Another Thing They Never Taught You in Grad School: How to Organize a Scientific Meeting

Fresh from surviving the slings and arrows of co-chairing the 42nd Annual Drosophila Research Conference, your intrepid authors step into a new field of cow patties to offer 10 hints on how to nurture a scientific conference.

Hint #1. It's not all about the Big Shots. Meetings should be all about inclusiveness. Although it is undeniable that in some fields a small number of laboratories make disproportionate contributions, many more groups still make important progress. You never know where the Next Big Thing will emerge. For the sake of the field's future, it is critical to nurture a broad base of interest. Work to achieve a balance between presentations from senior investigators or from established, high-visibility laboratories and presentations from new investigators or smaller labs.

Avoid scheduling talks that mirror discussions from the previous year, so as to include as many people as possible. We believe these policies have little or no negative impact on the quality of the science; in addition, making these policies widely known will help smooth ruffled feathers of those not chosen to talk. Choosing promising junior investigators as session chairs whenever possible helps introduce these younger scientists to the field as a whole, and it creates a new group with a stake in the success of the meeting.

If the meeting covers a broad swath of topics, it helps to assemble an organizing committee with diverse expertise to select speakers. But be warned that the principle organizers are at the point: It is their responsibility to protect the members of the larger committee from irate people who are upset about not getting selected.

In addition to considering scientific quality and demographics as just outlined, choose speakers whom you expect to give clear presentations. Inform invited speakers in writing of exactly what you expect of them: the time limits on their presentation and the subsequent discussion, the anticipated size of the audience, and the audiovisual devices that will be available. Though it may seem paternalistic, it never hurts to remind speakers to prepare high-quality visual aids that are legible and uncluttered.

Hint #2. Do not hold your conference in Ithaca, New York, during the middle of winter. We have nothing against Ithaca, and we even know a few seemingly sane scientists who live there and appreciate its bucolic pleasures. But the fact remains that there are people whose attendance at meetings is predicated on the venue. Indeed--shocking as it may seem--participants sometimes skip sessions to check out the local color. As a corollary, participants will be more likely to come to your meeting if they can actually get there. Thus, an interesting venue that is easily (and cheaply) accessible by air, or to which many participants can drive, is advantageous. Holding a meeting in the northeast United States during the winter is an invitation to nail-biting hours in front of The Weather Channel, or (perhaps) worse, endless hours at snowed in airports.

Hint #3. The bigger, the easier. There are many types and sizes of scientific meetings. Surprisingly, the amount of work for the organizing committee is often inversely correlated with meeting size. For example, although the Drosophila meeting we chaired had more than 1600 attendees, we were spared much pain and suffering because the meeting's infrastructure (such as registration, hotel accommodations, and audiovisual equipment) was handled by the highly professional staff at the Genetics Society of America. Another advantage of a large meeting is that the organizing committee cannot be expected to cater meals or arrange transportation for such a large crowd, saving enormous headaches.

Smaller meetings place greater demands on the organizers. When we organized small (~20-person) or medium-sized (100-person) meetings, we had to handle not only scientific issues, but also registration, abstract compilation and printing, the logistics of getting participants to the meeting, as well as feeding and housing participants in ways that respected their unique personal requirements. As an organizer of such a meeting, you may need to find a hotel that offers a "package deal" on rooms, and help participants find roommates to save on housing costs. (The more senior the participants, the less eager they will be to pair up and hear each other snore). A key decision revolves around food. Catered meals can augment the meeting if the food is decent and individual culinary needs are respected. On the other hand, many participants might rather walk to local restaurants to escape the hothouse. Schedule several coffee breaks each day. Leave most travel arrangements to individual participants, but be prepared to offer travel advice and arrange transport between a train station or airport and the meeting if your venue is out of the way.

Hint #4. Hop to it and start planning. For a large meeting, preparations should begin at least a year in advance, and even earlier if you need to secure space in a hotel in a desirable location. By approximately 6 months before the meeting, a preliminary program and all issues concerning meeting venue, hotel accommodations, food, etc. must be in place to provide potential participants sufficient advance notification. Abstracts must be in your hands approximately 3 to 4 months prior to the meeting, so you can choose platform talks. The program must be finalized 1 to 2 months prior to the meeting, to allow time for preparation and printing of an abstract book. A Web site for abstract submission is essential; it is even more useful if the electronic submissions include searchable fields to help you sort the abstracts and contact the authors.

Arrangements for smaller meetings can be done on a more expedited schedule. However, for such meetings not held on a regular basis you will still need to "lock in" some dazzling speakers about 6 months in advance to help publicize the meeting and to give everyone a chance to fit this in their schedules.

Hint #5. Poster presentations are not booby prizes. One of the most contentious issues facing organizers is the choice of platform speakers. Even with the guidelines above in Hint #1, feelings will be bruised. We believe this is one of the unfortunate consequences of a misguided lack of appreciation for poster sessions. Poster presentations can be at least as valuable as platform talks because of increased opportunity for communication. Poster sessions will obviously be more appreciated if they are set up in a prominent place with plenty of light and space. Posters should be kept up for as long as possible. It is essential to schedule formal times when the posters are "manned." Refreshments enhance poster sessions. Finally, larger meetings should include a mix of plenary talks, concurrent sessions, poster sessions, and informal workshops to maximize the chance that a presentation will find its optimal audience.

