Saturday, May 19, 2012

Why go to conferences?

Summer conference season is around the corner! I especially encourage people to participate in the upcoming American Genetic Association conference in Durham, NC, on recombination.  But that aside, why do we go to conferences?

To see the talks?  A little (field dependent).  A good talk is sometimes very powerful and exciting, and it can be a great way to see exciting work that may not come to print for another... oops, there's the problem.  For another 6 months?  It is nice having the "preview", but far from essential.  For many (albeit not all) talks in my field, I'll see the print or online publication before the next year's conference, if I haven't already even been asked to review the associated manuscript.  Obviously this isn't true across all fields of subfields.  Talks also often oversell, since they're not subject to the same sort of peer review.  Caveats can be omitted, controls may not even have been done yet, etc.  They're exciting on the one hand, but they're not "bankable" on the other the way many publications are.

To present research?  Yes, especially for junior scientists but somewhat for all.  We need to maximize routes with which we disseminate our results, and we also can all use more practice doing it in public forums.  Presenting is a great way to get informal feedback, too, pre-submission: much nicer to have someone tell you that you didn't consider X alternate explanation in a meeting (so you can address it) than to have your manuscript to Science rejected on that basis.  Giving a great talk can make a postdoc more competitive, too-- I recall many faculty meetings about job searches where someone said, "I saw her give a talk at X meeting, and it was really great."

For the informal interactions?  Yes!  This point ties in with the feedback I mentioned above... not only do we get feedback on what we present, but we can talk with colleagues about all sorts of projects and ideas, potentially even forming new collaborations over coffee, meals, or "beverages."  Yes, we could do this by phone or e-mail, but this forum provides a more "captive audience" for a long time-period not (or less) distracted by their ongoing college duties, and with tons of other experts around as well who can weigh in.  This is, in my opinion, the single biggest advantage of in-person conferences.

For the free goodies from vendors?  ABSOLUTELY!  But I won't dwell on that one.

If I were to propose two pieces of advice:

1) Let's make as many talks/ posters as possible publicly available.  Let presenters opt-in to have their talks videotaped and put on YouTube/ UStream.  Submit your posters to F1000 Posters.  These are all free.  Make it so those who couldn't come to the meeting because of cost, family obligations, or even being environmentally friendly in avoiding needless air travel still able to see the research that was presented.  Make it so those attending can see some of the concurrent talks they missed.  Obviously, opting-in would be voluntary, but organizers can minimize the barriers to it and encourage it.  I know some will decline this option for fear of being "scooped", but some will jump at the chance of more dissemination to their colleagues and the public.

2) Don't do the freshman-dorm thing of walking around with your labmates or buddies for the whole conference!!!  If multiple people from a lab are going, don't let them share rooms with each other... force them to room with someone from another university.  Similarly, while it's nice to "support" your labmate by going to their talk, I'd personally prefer my lab folks go to the concurrent talks I couldn't attend to tell me what I missed.  And most importantly, encourage the shy but excellent junior scientists to go meet other movers-&-shakers in their field, both senior and other junior-- their PIs should facilitate this, but anyone can take the initiative to help.

Happy conferencing this summer, y'all!  Comments welcome, as always, even if critical.


  1. Offering the most relevant, up-to-date research from the leading researchers and experts in our country to everyone with access to a computer is a fabulous and inspired idea!!!! And I got to sit in front of you in 10th grade English class!

  2. I think you are absolutely right, Mohamed. The most important aspect of most conferences is the opportunity to disseminate your work, meanwhile benefiting from instant feedback and the opportunity to discuss new ideas/collaborations with other researchers in a "leisurely" way. But, if we are not able to attend a conference of interest (for a variety of reasons) or we miss talks (particularly at larger conferences with many concurrent sessions), having access to taped versions of presentations would, in my opinion, be a boon to the field. Glad to see this conversation started!

    1. I recall you suggesting something very similar, too, so thank YOU for starting the conversation!

    2. Spurred by good food, if I remember correctly. See -- leisurely networking IS valuable! : )

    Going to conferences can help you form new ideas, or new approaches to your research and the way you interpret your results. New techniques appear particularly frequently in molecular genetics, and you can sometimes learn a new trick or more economic method that isn't yet in use in your lab. You can often come back refreshed and revitalised.

    Graham Wallis

  4. Mostly for the informal interaction. I prefer giving posters to talks because it gives more breathing room for questions, and more opportunities to make sure I know my own research :)

  5. Good day, Sir Mohamed. i am delighted to read this article. i totally agree that conferences allow each of us to explore more about our own chosen field. however, people nowadays have different priorities. i am a junior food scientist and personally i really wanted to join these conferences but alas, I am too dear poor to fund my own. especially on developing countries like our own. I wanted to go, and discover more than sitting in the class and listening to my professor's vintage lectures. someday, i know i ll be more open to it making more ways to save for it. this is the conference that i wanted to attend, if any would be interested from your group. but may be ill attend to it next year. the topics are so interesting that i also wanted to learn about it. but then, i can t go at this moment. thank you and God Bless..