Why attend scientific meetings?

Attending scientific meetings is not a cheap enterprise. Neither in grant dollars (that might be better spent on supplies) nor in time (that might be better spent doing an experiment or writing up a paper). So why do it? Well, the overt reasons are pretty simple. First, to find out what other people in your field are working on and thinking about. Second, to tell the other people in your field what you are working on and thinking about.
This is the selfless and team-oriented aspect of science, the goal being to save everyone a little time and effort. Time that might be wasted between collecting the data and publishing the paper (conference presentations are often works-in-progress) during which the field would otherwise be ignorant of the results. Time that might be wasted going off in the wrong direction (your conference presentations solicit ideas and advice from your peers) or failing to pursue the most promising new avenues.
I've been pondering a slightly more....motivational aspect.


One of the best things about a good meeting experience is that you get absolutely fired up about your science. Now, some people (I won't mention any names) no doubt are an absolutely enthusiastic science wackaloon 24/7/52. Other people might find themselves distracted at times. Bogged down with institutional or personal obligations. Worried about funding or bad employees or protocol approvals or whatnot.
This all goes away at the meeting. Or it can if you take the right attitude. It should be like a scientific vacation where your main goal is to soak up science and forget about your job and the annoying parts of actually doing science.
And if you have a GoodMeeting, oh boy. The GoodMeeting is the one where everything just seems to be coming together. Everyone is finally doing the experiments you want to see done. Results are turning out just the way you'd predict. and yet, yet, there's a big wide crevasse left to cross and you, and only you, are the best possible engineer to build the bridge!
And could it be? At the same time the people holding the purse strings are talking about the importance of stuff that you find important? And are talking about issuing requests for applications on topics for which you have preliminary data? And have perhaps even already prepared a grant application?
And so you find yourself sketching out Aims at odd moments during the meeting. Planning experiments and sending them by email to the lab back home. Contacting the perfect set of collaborators that can really make your ideas sing. Heck, even doing that data analysis, comparison or arrangement that you just thought of that pulls together some "stuff you've been working on" into the story that you always knew would eventually emerge.
When you get back to the lab, do you tear around like a wackaloon, getting new experiments and collaborations going?
Then you had a GoodMeeting.

32 responses so far

  • Orac says:

    The flip side of the Good Meeting is the Bad Meeting. You know what I mean. It's the meeting where nothing seems new, nothing excites, and you leave feeling that you've seen it all before and that you didn't really learn anything of value. The Bad Meeting can depress me about my science every bit as much as the Good Meeting can pump me up.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Hey! Stop harshing my buzz!
    ...but yeah, I've had plenty of bad ones.

  • PhysioProf says:

    (1) When I am at a meeting, I am constantly Blackberrying trainees who are back in the lab, asking them about data and telling them experiments they need to do RIGHT NOW!!
    (2) You forgot the most important purpose of going to meetings: giving reacharounds to your colleagues.

  • tgfi says:

    BadMeetings are also the ones you get scooped. And GoodMeetings are also about free stuff! šŸ™‚

  • S. Rivlin says:

    If one can afford to be selective about the meetings one attends, one can avoid the bad meetings. Clearly, the firing-up one gets attending a good meeting is the best reward. And of course, seeing all your buddies you have'nt seen since the last meeting is a bonus.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    If one can afford to be selective about the meetings one attends, one can avoid the bad meetings.
    hmm. Well, I tend to go to a fairly fixed set of meetings. Some years they are good, some bad. For me anyway. No doubt when I think the meeting is great others are bored and vice versa.
    And one meeting that I was thinking was absolutely a complete waste of time for 3-4 years running suddenly got really interesting, basically because the leadership changed.
    So nothing is fixed with respect to a given meeting.

  • giving reacharounds to your colleagues
    I'm not totally sure what a "reacharound" is but I think some old guy at a recent meeting may have tried to give me one.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    In general, small meetings that are focused on your specific field of research have better chance of coming out as GoodMeeting. Because of their size, they tend to be more expensive. That is what I meant by "if one can afford..."

