If you’ve been reading my latest posts, you’ll see that I’m attending a scientific conference at the moment.
Buuuuut… what is a scientific conference? I remember they were pretty mysterious when I was an undergraduate student, so this is an explanation of what it is, and how I spend my conferences (as opposed to how you’re supposed to spend it).
To put it simply, a scientific conference is essentially a massive networking opportunity for scientists.
Generally it’s organised by a society or educational institution that represents the research field, which could be anything. Attendees usually consist of researchers, students, sales reps from sponsor companies, and the organising entity. Some of the attendees are invited guest speakers, speaking in special sessions as plenaries or orators as their topics are highly relevant to the conference. Others may be award winners, whose research won a prestigious award which automatically allows them to attend the conference and speak in sessions which recognises their achievement/s. Most will need to submit an abstract and apply to attend (more on that below).
Lengths of scientific conferences can vary, ranging from half-day (lasting a few hours at most), to a few days (for instance, the one I’m attending runs for four days). Generally, catering is covered, so when you sign up for the conference, your registration fees cover all of that.
As a student, I get a slight discount for my registration fees, which in general gets paid by the lab. Essentially, my supervisor is sponsoring me to science. The general rule in my lab is- your registration is covered, provided you send in a scientific abstract and get chosen to present your work.
(Accommodation and airfares may be covered by your lab or be out of your own pocket money, unless you’ve won an award or have been invited by the conference organisers)
So, if you’ve never seen a scientific abstract, it’s generally a ~250 word spiel or summary of your work. You might see it more commonly at the beginning of a scientific paper, and it:
– Introduces your topic (giving enough background so people can make sense of what and why you did it- what’s that piece of info missing in your field that you’re trying to address?)
– Gives a brief summary of the methodology used (how did you do it?)
– Finishes with a statement of key results and what they mean for your field (what did you find out, and why does it matter?)
When you register for a conference and want to present your work, you send an abstract to the conference organisers. Hopefully your work is of interest and they let you present it.
Presentations usually come in two forms. Poster, or oral presentation/talk. You can usually choose which one you may prefer (or put your abstract down for either).
Generally speaking, I’ve heard that abstracts get chosen for talks when they are of interest to the organisers. ie. they think it’ll be good and deserves good exposure. I always shied away from oral presentations because- well- I’m terrified of standing in front of people and talking (why do you think I’m writing a blog??). Oral presentations do look better on your CV, though, because (again) it means the organisers thought it was a good study. Talks can range from 3 minutes (if you’ve never heard of a three minute thesis competition, you should check it out) to 50 minutes. The longer the time a conference gives you, the more they value your work. Generally there are questions afterward, which can be terrifying to begin with, because you will never know what people may ask.
My preferred method of presenting is a poster. I find it more dynamic, because you can choose to go through the poster while your audience listens, or they can discuss in real time. It’s fairly intimate (spacing means you can really only have two or three listeners at a time), and I don’t need to be the centre of attention. The downside is your entire presentation has to fit on a 1m x 1.2m poster, and you have to transport it to and from, without wrinkling/creasing the poster. Poster sessions tend to happen during lunch or dinner sessions at conferences. You may see a tag team event where someone mans their poster while their friends or poster neighbours go and gather food and drinks on their behalf. Otherwise you’ll miss out on the free food and drinks. That would be very sad.
When you submit your abstract, you’ll get to choose or write what research topic/s your abstract belongs to. For instance, I’d pick something like, “Bacteriology” “Biochemistry” “Host-Pathogen Interactions”. Based on the categories you picked, the conference organisers will figure out which session you’ll present in. Some conferences like putting similar talks in the one session, while others might mix it all up. You could present on any day of the conference- it could be the first session, or the very last… just depends on the logistics (organising conferences are hard).
The bigger the conference, the more likely it is to have concurrent sessions for talks. Generally I choose topics based on how relevant or interesting it is to me, because I have to pick just one… Admittedly there have been times when I wished I had a time turner, so I could attend more than one session (HP reference there).
For talks, some of the things I focus on are presentation styles (their manner, speech, slides), the way they present their data (if there are interesting ways to present data, I’ll take note of it so I can present my own stuff in similar ways), and of course, the topic itself. Posters tend to be more focused on the latter two for me. If I find I am captured by their talk, I like trying to understand what it is about the way they’re presenting that’s captivating, and try to incorporate that into my own presentations. Sometimes it can be down to sheer charisma, though (which is something I’m not oozing).
These conferences will never happen without big sponsors, who are generally large biotech/pharmaceutical companies, as well as other organisations relating to your field. Especially for companies, they will send sales reps to talk to conference attendees to pitch their products and discuss needs with researchers.
For me, as a student, the most important thing (aside from free food/drinks and networking) are the freebies. Seriously. Pens, sticky notes, notebooks, notepads, bottle openers, mugs, toys… raffles for gift cards, hampers, electronic goods… I am on day 3 of the conference and I already have six pens, a stress ball, a Rubik’s cube, USB stick- so much more. So many freebies. I have no idea where they will fit in my luggage, but I’m bringing it all back to my lab.
So you’ve presented your work, you’ve
stolen received many freebies and eaten all the food… it’s now time for the main event- the networking. It’s very important to take the time to introduce yourself to people you haven’t met before. If someone had an interesting talk/poster, talk to them. This is how you make connections, with face to face interactions. Catch up with old friends you haven’t seen in a while… These are the moments when you could get future research/job opportunities, so it’s important to put yourself out of your comfort zone and chat to people. It can definitely be daunting though, and I find I can’t socialise for too long in unfamiliar grounds and need to leave when it gets too much.
So that’s a very basic overview of what a scientific conference can be like, particularly from a student’s perspective. It’s always good to hear inspirational talks and see exciting data, and while it’s scary, it’s nice to tell people about what you work on, too. Hopefully people give good feedback, and – maybe – get just as excited by what you’re working on.