Medical Biophysics Graduate Student Association

MBPGSA Blog

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You Call That A Conference? Guide To Scientific Conferences

I like to preface this post by saying that in my limited experience in graduate school, I've been very fortunate when it comes to conferences. Including the masters, in the last couple of years expect a few local symposia,  I have already been to Hawaii, Sweden, and Germany. I think we can all agree that a conference by Waikiki beach is better than one in Idaho, but despite the appeal of exotic locations, attending conferences may frustrate you more than you expected.

Talk & posters. Lots of people doing cool stuff.

This is essentially one of the main reasons people attend conferences. Considering that it can take 6 months to a year to publish a paper (without considering the time to actually conduct the research) this is truly the most immediate way to get a sense of the current progress and trends in your scientific community. Although, not all the work presented is ground-breaking, some presenters offer an ideal sounding board for ideas or questions you may have. The downside is that you can soon realize that the direction you are taking in your work might not lead to the expected results. Even worse, someone at the conference may point out that what you are doing was done in his/her lab 15 years prior, and with way better results! And trust me on that, scientists will not shy away from making such remarks.

The Good: Great way to take a pulse on what is being done scientifically 'right now'

The Bad: Your poster or your talk could be completely attacked or seen as a subpar effort

Having informal talks about science with leading experts.

I remember the first time I met the authors of a very famous textbook and a couple of seminal papers in the field of magnetic resonance imaging. It was my first conference and I can't lie, I was star struck - you would think Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry and Kobe Bryant had just walked by me.  Eventually, I worked up the courage to go and ask a question, making sure I had rehearsed it in my head about 5 times, not to sound stupid. It turned out that apart from being extremely brilliant individuals they pretty much had the traits of regular people: humorous, quirky, boring, quiet, contemptuous and proud and so forth... I remember Dr. Andrew Webb, a leading expert in RF coil design, inspired almost a whole chapter in my Master's thesis after a conversation we had at a conference.

The Good: You can meet your scientific idol and ask them that question you've always wanted to ask

The Bad: Sometimes leading scientists have hundreds of friends and peers that they prefer talking to, over a young student as yourself

Catching up with old friends/enemies.

This is one of my favorite. Having attended three different institutions in my academic career (for undergraduate, Master and PhD), it’s always very exciting bumping into people with whom at one time you shared a class or lab. Their progress can be elicit a warm memory lane feeling but also be very motivating. On the other hand, seeing your enemy can also be extremely satisfying, especially when you can casually mention that ‘you've just won a major national competitive scholarship and that you wish them well in their endeavor in the same old lab’.

The Good: There is nothing like meeting old friends for a drink in some cool exotic location

The Bad: If your archenemy just published 3 papers and was shortlisted for the Nobel prize, maybe you might avoid being caught in the same room or elevator

Random socialization.

This is also a good one. Although I must admit that only recently I've been able to extend a casual conference acquaintance into a pen pal (I guess an email pal nowadays). I remember how excited I was to talk to students that were presenting in my same poster session. Although I saw them as competition, I felt that they were going through the same struggles and fears as I was and somehow the camaraderie came through in our conversations. Random socializing is also very interesting when it involves the “local” population, which sets up the next section.

The Good: If you like small talk, this is the best party for you

The Bad: Often times the the socializing is so ephemeral and volatile that it’s kind of a waste of time

Blowing off inscrutable talks to go sightseeing.

Ok my supervisor might not be too happy reading this part, but I'm pretty sure everyone has done it (even our supervisors in their student days), and decided to skip a poster/talk session to explore the city. But before I get fired, I'd like to clarify my strategy. After I've presented my poster/talk, attended all the talks that are directly and peripherally related to my topic, the ones I’m casually curious about and the ones  on the hot topic of the moment...then and only then I will "blow off an inscrutable talk and go sightseeing".

My all-time favorite of such events was in Hawaii, when I bypassed a uber-boring session to get surfing lessons. It was by far one of the most satisfying experiences: during the rare moments in which I was able to actually ride a wave, I truly felt at one with nature for those few seconds. It's an indescribable feeling and I'm not eloquent enough to put it in words, but now I understand why a generation of surfers are so captivated by this sport/lifestyle.

The Good: need I say more?

The Bad: you might get caught at the local bar by your supervisor while you should be in that gene therapy session...but hey wait a minute? Why is your boss holding a pint ?

Getting and to and from the meeting. Air travel.

If you are one of those people who likes flying, this is an obvious one. In my experience, I've grown to resent airline companies. Mostly because I'm a 6'2” 235 pound guy and those economy class seats when the flight is longer than 5 hours, must be a form of punishment. Generally, my luck is such that even though I’ve requested an aisle seat so that I can stretch my legs from time to time, the following happens: the booking system malfunctions, I get a special seat called "I love me some middle seat possibly sandwiched between an equally big guy and and the lady that needs to go to the bathroom every 25 minutes"-32F!. I always ask for a free upgrade to first or business class but airline companies have become more and more stingy with their coveted, reclining, elitist seats, so the answer is always no. I decided that my goal in life is to one day fly in first class. What is that you say? I'm in the wrong field? I should have gone into business?

The Good: You might sit next to your soulmate (doubt it) or the person who is going change your career

The Bad: You are more likely to sit next to your worst nightmare

The frantic preparation prior to the conference.

No matter how well I think I've prepared myself for the next conference, why does it always turn out that I'm preparing my slides or printing the poster 12 hours before my scheduled flight? I'm sure some of you can relate to this, especially the procrastinators. My best example of getting completely off guard, was in Stockholm. I had just arrived at Arlanda airport, and after reaching downtown, I just realized that although I had the address of the hotel, I never really got to map it. That would have turned out to be handy when not one, but three taxies refused to drive me there (one even rudely) because it was too close. ‘Only a 10 minutes walk’ said one of them in his extremely bad English. I took out a map that I had saved on my super small iphone screen. That turned out to be more confusing because the roads in the city had many overpasses and reaching an intersection didn't mean that you could make a left or a right since the roads weren’t on the same level. After walking for 35 minutes with all my luggage, (in the mean time I managed to get directions from a 4th taxi driver) I realized that the Stockholm urban planner had played a practical joke on me. Once, I reached my hotel on the brink of dehydration and exhaustion, I got on my knees, looked up into the sky and yelled "never again will I not Google map the directions to my hotel!!" *dramatic music playing in the background*

So these are my experiences traveling to and from conferences which prompted this month's poll, so I'm curious to know about your experiences so add your comments below.