Hint #6. Lose your inhibitions and beg for money. Meetings are becoming increasingly expensive, and it will not hurt to defray the costs with external support. Government agencies have formal mechanisms for meeting support (see the National Institutes of Health Web site for NIH R13s). These applications must be submitted nearly a year before the meeting. The process can sometimes be expedited on an ad hoc basis, so if a meeting promotes the goals of a particular federal institute/program, call its program director to discuss this possibility. Private companies may be willing to support a meeting out of goodwill or in order to promote a product. This is most likely for larger meetings with many potential customers. Support might be easier to obtain if the donor company is awarded with some visibility--e.g., sponsoring refreshments at a particular session or distributing articles like briefcases stamped with the company logo and filled with brochures--rather than if the support simply represents another source of unrestricted funds. At larger meetings, fees can be charged to companies for booth space to display their products. The sale of T-shirts or other paraphernalia with the meeting logo can raise a small amount of money, though it is more useful from the standpoint of providing participants with memorabilia and an esprit de corps.

It is critical to decide at the outset what you would do with any external funds that you raise. With the exception of regularly scheduled, annual meetings, some funds probably need to be used to defray the expenses of high-profile speakers who might attract other participants. However, we disfavor the use of meeting funds to pay honoraria to these individuals; it will alter the event's tenor from a meeting between equals (well, near-equals anyway) to a lecture series. We strongly favor the idea of using outside funds to lower costs across the board for all participants and/or to help defray costs of participants who most need this help (graduate students or postdocs, or scientists from less wealthy countries). In any case, communicate clearly to all participants, including invited speakers, as early as possible about available support, to avoid misunderstandings.

Hint #7. Have mercy on your colleagues. We scientists are no doubt serious types, but even the most committed of us has to come up for air every now and then. "Downtime" is important, and is absolutely necessary for the informal interactions that can be the most valuable part of any meeting. Such downtime should not be relegated to obscure times like 5 a.m. Provide space where people can sit down and chat. It is helpful to supply a packet of information on nearby sights and restaurants. For medium/small meetings, an arranged excursion to an interesting nearby destination or a formal meal with entertainment can create a much-appreciated bonding experience; if anyone thinks your choice of such an event is puerile or uninteresting, that's their problem.

Hint #8. Even gods of science can't be in two places at once. Large meetings with concurrent sessions present particular scheduling problems. Try to ensure that sessions about topics that might interest the same group of people do not overlap. Allot sufficient time to change over rooms from one session to another. Unleash the majesty of your character and enforce time limits on talks ruthlessly; only in this way can participants move from session to session to hear the talks of specific interest to them. Try to be flexible at the outset, for example when scheduling desired plenary speakers, but once the schedule is set, don't futz with it. Be braced for a few last-minute cancellations; choose in advance a list of alternates whom you could contact on short notice.

Hint #9. Don't misuse your session chairs. In the majority of meetings we have attended, session chairmanships are honorary positions only rarely assigned to the organizers themselves. Avoid having a chair give a presentation in the session she is chairing. Meet with each chair prior to the session to make sure they understand their roles and are familiar with the audiovisual equipment and room. In larger meetings, session chairs are generally facilitators who introduce the speakers with a minimum of fuss and ensure that speakers repeat questions from the audience before answering. But at smaller meetings, or if time allows, session chairs can assume a more visible role as discussion leaders who can give a brief introduction to the topic and take a more active part in the discussion.

Hint #10. Miraculous modern labor saving devices make your job harder. It is unquestionably easier for participants to prepare presentations on their computers with software like PowerPoint, which makes it possible to incorporate movies and even sound effects into the talk. But several problems accompany this new technology. One major issue is compatibility between computers and the projection machinery. Many conferences ask speakers to bring their own computers loaded with their own software, and have speakers try out the display system prior to their session. This can work, but it also can result in painful transitions between speakers. We believe it is better for all speakers in a session to preload their presentations onto a single computer. A second serious problem for large meetings is the cost of the required equipment. Only very powerful projectors will suffice for large rooms. The cost of renting these devices can add thousands of dollars to the cost of the meeting. In any event, we recommend asking speakers to bring a lower-tech backup.

Many scientists feel totally lost without the security blanket of instant Internet access. Provide it if you can, to save your colleagues from unnecessary anxiety. Don't forget all the little necessities like extra bulbs for projectors, laser pointers, batteries, overhead projectors with transparencies and markers, microphones in large rooms, and everything else we have already forgotten but that you are already thinking about.

In conclusion, we recommend conference organizing to all scientists as a valuable once-in-a-lifetime experience. You may actually be able to arrange a meeting that turns out to be just the way you'd hoped! Other potential payoffs include the eternal gratitude of your colleagues and another line of print in your curriculum vitae. But be warned: These benefits will come only after the investment of a great deal of your energy.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The authors thank the members of the Scientific Organizing Committee for the 42nd Annual Drosophila Research Conference (our Cornell colleagues Drs. Chip Aquadro, David Deitcher, John Ewer, John Lis, and Ross MacIntyre) as well as Marsha Ryan and the staff of the Genetics Society of America for their invaluable help. We also found the advice at to be particularly useful when planning this conference, and we strongly urge anyone with the itch to organize a meeting of their own to consult this Web site.

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