Last week I attended the Genomes to Biomes meeting, held right here in beautiful downtown Montréal. This was the first ever joint meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution-Société canadienne d’écologie et d’écolution (CSEE/SCEE), the Canadian Society of Zoologists-Société candadienne de zoologie (CSZ/SCZ) and the Society of Canadian Limnologists-Société canadienne de limnologie (SCL). A lot of acronyms for one meeting!
So what does one do at a scientific meeting? Well, for the most part, you talk.
The most obvious aspect of going to a meeting is giving a formal talk about your work. For some people, this can be a stressful situation, but talks can actually be fun to give. They are a distilled version of your research, cleaned up and formatted to tell a story about your work and results. A quick talk (this meeting had 15 minute talks, 12 of which are allocated for your presentation, followed by 3 minutes for questions) can be a very efficient way of getting the message out to other scientists about what your research is all about. Or more likely, just one component of your research. The only drawback is that there are a lot of talks to see at a conference (at this conference there were 9 concurrent sessions!), and if you have the bad luck to overlap with a famous researcher or be scheduled too early in the morning, you might not draw a huge crowd. Another common way to present your work at a meeting is to present a poster. This is the same idea, but can be a really great way to target your audience. Posters can be more challenging to create – for one, you have to print posters in advance, so no last minute number crunching! – and producing something eye-catching yet informative can be tough. Not to mention the rejection you can feel if all of the posters near you have visits and you don’t! When you do have visitors however, they likely to be very interested in your work, and will often be able to give you direct feedback, unlike in a talk where questions are limited by time. And on the plus side, poster sessions at biology conferences have a bar, so at least you can enjoy a drink while you stand by your science.
You will also talk to colleagues: people you already know, people you don’t know, and people you want to get to know. Meetings are a great place to catch up with the transient academics you know and haven’t seen since you took a class together/ shared an office/ graduated. I ran into someone that I had taken an undergraduate field course with a million years ago, when I first got interested in learning more about marine invertebrates, and I also caught up with people that I see more often while working in Panama. I went out for supper with my MSc supervisor and meet her current students, who are all continuing to do really cool work. There are always plenty of mixers and socializing opportunities, so there is always a chance to meet people who work in completely different areas than you. And of course, what is arguably the most important part of a meeting at this stage in academic life, you can always meet established researchers. I had my list of people that I wanted to introduce myself to, on the off chance that they are looking for post-docs in the near future. Yes, it’s all about who you know, and academia is no exception. This makes a scientific meeting a good place to have an “elevator pitch” ready. You will meet a lot of people, and even if you are wearing a name tag with your name and affiliations listed, you should be able to talk up your own work.
You will also talk a lot of shop. The entire conference is dedicated to talking about science, and meetings often spark new ideas about how to approach your current work, or give you ideas for future work. At a big enough meeting, there is bound to be someone working in an area that overlaps your own, and this can be a source of inspiration or collaboration. Or simply a really great talk about something you were unaware of could excite you. One of my favourite talks was about plant development, but the content was so interesting and well presented, that I have gone ahead and looked up some of the papers coming out of that lab. It’s not all about inspiration, or even meeting that next supervisor/grant approver/colleague/student. It’s about hearing great science being presented by talented researchers.
I think that’s what I really took away from this meeting. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about – be it fisheries biology, plant development, comparative morphology, or biomechanics, it all comes down to presenting your work in a way that excites people about what you do, and reminds you that you are also excited about what you do.