I love conferences- I have always enjoyed learning and listening about new science, so to be able to have a few days devoted to science and hearing about the science happening in other labs across the world is amazing.
Conferences are a really important part of PhD life- as they get you networking, and talking about your science to others. I have been lucky enough to attend a huge variety of conferences over the last 3 years- from the student run NoCASS at the John Innes Centre, to the Annual Science Meeting based in Norwich, to International conferences like Solgenomics.
Most recently I went to Valencia, along with half of my lab group, to the joint Solanacea and Curcubitaceae conference. This conference is based upon the Solanaceous plant group (Tomatoes, Potatoes, Aubergines..) and Curcubitaceae (the gourd family), and attracts plant scientists working on Solanaceous plants from across the world.
When I first started my PhD I had absolutely no idea what a conference entailed, so I thought I would show you some of what happens at a conference!
Day 1 AM:
Depending on where you conference is you may or may not have a lot of travelling to do. I do not like travelling at all- it really stresses me out, with taxis to the airport, and connecting flights- I just am not a fan. Before travelling out remember a few things to avoid any stress:
- If you are taking a poster in a bag/ suitcase get a FABRIC poster- these crumple way less, and you can iron them out if needed. You don’t want to be hanging up a super crumpled poster.
- Get passports, visas and money sorted out way in advance. These things may take longer to sort out than you had thought! Some conferences have loads of food- some do not. Make sure you have enough money to buy food if needed.
- Check the luggage restrictions on your flight.
Day 1 PM
Time to chill out- drop the luggage at the hotel, and head to the city for some food!
Day 2: First day of the conference
The first day of the conference this year was a evening only affair. My lab had another meeting to attend all day, but for those lucky enough, conference attendees had some extra time off to explore the city.
In the evening we checked in to the conference and collected a welcome pack (with conference agenda), before heading to the plenary talk. The first day of the conference is normally quite chilled out- often you can be launched straight into talks, but for this conference we just had a plenary talk and a cocktail party!
These welcome parties can be pretty intimidating with the prospect of heading straight in and mingling with other scientists! But, as we are a large lab, there were quite a few of us at the party and it ended up being a nice relaxed evening.
Day 3: The first full day
We had a super full agenda- 8am until 8pm every day. When faced with this sort of heavy schedule don’t feel like you have to go to EVERY single talk- our supervisor actually advised us against it. Your brain just can not last that long! I suggest having a look at the schedule the night before and highlighting the talks you just HAVE to see- if in one of the other sessions you need a break- take it.
Most of the time talks are organised into distinct sessions, where several speakers give presentations about their work. The norm is a 15-20 minute talk plus questions (however this can sometimes be longer if the speaker over runs!). I try ad take notes in all the talks- even if it is on a subject area I am not so interested in- I find that this helps me stay focused and prevents my thoughts drifting off.
During the talks I also check out the twitter feed- most conferences will now have a hashtag associated with it, and many scientists will live tweet during the conference (ours was #SolCuc2017) . This is a great way to see what other scientists are thinking, and communicate and interact with others whilst at the conference.
After all the talks for the day were finished it was time for the poster session. Most conferences will have a poster session open to all students- when registering for a conference you submit an abstract (for poster and/or talk)- you may be selected to give a talk, or to present a poster. Either way, this is a great opportunity to show your work to others.
Poster sessions can be hard work- you have to stand with your poster for the whole session, and you can feel out of place just standing there… but it is all worth it when you get to talk to someone who is interested about your work. This is a great opportunity to get some practise in science communication, and through your discussions you may also learn some interesting things that you can consider for future work.
Tip: Put effort in to your poster! So many people leave the poster to the last minute- and you can tell. A good poster will attract more people to come and look at your work and talk to you- so it is worth making it as good as you can!
Day 4: Second day
Another full day of talks with added excitement! Our lab was lucky enough to have a few members giving talks at the conference, which was amazing- and it was great to be able to support our colleagues and friends. On this day, my fellow PhDer got to present at his first ever conference- a hectic thing to do in a room so full of prominent scientists!
At the end of another full day of conferencing and yet another poster session, we had a congress dinner. This was a ‘pay extra’ addition for us mere student attendants at the conference, but the opportunity to go for a meal in a conference setting as a full lab couldn’t be missed! After finishing the meal at 12am, I finally slunk back to the hotel and sank into my bed.
Day 5: Final day at the conference
This day was much the same format as the previous 2 for the beginning of the day. But, after 11am the conference split into a new format: a series of parallel sessions on different topics. This was a cool idea- meaning that other more niche areas could also be talked about at the conference, and you could pick and choose which sessions were most relevant to you.
I took the opportunity at this stage to switch over from hearing about tomato based research, to something a little different. There will most likely be talks given which do not directly relate to your research area- however, it is still worth going to them and learning about work outside of your field of work.
The final part of the conference was devoted to 3 minute presentations by early career scientists whose poster had been nominated as the best of the best. Most conferences tend to have a poster competition of some description, these can range from simply prizes for the best posters, to the opportunity to speak of your work. At this particular conference, 20 students with the best posters were selected by a panel of judges, and given the opportunity to present their work to a auditorium-full of scientists in under 3 minutes. This is no easy task!
The judges then congregated again and following the presentations, chose 2 people to win the poster competition! Our lab was super proud to find that one of our very own PhD students had been selected to give a talk… and were even prouder when we found she had won the prize!
And with the award of best poster being given- the conference was over! Three extremely full days of amazing Science were over, and it was time to say goodbye to Solgenomics.
- Don’t feel you have to go to every single talk
- Take the opportunity to talk to other scientists- it may be intimidating, but it is worth it
- Support your fellow scientists- love that talk? Spread it via twitter!
- Go look at all the posters- even if the science area is not your area of interest you can still get insight from them: look at posters you like and how they display their work- this may help for your future posters.
- Getting distracted in a talk? take the opportunity to think about what made you distracted- could you learn techniques for your own presentations from this? Good and bad talks can be learnt from.
- Had a really long day? If you need a early night, have it- no one is going to judge you! It is well known that conferences are extremely tiring, if you need a bit of time to yourself and a good nights sleep have it!
- If you are in a new place, make the most of it! Take a few extra days to explore the area, go have dinner out- get the most out of the experience.
- Enjoy the conference!