A Guide to Scientific Conferences

I am beyond excited to announce that I'm going to be guest blogging at the 62nd Annual Biophysical Society Meeting in San Francisco, California in one week! So, in the spirit of conference season for biophysicists, I'm dedicating this post to all things conference related from why we go to conferences to tips and tricks to be conference ready.

So, first things first- what are scientific conferences? Scientific conferences are opportunities for scientists, students, scientific companies, and the like to meet together for a few days to present and discuss new and notable research findings to one another. Usually conferences are highly specialized- there are conferences about neuroscience, biophysics, microbiology, drug discovery, ion channels, stem cells, biochemistry, cancer, etc. As scientists, no matter what field we are in, we are all in pursuit of a common goal, which is the truth about how the body and the world around us works, though we may all may focus on different parts of the body or different aspects of nature and the physical world. Conferences are meetings of hundreds to thousands of scientists of all levels from revered Nobel Prize winners to undergraduate students where everyone is there to learn about new things going on in the field. One of the goals of a conference is to exchange ideas, so  there are endless possibilities to learn about new techniques (that only a handful of people in the world use), as well as to see experimental findings that could be informative for one's own research.

Then what happens at scientific conferences? Scientific conferences are broken up into multiple session types. The most common is what's called a poster session. An individual will put a story of data describing his or her research project or another ongoing project in the research lab and conference-goers can come and go and ask questions and engage in discussion as they please. When I go to the Biophysical Society meeting I'm going to be presenting data that has been collected in the lab over a course of three years. On a poster, you have to be concise when summarizing a great deal  of data, so preparing a poster is a little bit like putting together a puzzle. You have to tell a very convincing story about why your research is relevant and important and the data and figures you present need to be solid enough to back up your conclusions. Poster sessions can last for several hours and anybody can come up and ask you to explain your results or your analysis. Even the person who wrote the textbook on the topic you're presenting may wander up to peruse your poster (which will actually be the case at the biophysics meeting and I could not be any more excited)! In addition to poster sessions, there are short seminars usually lasting around 10 minutes and are intended for fellow specialists in a particular area of research. Finally, there are the big seminars which can last from 30-60 minutes where a researcher will present recently published or recently funded projects from detailed background to the methods, to their data and interpretation. Conferences are also the most important times to network. There are so many opportunities at a conferences to talk with individuals presenting posters or giving seminars and learn more about their research. Establishing contacts is extremely important for the collaborative nature of scientific research where scientists can share ideas and resources in return for joint authorship on a publication. In addition, networking is vital for career advancement. I was at a career development symposium a few weeks ago and I remember hearing the comment, "You never know, the person whose poster you visited could be your future employer." 

At conferences a global community can become a very tight network of peers and collaborators working together for the advancement of science.



Now for my fellow conference attendees- here are some tips and tricks to prepare for an upcoming conference:

1.) Print business cards: Conferences are hectic and the people you meet can be very busy, whether they're tied up at their poster for the afternoon or they're rushing to make it to the next seminar they're interested in. Business cards offer an efficient and easy way of exchanging contact information and growing your network.

2.) Practice your presentation: Presentations are an art form and they only improve with practice. You generally need to be very concise when explaining your poster and you want to make sure you demonstrate a logical flow of information when presenting your rationale and conclusions. The best way to accomplish this is simply through practice.

3.) Look for accommodations near the conference center: One thing I'm the most grateful for is that our hotel in San Francisco is only a block away from the conference center. The last thing you want to deal with during the stress of going to a conference is dealing with traffic in an unfamiliar city or navigating public transportation. Staying within walking distance to the conference center can alleviate some of the stress and also is good if you forgot something in your hotel room or want to hit snooze on your alarm a few more times in the morning.

4.) Make a schedule: Some conferences may have mobile apps with the sessions listed based on category while others may rely on a traditional itinerary breaking down the sequence of events. Something I've found to be extremely helpful preparing for BPS 2018 is their mobile app and itinerary feature. In the app they have all of the poster and presentation titles and information so you can choose and select what you're interested in seeing or listening to.

5.) Look up publications of anyone you're interested in: If there's going to be someone you're particularly interested in talking to, whether you're interested in doing a post doc in their lab or in collaborating with them in the future, it's good to be somewhat familiar with the work they've done. This will be helpful for having really productive conversations!

Overall, conferences are amazing opportunities to learn new things relevant to your research and to build relationships with fellow scientists so that, as a whole, we can make scientific research even better!

Bree Watkins