites are designed to capture the attention and imagination of the viewer without being overwhelming.

I set out to redesign my website in this context. I realized that to do everything I wanted to do, I had to learn HTML and CSS (two languages which I will never fully understand, there’s only room for so many languages in my head). I chose a minimalist theme that is (I think) visually appealing, interactive, and informative. The end result is here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m still not sold on slideshows for conveying research, but I think it’s better than blocks of text with a few pictures. I’d love to make full videos, but I just don’t have the time for that. Plus, I’d need to find a narrator. I’m no David Attenborough. I do, however, think my new website is a step in the right direction for finding more creative, artistic, and minimalist ways to convey our information that might capture the attention of passer-bys.

I’m not suggesting that every researcher needs to learn HTML. In fact, one of my favorite websites if Jennifer Thaler’s, at Cornell. I believe this website was made with through an online webdesign service. While it still follows the traditional format, it is creative, semi-interactive, and informative. Another one of my favorites is I love the interactive data graphing tool that allows anyone to make any graph they want. This, of course, requires an extraordinary amount of data (which I don’t have) and incredible programming skills (which I can’t do). But I do think it is innovative, which is probably why it was a TED talk.

I think that its time researchers fully embrace the power of the web in 2013 and find creative ways to move beyond the standard data display and home page formats. My website is certainly not the solution, but I think its a good first step for trying. It still follows the standard home page-about-research format, but there may just be no way around that for now. Not without devoting serious resources to it.

Next up: Prezi as a tool for innovative and creative presentations.

Canada Installs Air-Conditioning

When hockey rinks in Canada need to be refrigerated to keep them cold in December, something is very wrong. It is, after all, Canada. In December. From what I’ve heard, it’s cold there. Personally, I hope never to find out how cold. Based on this article, turns out I might not!

Additionally,  2012 was the hottest year on record in the U.S., shattering the previous record (set in 1998) by a full degree. To my knowledge, a heat record has never been beaten by a full degree.