Conferences: A Scientist’s Vacation

Hello Everyone,

This time I wanted to write about my recent experience going to the American Chemical Society Meeting in Philly last month.  The title might be a little bit sarcastic; scientific conferences aren’t exactly vacations per say despite the fact that they are sometimes held in exotic locations.  For those of you who’ve never attended a conference, I thought I’d give a little bit of insight into what goes on during one of these events.  The general reasons that a scientist would go to a conference fall into two general categories: 1) To See and also 2) To Be Seen.  I hope that by the end I can convince you that no matter who you are, a young scientist or even a member of the general public, you can achieve both for yourself!

Scientific conferences provide an excellent opportunity to learn about current research in a given field or in many different fields.  The main bulk of time at a conference is spent attending sessions of lectures.  Generally these conferences run at least 4 or 5 days and each day will have at least 9-10 hours of lectures (from 8 AM to 6 PM usually).  The topics of these lectures can vary but will be focused on different subsections of the field that the conference represents.  For instance, this ACS conference was, as you might expect, centered on chemistry.  The impression that you might get from attending the ACS conference is that pretty much everyone does chemistry!  The theme of this one was “Chemistry by the People, of the People, and For the People”, a nice nod to Philly.  This meant that many of the talks would be about biochemistry and also chemistry related to human issues such as energy and the environment.  I attended a few very specific subsections on chemical biology and specifically related to DNA chemistry.  Even within this though we had a wide range of people come to present.  I saw talks by people in the industry, people in academia, and even a guy who was a virologist and Emory hospital!  Talks are also a great way to get to know the people in a field if you are not familiar with it.  For instance, I met a few people whose papers I read this past year. It was interesting to get to talk to them directly about their work.  The main piece I would give to someone going to a talk in a new field is:


DON’T be intimidated by anyone.


Everyone should be there to learn and to share their knowledge.  Anyone who would talk down to you or try to embarrass you because they know more about a topic than you do is a jerk.  And at any rate there’s always plenty more to see at a conference!

Everyone’s favorite thing to do at a conference is to go to the exhibitor stands.  This is usually held in the largest part of the building; a large conference hall or open area.  Here, companies of all different stripes come to present their wears and usually to give out free samples of different things.  Every company that is even remotely related to chemistry will show up to this thing.  We had people come from Dow, for Dupont, from Monsanto, from Gore, and the list goes on and on.  Some people are there to recruit people for jobs.  Other companies are actually trying to convince scientists to buy their equipment.  There were a huge number of glass blowing companies at the ACS meeting this time, more than I recall from the last one.  This makes sense since glassware is, by and large, essential to all fields of chemistry.  You also have different publishing companies from Elsevier to PloSONE.  Grad students love to go to this portion because you can get a lot of free samples, free food, and free T-shirts.  I have a closet full of T-shirts from various companies.  As a side note too, if the Big Bang Theory wanted to be more realistic, Sheldon and company would be wearing T-shirts from Sigma Aldrich and other company freebies not Marvel characters.

The second reason scientists go to a conference is to garner attention for their work and to get other people’s opinions on it.  This can be done in several ways such as presenting a poster, giving a talk, or participating in small group discussions.  Most young grad students (my future students included if you’re reading this) will only be allowed to go to a conference if they are at least presenting a poster.  Poster sessions usually run at the same time as the talks but usually you’d only present one poster; giving you time to do both.  Even though you might feel anxious about sharing your work in public, it’s often the most important thing part of being a scientist.  You’ll be in a room with several dozen other scientists sharing what you know and getting feedback on it.  I had a very productive poster session at this past conference; I spoke with a few people who knew more about aptamer work than me.  It really helped rejuvenate my enthusiasm for this particular project and helped me think of new places to take it.  I find the best time to give a poster is when you already have a lot of the project fleshed out and you’ve tested at least one hypothesis.  Some people believe that you should only present brand new data that you haven’t really finished exploring in order to maximize the benefits of the poster session.  I can see pros and cons to both ways of thinking.  Overall if you want to go to a conference you should be participating in the poster sessions.

Finally, perhaps the most prestigious part of going to a conference is giving an invited talk.  I’ve done this a few times but not at this conference.  It’s unclear to me exactly how you get yourself invited to give a talk.  To some extent, it’s whom you know.  To another extent it does really matter how well other people know your work.  Giving a talk can be stressful but it is ultimately extremely rewarding.  Aside from publishing a paper, a talk at a major scientific conference is the height of your work becoming an accepted part of the knowledge of the scientific community.  Again the question is whether or not you should show only new stuff or only stuff you have previously published.  The best talks, I find, have a little bit of both.  Speaking at a conference and open you up to a large audience and it can help you make a lot of new connections.  Graduate students should aim to give at least one talk during their time in grad school, if for nothing else but to get their feet wet.

Calls for talks aren’t really open to the general public but there are ways in which you can interact directly with members of the scientific community.  Many conferences also have small group discussions on specific topics or for professional developments.  I haven’t really gone to many of these but I know from having attended one or two that it can involve a discussion leader introducing a topic, say, “how do you get started working for the FDA”, and then opening it up to a panel or the audience.  People who are not scientists themselves can still go to these discussion and have their opinions heard.  Some of these discussions would benefit greatly from outside viewpoints.  There are a few I hope to go to in the next Biophysical Society Meeting that are about “science education”.  It would be very helpful to hear from students and from people who want to learn more about science about their experiences.  If you are motivated enough you can really make yourself be seen at a conference.

Many scientists find scientific conferences to be the highlight of their year.  In many ways they can be just that!  You get to interact with colleagues you haven’t seen in a while and also to meet new people and to make new connections.  You can also get a ton of free stuff; and who doesn’t like that?  Moreover it would be nice, in my opinion, to see non-scientists, non-industry people attend these conferences.  Unfortunately they can be quite expensive to attend.  The ACS meeting this year was actually $250 for a non-ACS member and it ends up being just about that much for the members when you factor in the membership fee.  I’d like to see a conference where, perhaps for one of the days, it was open to the general public for free.  The public would benefit greatly because they would get to learn a lot about science and scientists would also learn a lot about how to best communicate their work to the public.  ACS is huge, almost to an absurd point.  The one I went to in New Orleans had 20,000 visitors.  For this reason, they would be the perfect organization to be able to subsidize this “free public day”.  Or heck, just have an area outside the conference center sectioned off for the public to visit and have a few posters there one day.  Perhaps at the next conference that I attend I’ll try to convince a few of my colleagues and I to go to a park nearby and have an outside free public poster session with cookies or something!

Thanks for reading this time.  Please do let me know if this idea sounds intriguing and I will try to set it up.





Link to ACS in case you would like to know about the next conference: