#BEM2015: How to be successful at a scientific conference


As those of you who follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@underthecblog) are already aware, I traveled to Quebec City Canada for the 2015 Benthic Ecology Meeting with 6 members of my lab this past week. Travel from UNC to Quebec is a little expensive, so we decided to rent a van and drive (approx. 18 hours each way, counting stops). We spent 2 full days driving to a 4 day event, so… how did we make it worth our while?

We were fortunate enough to be able to break up our drive to Quebec with a stay in D.C. (Thanks Cobleigh family!)

If you’ve never been to a scientific conference or are looking for ways to improve your experience, here are a few tips:

1.) Be prepared to communicate with others. There will be undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, faculty, research scientists, and managers at these conferences. Each person or group of people will bring a different perspective. Some will be very familiar with your field of study or research and some will not. Be prepared to talk to all of these different parties and don’t be afraid to approach people. Example: You see that big named scientist who does all the cool things that you cite all the time. Turns out she is just a person, like you. She came to this conference to share ideas, present new finding, and engage with other people in her field. She is literally there to talk to people just like you. Don’t avoid people that you are interested in engaging with. Find them during a poster session (a great way to meet people by the way. Try approaching a poster that someone you are interested in talking to is already at and use the poster as an ice breaker), or a coffee break and have a chat. If you haven’t given your talk (or poster) yet, invite them to come see it. Conferences are designed around sharing new findings and ideas with a group of peers. If you are there, you are a peer. Don’t be afraid to act like it!

2.) Bring business cards. Sometimes you will have interactions with new people who you may be interested in contacting in the future (for collaborations, ideas, opinions, follow-ups, etc..). If you hand them a business card at the end of your conversation they will have a physical reminder of you and they will also have your information should they decide they are interested in contacting you. They will probably also give you a card (or at least an email address) which will allow you to contact them more easily (remind them of this interaction when you email them).

3.) If you don’t understand a talk, don’t panic! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a talk that sounded interesting and walked away totally lost (phylogeography and transcriptomics do this to me!). It’s OK to not understand something. If you want to learn more about the topic, you need to be exposed to the material. Go to the talk, try to figure out what’s going on, take some notes for later reference, and consider speaking with the presenter, labmates, or friends/colleagues about it later (ie: lunch, dinner, coffee break).

4.) When it is your turn to present, take a deep breath and go for it! Be nervous, it’s normal. Just don’t let nerves consume you. I once gave a 15 minute talk in 7 minutes (my first major international conference talk, obvi I was nervous as (it was in Australia for those that don’t understand the grammar of this sentence)). Don’t be that guy. Build a talk that looks good and keeps your message distilled to its essence. You will want to show all of the data, but in reality you need to try to get a message across, not overload the audience with plots. Figure out the main findings and implications of your work and start with that. Then fill in the necessary background, methods, and data. Practice the talk a few times by yourself to make sure the timing is good. Then practice with your lab or friends to make sure everything makes sense (and to make sure you don’t freak out in front of a crowd).

DO NOT: memorize everything word for word. It will just make you sound like a robot. It will also make you worry about saying everything verbatim from a script instead of being present in the room. You should be excited about your work and your presentation. Don’t be afraid to show it. I saw my share of monotone, uninspired talks this week. Don’t be that person!

5.) Don’t forget to have fun! You may not always travel to a new and interesting location (like Quebec City), but you aren’t at home or in the lab and you are with a large group of like minded individuals. Take some time to explore your conference location, talk to new people, and try to relax every now and then. If your brain is totally full of information at 4:00 on a conference day it is OK to skip out early. There is a new talk every 15 minutes, but you certainly don’t have to see them all. When you are tired or uninterested, just take a break! Grab a snack or talk to a colleague. There is more to a conference than seeing every single talk.

We were lucky enough to meet some awesome people at this conference who we hung out with quite a bit (shout out to the Voss, Burkepile, and Eggleston labs). Quebec is a beautiful city with a lot to offer. It is probable that your conference location will be similar someday, so take my advice. Spend some time exploring it. Appreciate the culture and the world around you. There is more to this life than science after all. Even if you disagree with that, new experiences provide new perspectives about the world as well as science. Thanks to a wonderful crew of organizers and volunteers that made #BEM2015 a great success.

Congrats to Castillo Lab member Hannah Aichelman and Eggleston lab member (and SciREN Triangle teammate) Doreen Mcveigh on winning “Best Student Presentation Awards.”

Below are some pictures from Quebec if you are interested. All taken by me. See captions for more detail.

#BEM2015 location: Le Chateau Frontenac. An amazing and historic hotel in the middle of the old city.

Quebec loves winter sports. The Castillo Lab+ honorary member Mallory enjoying a toboggan race at a large slide just outside the Chateau. Quebec also features many ice skating rinks and trails.

What's Canada without Poutine?

And Crepes? Like I said before, take advantage of conference breaks and get out there to enjoy the conference site!

Quebec's architecture game is on point.

Categories Science

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