Radio Freethinker

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The Amazing (Bioinorganic Chemistry) Meeting

Posted by Jenna Capyk on August 15, 2011

As I sip my luke-warm coffee and straighten my notebook, I can’t help but notice the vague aura of hang-over clinging to my colleagues walking into the lecture hall. I am not, as you might think, in an undergrad class following a holiday weekend, but rather attending an academic research conference with some of the top minds from around the globe. That’s right folks, pick up your programs, study those abstract books, and polish your poster presentation. It’s time for the science conference play by play!

I came to research science four years ago as all undergraduates do: with a fuzzy understanding that I would perform bench work, publish papers, lose my personal grooming skills, and some day stand in a funny hat to accept a graduate degree. One of the tasks/treats/academic trials that I was not aware of was the International Research Meeting. These academic get-togethers are where scientists from all over the planet converge upon a single university (or resort in the best cases) to meet, greet, schmooze, drink, and give impossibly condensed presentations on their life’s work. Each meeting has a topic that can run the gambit of generality, depending upon the number of delegates expected. This is not to say, however,  that there is anything so general that a truly “general audience” could make heads or tails of it; in truth talks in my own field often soar high above my own head. Each meeting also has a program of talks, social events, and poster sessions stretching over anywhere from two to five days. With all of these scientific proceedings and pseudo-scientific social responsibilities, navigating a scientific conference can be an experience rife with professional rewards, intellectual stimulation, and the odd personal trauma.

Let’s first consider the conference program. For bigger meetings, there are often more than one session of talks happening at the same time in adjacent rooms. Four or five speakers discussing semi-related subject matter will be slated to speak sequentially in a single session lasting a couple of hours. The first panicked series of questions naive delegate might ask of themselves: “Is this like a movie theatre? Do I have to pick one and stick with it? Will I lose my seat if I have to dash to the bathroom? Is coffee REALLY not allowed in the lecture hall?” Some more experienced delegates, although few might admit it, might also be asking: “Did my boss see me fall asleep just now? Are all the ‘cool grad students’ in the other session? Is this the coffee left over from yesterday?” Probably the most perplexing questions arising from this scenario are often: “Should I be sitting in this session or am I missing something I should be listening to else-where?” and more importantly, “What the heck is this guy talking about?”

Both the problem and the benefit to these meetings is the density of cutting edge research. I’ve been in situations where any one of the talks would have tickled the biochemist inside me straight to a higher energy orbital. They are jammed so closely together, however, that I come out of the meeting like coming out of a dream: remembering many details but having much of what I would like to retain seep directly into my subconscious. Again analogous to dreams, this effect can be very effectively countered by taking very rapid, variably detailed notes. This not only serves to remind a delegate of the finer points of what’s being presented, but is also a potent method for remaining awake. I find filling in gaps in the presentation with notes such as “that guy over there just picked his nose” are particularly effective for sustaining consciousness.

Perhaps an equally important component to research meetings is the socializing. I don’t mean this in the “being social helps personal growth” vein that might be applicable for keg-guzzling undergrads, but rather that networking within the scientific community can make or break a scientist’s career. You might assume this is due completely to politics for peer review and grant panels, but fruitful collaborations and resource sharing are also vital consequences of these types of interactions. Inter-scientist chats about, tangential to, or entirely unrelated to the the science at hand are so important that these events tend to be built directly into the conference program. A great example is the catered (and cash bar) poster session. Although everyone is milling around, reading and discussing everyone else’s  newest findings, the connections built at these types of events on a personal level can often be the nucleation point for valuable partnerships inside the scientific community. This doesn’t mean, however, that all socialization takes place under the watchful eye of Mother Science. As any researcher will attest to, the pub is as good a place as any to forge lasting relationships within the research community. As someone at my last meeting groggily informed me of an adjacent table of colleagues the night before: “They sent us shots, we sent them pitchers, we all ended up making a night of it and I’m sure glad the talks this morning are interesting.”

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