Since the pandemic, we can honestly say that Josh and Dan “don’t get out much.” But we broke out of that rut to attend the annual conference for the American Society for Cell Biology – Cell Bio 2022 meeting in Washington, DC.
A scientific conference is a unique experience AND opportunity. Thousands of academics, researchers, students, and vendors are all in one place in order to ‘talk science.’
There’s so much potential to build relationships and drive breakthroughs, but there are also plenty of pitfalls. A meeting with this many people can be chaotic, overwhelming, and well, just plain exhausting.
So we got out the mobile recorder, dusted off the microphone, and asked attendees for their advice on navigating a large scientific conference with the best chance of success.
In Their Own Words
Over the course of two days, we asked ASCB 2022 participants to tell us their best advice for attending such a large conference. Here’s a summary of what we heard:
Never Always Talk to Strangers
The number one piece of advice we received was to talk to everyone. Introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you in the seminar. Engage the student standing in front of her poster. Chat with vendors about your research plans.
Many of us follow the unwritten rule that in public, you shouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger. Don’t make eye-contact on the subway, and don’t chat up the person in the middle seat on your airplane!
But at a scientific conference, those rules are suspended. Think about it: if all of these scientists just wanted the latest data or research, they could read the literature. When they attend a scientific conference, they’re looking for something more: human connections.
A human connection might turn into a collaboration, or future job opportunity. Talking about research might spark a new idea or a new approach to an old problem. These are interactions that simply can’t happen online.
So muster some courage, introduce yourself, and ask “Can you tell me about your research?” You never know where it will lead.
It might surprise a first-time attendee just how grueling a conference can be. You’re on your feet for much of the day, and the festivities can start at 8 AM and stretch well past midnight.
You need to be strategic about finding places to rest and take comfort during the day.
One great piece of advice: wear comfortable shoes. You’ll probably be walking to the conference from your hotel. When you arrive, you’ll migrate from one seminar room to another, possibly standing in the back if seats are limited. During poster sessions, you’ll make laps around the exhibition hall, again standing while you chat. Do your feet a favor and put comfort over style.
Many attendees focused on food. Keep snacks in your bag, take advantage of the coffee and snack spreads, and make advance plans for lunch and dinner. You won’t be able to talk coherently about your research if you’re hungry!
Finally, carve out some time to relax. Many scientists are introverts, and a scientific conference can be over-stimulating. Find an out-of-the-way nook to check your emails, or grab a seat in a quiet place next to the elevators. If the seminars and poster sessions have sapped your energy, consider skipping dinner with your lab-mates or drinks at the bar. Use that time to rest and refresh for the next day.
Set Your Goals
Before you even book the plane ticket for your next conference, think deeply about what you hope to achieve by attending. As we said before, these meetings are really more about the people than the science.
Some attendees we interviewed were actively looking for their next career opportunity. Some were searching for postdocs, and others for faculty positions, industry jobs, or collaborations on a new grant.
Others were trying to identify mentors. As we mentioned in Episode 157: The Three Mentors You Need, your PI or lab supervisor should not be the only influence on your research. Finding mentors with experience in your field, the career you desire, or those that inspire you can broaden and deepen your growth as a scientist. The conference is a great place to meet and form a relationship that could span decades.
We discuss these tips and many more in this week’s show! If you have advice for making the most of a scientific conference, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to join the conversation!
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