I recently attended one of the largest conferences in my field, the Keystone meeting on NR in Whistler, British Columbia. The venue was gorgeous, there was even snowfall on the last night. In our group, the rule for conference attendance is that you can go if you have interesting data to present. This meant the newest members of the labs didn’t have enough data to justify the (very high) cost of the trip. Most of us were able to go though – our advisor, staff scientist, two postdocs, and I attended. Our advisor was selected to give a short talk, which focused on our most recent Nature paper and some unpublished work. Because the abstracts for talks and posters were published online in advance, it was effective advertising to get people to come to our posters. I was amazed by some of the big-name scientists that stopped by my poster, including one whose work was cited on my poster. I was star-struck for a second! A few people came by to ask about expanding my research into other tissues, since I presented my recent findings on the regulation of Citrate Synthase, an enzyme involved in glucose utilization and lipid synthesis, in liver tissue. One of the best parts about presenting a poster is getting a chance to discuss future experiments with people who are unbiased to your research. I didn’t have a pen and paper with me, although I should have, so I typed some of the suggestions into my iPhone’s notepad in between visitors to my poster. I also attended all of the talks, including the afternoon hot topics (which most people skip to go skiing). I figured this conference would be a great opportunity to identify potential postdoc positions, so every afternoon I bought a diet soda in the store across the street in case I needed a little caffeine. I know it’s more traditional to switch fields for a postdoc, but I do really enjoy nuclear receptor biology. There are pros and cons of staying in the same field and switching to a new field, so it’s a choice I’ll have to consider as I go on interviews and start making the hard decisions. I heard a couple talks that were really exciting, but I had unanswered questions. I tracked down the presenter during the poster sessions to talk science. Asking questions in front of a couple hundred people makes me nervous, unless I’m absolutely certain that my question is a worthwhile question and not just my misunderstanding. I did ask two questions during the conference, one each at the hot topics and plenary sessions. My question at the plenary session was complimented by one of my labmates for being a “very thoughtful question” – it referenced a paper from our group and integrated knowledge of other receptors that could influence the interpretation of the data presented. I took it as a sign of positive growth as a scientist, which made me feel really good. I feel like I gained so much from this experience, much more than the last Keystone meeting. I felt more confident in presenting in my poster and talking science with others. I had the chance to talk to some of the same people as last time, as well as meeting several new people, including some who knew my published work and recognized my name. I must say that was pretty awesome! I never actually think about anyone reading my work, so it caught me by my surprise when someone said she recognized my name from my papers on circadian rhythms. I also realized how SMALL the world really is – I met a girl who is friends with a member of my NWIS group, who doesn’t work on nuclear receptors. I guess that six degrees of separation thing might just be true!
As a student, here is some advice that I would offer to other students preparing for a conference:
(1) If you’re presenting data that was recently published, have the citation on/near your poster. If you have the chance, print a few copies that you could hand out to interested visitors.
(2) Take notes during the talks. Write down questions too. I find these active listening techniques help keep me awake during the longer sessions. Also, when I do want to approach the mic to ask a question in front of everyone, I feel less nervous when I have the question written down. I can look down at it if I get stage-fright.
(3) Business cards might be a good idea, especially if you’re actively looking for a position. I didn’t have them, but I think they would have been helpful to have for the poster visitor that wanted to collaborate. Luckily, my advisor was nearby, so they got to talk. I can look up participants’ email addresses in the program booklet though, so all hope is not lost of losing contact with that visitor!
(4) Have a pen and paper with you at all times. Suggestions for your project can come at any time – poster sessions, meal-times, etc. The notepad feature on a smartphone will work too, if you’re proficient in typing quickly and can avoid getting distracted by apps when you touch your smartphone.
(5) Apply for any travel awards that your program might offer. The cost of attending a conference can be quite high. Your boss will appreciate the help defraying the cost and the travel award will look nice on your CV.
(6) Follow-up with people you met after the conference! If you want to maintain network connections, it takes work. A quick email to start a conversation can go a long way.