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I think the social aspect is very important. Meeting old friends and making new friends who have a shared interest. Meetings I regularly attended had a lot of beer drunk, and interesting field trips. I attended a meeting where I was an invited speaker. There was one person there, other than the meeting organizer, who knew who I was. I was glad when that meeting was over.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And of course, seeing all your buddies you have'nt seen since the last meeting is a bonus.
    I think the social aspect is very important. Meeting old friends and making new friends who have a shared interest. Meetings I regularly attended had a lot of beer drunk, and interesting field trips.
    Wait..what? You guys just go to meetings to go skiing and get wasted with your old friends? Well. I never.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    My wife, a musician, after attending her first meeting with me, described an evening event thusly, "They drank beer and talked loudly to each other about fish. They were just so happy!"

  • Piled Higher, Deeper says:

    My wife, a musician, after attending her first and last meeting with me, described
    fixed that for you...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Drugmonkey, if the conclusions about your scientific results are done the same way you conclude your conclusion from my post that I go to meetings just for skiing, then you should be careful not to include them in your next grant proposal or the discussion section of your next paper.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    'k. what do you do with your 'buddies' then? and why is it more important to have 'buddies' over, say, colleagues working in the most relevant fields?
    does this have something to do with that Old Boys Network stuff? tell us more!!!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    My buddies are my colleagues. We are buddies because we share the same scientific interests, while many times not agreeing on issues, which makes spending time with them both interesting and stimulating. I'm not really sure what do you mean by "Old Boys Network. I am a lone wolf where my science is concerned, chiefly, because the NIH does not funds brilliant ideas such as mine!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    oh, c'mon now Dr. Prof Riv. 'fess up.
    Let us in on the sekrit way to establish total field domination via drinking with pals at scientific meetings.

  • PhysioProf says:

    It's all about the reacharounds!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    My buddies are my colleagues. We are buddies because we share the same scientific interests, while many times not agreeing on issues, which makes spending time with them both interesting and stimulating. I'm not really sure what do you mean by "Old Boys Network. I am a lone wolf where my science is concerned, chiefly, because the NIH does not funds brilliant ideas such as mine!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Sorry for the double posting. What field domination are you talking about? Drinking has never been my thing: I am a naturalized American, I wasn't born here, where drinking begins at home, and continues through high school, college and DUIs, and in the best case, ends up in AA meetings.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Actually, my wife has gone with me to several meetings over the years. A fair number of wives come along and there are events and trips for wives. She knows a number of my colleagues and their wives so she is comfortable in the group. She sometimes has other friends and her colleagues in the area whom she can visit.
    However, I've only been to one Hymn Society meeting, in Vancouver. I fly model airplanes as a hobby, so I made connections for one of the guys to pick me up and take me out for a flying session. Even so, I still got to meet the President of the Japanese Hymn Society. I had e-mailed him some things for my wife when she was out of town. I've occasionallly gone along when she did recital trips to intersting places, and she has been down to Venezuela with me several times. As we speak, I am batching as my wife is gone for a week to the American Guild of Organists meeting in Minneapolis.

  • This is the selfless and team-oriented aspect of science, the goal being to save everyone a little time and effort. Time that might be wasted between collecting the data and publishing the paper (conference presentations are often works-in-progress) during which the field would otherwise be ignorant of the results. Time that might be wasted going off in the wrong direction (your conference presentations solicit ideas and advice from your peers) or failing to pursue the most promising new avenues.
    ******************
    Works-in-progress??? Wish I was in your field. In the sub-field I am in, the top labs never discuss anything unless it is either published or soon to be published. In the latter case, some time is saved, especially when directly competing. Wish it was more like you describe; far closer to my ideal of scientific exchange. You can learn what everyone is up to but you have to read between the lines. The smaller labs usually are more open, getting helpful comments but always with the risk of a big lab deciding to publish sooner on the subject matter.

  • David Marjanović says:

    In vertebrate paleontology at least, it is strongly recommended to talk only about stuff that is accepted for publication. I know a case where a thesis was, as far as can be told, scooped (in a very superficial way) by someone who had busily made notes during the talk on the thesis.

  • Tilsim says:

    Jim Thomerson sez:
    'A fair number of wives come along and there are events and trips for wives.'
    Events for the wives of the scientists of course... any scientists who happen to be wives will have to endure listening to the papers šŸ™‚
    Husbands of scientists typically do not attend as there are no fun events for them.

