An ode to conferences

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
Of 8 foot poster boards lined up by the hundreds.
To the ends of cutting-edge talks and expert questions.
I love thee to the early morning symposiums,
But only if there's free breakfast.

Ok, well now everyone knows why I went into science and not the arts. But let not my amateur attempt at stealing repurposing classic poetry dissuade you, conferences are one of my absolute favourite parts of science.

And it's not just for the free (usually terrible) coffee or the occasional wine and hors d'oeuvre receptions. Honestly, no matter how bad my experiments are going, attending a conference never fails to excite me about science again. You get to watch passionate people talk about cutting-edge work, surrounded by other people who love this is as much as you do. I can't think of a better place to be.

Ok, maybe Hogwarts is better. Harry Potter's pretty cool.

Conferences can be anywhere from 100 attendees at the smaller, workshop-type events, all the way up to around 15,000 physicians and scientists at some of the biggest meetings I've been to. There are pros and cons to both. The small meetings are great for networking, because everyone goes to the same talks and eats together. You really get to know the people there over the short (2-3 day) gethering. However, a smaller crowd means a more narrow research area. After all, the organizers tend to invite people they're already acquainted with, which means they are interested in similar things. This isn't necessarily bad either, as you really get to know an area in depth.

On the other hand, big conferences always have multiple seminars going at the same time in a broad range of topics. I've gone a full day barely seeing anyone I know! It's quite hard to schedule your time there, because there's so much going on at once and I don't have a time turner. (Yes, more Harry Potter references. You already know I'm a nerd, why are you surprised?)

Because these tend to be 3-4 days long, seminar burn out is a real possibility. People get too ambitious and go to every talk they can fit in at first, but can barely stay focused on words by the last day. The other downside to these massive gatherings is the difficulty to network. Yes, there are all kinds of major names in your field doing amazing research... that everyone and their dog (lab?) want to chat with. It's definitely more daunting, but can provide some fantastic connections if done well.

So, you ask, how do I get to such a magical place? Well, as with anything researchy, the first step is to get data. You need something to present at the conference, because there's no way your boss is going to pay for a "tourist" to attend.

Image credit: Lucille Petruzzelli

Conferences typically have an abstract deadline months in advance. These are similar to the abstract for a paper, but with a few key differences. Where a paper abstract focuses on conclusions, here you want it to be result-heavy. You need to show the people choosing abstracts that you have lots to talk about. The research you're presenting can't be published yet, but it should be enough for at least a short paper to be written. Although, you can usually get away with less for the small conferences.

From there, the abstract selection committee decides which abstracts are good enough to be accepted. The best of those get a talk (typically 10-12 min followed by 5 min for audience questions), while the rest are selected for posters. The large meetings can have a surprisingly low acceptance rate, where up to 35% of the submitted abstracts don't get in. The small meetings tend to be more inclusive. I'd imagine they wouldn't want to accept some members of a lab and cut out others since it's an close setting. But that's just my theory.

Poster sessions are a completely different world at large conferences. Rows of poster boards are lined up back to back as far as you can see. Words seriously don't do it justice, so here's a random picture I found online.

That is not an exaggeration. You're one person in a sea of words and graphs and you only have about 10 seconds to catch someone's attention, so a good title is key! Poster presenters typically have to be at their spot for an hour in case anyone has questions or wants to be taken through the data. It can make for some really interesting discussions. Or it can be painfully boring as you watch people walk past without slowing down as their eyes glaze over on the 4th day of the conference when they're just counting down the minutes until the shuttle leaves for the airport. Or maybe that's just me.

I know some people enjoy poster sessions, but hoenstly I'd rather just go to talks. It's probably because I don't like talking to people.

The best talks, I find, are in the 20-30 min range and are typically given by senior post-docs or head researchers themselves. This is where you get to hear the cutting-edge research with plenty of time for background explanations so you can fully understand what's going on. I love going to these distinguished seminar sessions in an area I'm only kind of familiar with and learning just a ton of interesting new ideas. I once went to a talk simply because the title said something about taste receptors in the intestinal tract and I just wanted to be able to make jokes about tasting your own poop. But it turned out to be one of the most fascinating talk I've gone to, because it was all new information!

And also, poop jokes. Always poop jokes. And with that high class attitude, I'm done. Mic drop.