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CoffeeTime Science: The Benefits of Attending Scientific Conferences

29th February 2016
By Guest Author

It’s not just about hitting the slopes.

Conferences image

I walk down the stairs to get my morning coffee. Katja and Narges are already there, Katja is pressing the milk button for the 5th time to get the right amount of foam. “How was skiing?” Narges asks me. I just got back from a Keystone conference in Colorado. “It was awesome!” “And the science?” “Also awesome!”

I have to admit, part of the lure of conferences such as the Keystone Symposia is the location and the fact that they give time off in between talks to go skiing. “You remember how many people complained about the fact that the last one was in Boston?” Katja remarks. She has a point. However, the other part of Keystone conferences in particular – and I am not just saying this to cover my back – is that they are always excellent scientifically as well. They are small enough to be focused, yet also large enough to mix with different groups of people and do a lot of networking. The talks are by leaders in the field, and the sessions are long enough to allow going into detail. “Also, the parties are usually a lot of fun,” Narges interjects. I don’t deny any of this. However, every time I have been to a Keystone meeting, I have thoroughly enjoyed the science, learned a great deal, met new people, had good discussions at my poster and felt reinvigorated and excited about my project. Being in the mountains, getting some exercise and socializing with colleagues probably also contributes to that! But why shouldn’t that be part of the conference experience?

It is probably true that quite a lot of people decide whether to go to conferences based on the location. I remember Grover* telling me how he went to AAI in Boston and Hawaii, but not in Pittsburgh. “AAI is massive, though,” Katja points out, “and the size of the meeting is really important, too. I often find very large meetings with many parallel sessions overwhelming, the talks are too short to allow detailed discussions, and most of the time you are running between sessions to catch the talks you are interested in only to find that the schedule is behind/ahead and you already missed half of it, or will miss the next one in a different parallel session, if you stay.”

Narges and I agree, the point of going to conferences is to learn about the latest developments in your field, present your work, network, and engage in scientific discussions and potentially meet new collaborators. So in theory, the location of this meeting should not matter. What should matter are the topic, the size, and the people who will be there. On the other hand, for most of us, going to conferences in nice places is one of the few perks we get in our job. We work long hours, earn less than anybody else with our level of education and training, and most of us have come to terms with the fact that we are unlikely to progress up the academic ladder.

“The other thing is that conferences are relatively expensive, and I know many postdocs who never had the opportunity to go because their PI would not pay for them,” Narges adds, “so in a way, the labs with more money are overrepresented at meetings, and maybe we are missing some good science and not meeting people that we should”.

Yes, conferences are expensive, especially to someone on a postdoc salary. In relation to a laboratory budget, however, especially one in the medical science, were a 100µl tube of antibody can cost $300, they are not that expensive (relatively speaking). Often the reasons for PIs not paying is not a “can’t” but a “won’t” and the reluctance to pay for your student/postdoc is not so much based on finances, but on time not spent in the lab, and the perception of paying for them to go on vacation. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. In my opinion, sending your students/postdocs to conferences is a valid investment in your staff and in your science, and is likely to boost both morale and productivity in your group upon their return. And if they get to do some skiing while they’re there, good for them!

*Fake name, as per usual.

Christine-palmerMy name is Christine, and I am an immunologist. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for myPhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for a second postdoc. Six years later, I’ve made Boston my permanent home, but I am currently on an 8-month sabbatical back in London, where I am learning new things at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before returning to Boston. In addition to doing research, I write a series of blogs about conversations and discussions I have had with other scientists, with topics ranging from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technologies and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments.

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