  • Along these lines: I found my wife (or, more appropriately she found me) at a scientific meeting. It must have been my data.

  • drdrA says:

    Abel-
    LOL.
    I now know of three couples that met at scientific meetings- giving match.com a run for their money...

  • - says:

    I feel meetings were mostly silly. It's a lot of jet fuel, hotel bookings and meetings registration, poster-making, wandering bleary-eyed through posters, and mainly seeing work that very well may not make it any further than a poster. Yes, there is an increased chance of learning a little something about your field during those days, but is it worth it all? There are scientific articles, after all (and you can take the time to digest those).
    If on the other hand you state outright that it is an all-expenses paid trip to get you out of your lab for a few days, to a touristic city or nice locale, and a chance to hang out with old buddies, well, then at least you're being honest. But that reason doesn't motivate me to go to meetings--if I want a vacation I'll take one.

  • PhysioProf says:

    poster-making, wandering bleary-eyed through posters, and mainly seeing work that very well may not make it any further than a poster.

    If you are a PI, you are making a very big mistake hanging around posters with grad students and post-docs. As I pointed out above, you need to be hanging out with other PIs giving them reacharounds.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Here are two examples from my own experience in scientific meetings that greatly influenced my scientific endeavors over the years and surely help me grasp better the enterprise of science.
    My first experience was having the honor and luck of meeting the late Prof. Ephraim Racker who, upon my asking him a question after his planary lecture responded: "Young man, see me at the end of the Q & A session and we'll talk". He spent 25 minutes with me, asking questions about my research, giving me advice and answering my own questions. On my return to the lab after the meeting, not only I found his advice priceless, the outcome of the experiments that I discussed with him, which he encouraged me to follow through despite some roadblocks, provided the thrust that led me to complete my Ph.D. thesis.
    My second experience was when I met Prof. Julius Axelrod, the Nobel Laureate, who, just like Racker, took the time to sit with me, to listen and to provide advice and suggestions.
    Scientific meetings in which examplary scientists are invited to participate and spend time with the other speakers and participants cannot be replaced with just reading scientific papers. The value of a meeting where, due to discussions with other participants and observing their own scientific work, an idea is being evoked in you that revolutionize your own scientific work cannot be measured with the price of jet fuel and lodging.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Scientific meetings in which examplary scientists are invited to participate and spend time with the other speakers and participants cannot be replaced with just reading scientific papers. The value of a meeting where, due to discussions with other participants and observing their own scientific work, an idea is being evoked in you that revolutionize your own scientific work cannot be measured with the price of jet fuel and lodging.
    All joking around aside, what Sol said. Yes there are going to be meetings that fail to be much good. And schlepping your way through SfN's stadium-o-posters may not ever be much good. But my advice to trainees is to find one or two smaller meetings that are most relevant to your intended or most obvious scientific career directions and stick with them.
    Inspirations and opportunities strike unexpectedly and, as I was saying in the original post, scientific meetings can improve the odds of everything coming together at once.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM,
    For years members of the SfN are wondering how long this huge aggregate of disciplines can continue to have its annual meetings without breaking apart. I joined the society when the number of members was approaching 5,000. Even then they were anticipating its collapse. Yet, today membership exceeds 30,000 and growing. One of the reasons is the ability of each participant to select among all posters and oral presentations the ones that attract her, while also having the opportunity to venture into discipline(s) different from hers. The proof that even huge scientific meetings can be valuable is the persistence of the SfN annual meeting and the participation in them of the greatest neuroscientists year after year. Thus, the SfN annual meeting is probably an exception to the rule of BigMeeting=BadMeeting.

  • juniorprof says:

    Got to say that I love SFN. Yeah its big but its big in a small sort of way. They consistently do a good job of grouping the themes and the platform presentations always cover a nice variety of topics. The plenaries are generally great too. Where else can you get those kinds of talks all in one place? I go to some small ones that I enjoy greatly but nothing compares to SFN. Can't miss it.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    Conferences are also a great place to get work. My postdoc was the direct result of a conference talk I gave: The Monday morning after the meeting, the session chair phoned me and offered me a job.
    The funny thing is that I wasn't actively looking for work; the conference was in my Granddad's home town. He said he'd come along and I wanted to look good for him, as he was the first scientist in the family.

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