Conferencing 101


Visiting the Ben and Jerry's Factory (and tasting many flavors!) during conference breaks. Visiting the Ben and Jerry's Factory (and tasting many flavors!) during conference breaks. [Photo credit: Dr. Cjestmir V. de Boer]
Visiting the Ben and Jerry’s Factory (and tasting many flavors!) during conference breaks. Visiting the Ben and Jerry’s Factory (and tasting many flavors!) during conference breaks. [Photo credit: Dr. Cjestmir V. de Boer]

VTSuN was represented at the latest Gordon Research Conference on Environmental Nanotechnology, last week in Stowe, Vermont. The conference theme was “Novel Approaches to Meet Global Challenges”. It was an excellent opportunity for researchers studying the environmental implications and applications of nanotechnology. The VTSuN Director, Mike Hochella participated in a lively debate on opening night. The discussion was about the “Evolution of Nanoscale Structures in the Environment”. He took the approach that “Nano isn’t New” versus Mike Spencer‘s “Nano is Novel” opinion.

I also represented VTSuN at this conference, by presenting a poster entitled “Release of silver from children’s consumer products enhanced with nanoparticles”. This poster was one of 6 honored in the student/postdoc poster competition and it covers a topic that was very near and dear to my heart during my PhD work, but I will talk about it in more detail in a future blog post. This time, I’d like to talk a little bit about conferencing.

Gordon Conferences are very special because they usually have smaller attendance (usually 200 or less, compared to 500 to 20,000 or more people at a regular conference), so you have more one-on-one time with some important people in your field, but also because there is usually only one track of broadly-themed talks. This is very different from usual format for conferences and meetings, where you get to (or have to) choose from multiple sessions running in parallel, mostly composed of short, technically intensive talks. It’s nice to have options, but you often miss out on a lot of interesting things as well.

Another cool thing I experienced in this Gordon Conference was the fact that everyone was staying in the same location and eating every meal together during a longer-than-usual period of time, so the conference felt more like a retreat. It was easier than usual to meet new people. Yes, we scientists also have to meet people on occasion. I don’t really like the term “networking” because it gives a less genuine connotation to these exchanges (“I’m talking to you because I’m only interested in the stuff you do”). But I guess networking is what we do, and, boy is it important. Nanoscience and nanotechnology would be nowhere near where it is if it wasn’t for the interdisciplinary interactions and collaborations between chemists, engineers, material scientists, biologists and toxicologists, geoscientists, and many, many others. And it’s thanks to places like this that cross-pollination between these fields is even possible.

If I were asked to give advice to a new conference goer, I think these would be my main tips:

Network. I don’t have much advice here as I’m definitely not a networking wiz, but you should try to meet at least a couple of new people every time you go to a conference. Sit at a different meal table each day. If you are attending in a large group from your university, avoid at all cost to hang out with them all day, except for one or two moments during the day. Basically, don’t be clicky. It doesn’t become you as a scientist. Also, be on the lookout for “the lonely student” sent from a different university and invite them to join your group for social activities.

Don’t be scared to ask questions. It’s nice to finally link faces to all those names you’ve been seeing in the scientific literature. This is the one place you can get an answer from someone whose work you’ve been reading. If the presentation needs clarification, or if the talk leads to broader questions in the area, voice it. Whether you are a student or a tenured professor, your question will be addressed equally.

Take notes. If you’re a note-taking kind of person, that goes without saying. I often feel like I’m in class when I’m at a conference, and I learn better by writing. I obviously won’t write every little thing that is said, as if I would be tested on it, but I write more on talks that interest me more, and sometimes nothing at all when the subject is only mildly applicable to my work. Even if I never go back to those particular notes, they already served their purpose in helping me learn better.

Choose wisely. As I mentioned above, some conference have multiple tracks of talks going on at the same time. As much as you feel that you should support your colleague (or advisor) by watching their talk, don’t. Hopefully you already know a lot about their work because they gave a practice talk to your group before the conference. Use your time to listen to other talks instead. And, this is important: Try to divide your time between talks that are directly related to your current research and talks that are only vaguely related to your work, but that interest you personally. That’s where a lot of good research ideas are born.

Take advantage of the poster sessions. They are often underestimated. This is when research that is currently being performed is up for discussion. You get a lot more attention from the presenter and you can really share your ideas with them, rather than just ask questions, as you would in an oral presentation.

Don’t over-think your clothes. This varies a lot from conference to conference, from field to field, and from country to country. For example, if you go to any conference in Brazil (my homeland), don’t be surprised by the amount of people wearing suits. Brazilians like to dress up; it’s a cultural thing. At most science conferences in the US, however, I’ve been surprised by the casualty of the attendees (jeans!). As a woman, for example, I noticed that knit cardigans are largely more popular than blazers.

Enjoy your conference!


About the Author: 

Nina Quadros is the Associate Director for VTSuN: Virginia Tech’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and a postdoctoral associate of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) at Virginia Tech.

Update [2 Sep 2014] Nina Quadros has recently changed her name to Marina Vance

On twitter@marinavance



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