Surviving Scientific Conferences

06 July 2005
Posted by Mary O'Neill.

ConferenceOne of the fun things about working in research science is the scientific meeting. You know scientific meetings, lots of free tea and coffee, buffet lunches, an evening of free booze and a lovely dinner, all interrupted by a multitude of 30 minute talks. As a young scientist you are encouraged to go, they are great ways to discuss your work and ideas, make new friends, and interact with the great minds in your field. How do you get the most from your meeting? Enthusiasm for your subject and lots of exciting data are certainly going to make for a good meeting. But there are certain pitfalls at the scientific meeting, which if you are not careful may result in your being noticed for all the wrong reasons. When you arrive at the meeting and get your name badge and your programme of events you think "Great - the talks look really interesting and lots of the big names are here, this should be good" so off you go to catch up with the other folk in your group and this may be the first pitfall, the only person from your group at the meeting is your boss!

Getting to know your boss Your boss is not someone you may have a lot of contact with during your working life. You meet to discuss the progress of your experiments, you give her your results, she tells you they're rubbish and you go and repeat them till she's happy. However at meetings suddenly you may find yourself having to socialise; she's with you at coffee, lunch and even the drinks and dinner in the evening. Suddenly you have to communicate on a social level. Oh God - what is the name of her kid? Is it Murphy or is that her cat? No point in asking if she keeps up with the soaps since she's a workaholic and anyway she'll wonder why you know about them - shouldn't you be working in the lab. Regardless of your scintillating wit it is like Christmas with your parents; you can't gossip about people or swear or talk about sex because obviously your boss doesn't do any of those things. So you spend the time speaking politely about the weather and your work, which takes up about 20 minutes.

Hopefully your boss has lots of other friends and will leave you to your own devices otherwise you may have to spend the conference disguised as a catering assistant.

The lectures OK this is what the whole meeting is about and you start off with great enthusiasm, i.e. you've brought a pen. However your interest wanes pretty quickly when you realize that the speaker you wanted to hear has a voice like the dialing tone. Furthermore he does not know when to shut up. It's one of the great imponderables of the universe; it states clearly in the programme that talks are 30 minutes duration yet speakers, who let's face it are celebrated for their ability to handle complex concepts, arrive with enough slides for 60 minutes and then proceeds to talk twice as quickly in an effort to fit it all in and as a result coffee and lunch are late.

The Chairman starts by warning everyone that he will "ruthlessly manage the time", this ruthlessness normally amounts to him loitering rather uneasily beside the speaker whispering that "we really do need to move on". The speaker oblivious to this merciless onslaught continues unabashed. What is actually required is a trap door that will open after 30 minutes and drop the offending speaker into a vat of crocodiles. Do not feign sleep and pretend to snore, even worse do not sleep and actually snore. Make sure you sit near the back exit and then you can quietly slip out and be first in the lunch queue.

The Poster Session At the poster session you have the opportunity to present your scientific data whilst demonstrating your artistic flare; it is the window on your scientific soul, therefore design is crucial. What colors will you use, perhaps an attention-grabbing backdrop in a dazzling emerald and, needless to say, some data? Do you adopt a minimalist approach with a simple table, a graph, a smidgen of writing and lots of space - or does that suggest "no results." What about the maximal approach, 3 years works condensed on to a poster, (it's possible if you use "courier 8pt.") You've already rehearsed answering the questions and practiced the thoughtful and knowing body language and so now you stand beside your poster anticipating the hordes of scientists eager to read your work.

In reality there is nothing more likely to make you feel like "Norman Nomates" than a poster session. You stand by your magnum opus and watch while those hordes rush to the poster of Dr. Fantastic's grad student and his perfect poster, elegant in both design and content. Your poster now looks crass and vulgar with the luminous pea green background, but you stand there ready to pounce on the unsuspecting delegate who happens to stop to read the 8pt font. To attract more people to your poster you either need lots of exciting ground breaking data that everyone will want to read or alternatively you could offer free wine.

Social Interaction Talking of free wine, the next danger with the greatest potential for failure and embarrassment is the social function. This normally means copious amounts of free wine followed by dinner with more free wine and then off to the bar for more wine. A few glasses of the old "Chateau Collapso" and your inhibitions diminish; you finally pick up the courage to talk to Prof. Marvel and it is at this point that you are most at risk. You start off OK and your discussion on cancer prevention and new therapeutic treatments is flowing as freely as the wine. You might be under the illusion that alcohol allows you to "think out of the box" but in reality you are just "out of your box". As the evening progresses encouraged by the wine and scientific bonhomie you announce that we could cure cancer if we could only harness the transporter technology of the "Starship Enterprise." At this point Prof. Marvel et al will vanish at a speed of approximately warp 9 and you will be left explaining your theory to the drinks waiter. The only advice to offer is either do not drink or go find the group of people discussing the supremacy of "Eastenders" over "Coronation Street", these are your kind of people.

The hangover After the social evening you wake up next morning with the Hangover. You don't really remember what happened or rather you don't want to remember, did you really tell the top cancer scientist in the country that "Star Trek" held the answer to cancer therapeutics. Oh no - you asked your boss if little Murphy had got the hang of the litter tray now you remember that her cat is called Muffin. You spend the rest of the day in quiet solitude contemplating your scientific exclusion since your boss is refusing to acknowledge you, the talks are over running again, coffee is delayed and Prof. Marvel and her research group are smirking in your direction. You're sure someone just gave you the Vulcan Salute; somehow "Live Long and Prosper" doesn't seem to be a fair assessment of your future.

Failure to take a serious approach to meetings and treating them as a free social event might end up working against you. It is worth noting that if you aren't comfortable talking to your boss, if you find the prospect of refreshment breaks more appealing than the lectures and if you fail to create an interesting poster that attracts a modicum of interest, this might suggest that you aren't cut out for a research career. In which case enjoy the conference while you're there and you're welcome to join me to discuss any manner of non-scientific trivia, I'm the lush in the bar avoiding her boss.

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