Organising a Conference, Part 1

"Does our budget cover reimbursement of Mars bars?"

"Let me check sentence 4.6 of clause 7, chargeable items under section 5 of ... ."

This wasn?t the sort of conversation we would ever have expected to be having approximately 1 year after the EMBL PhD Student Symposium on Evolution was first conceived. At that time, thoughts revolved around how to bring the Pope and Richard Dawkins together in the same place, as well as the possibility of incorporating a good party and reminding people of the relevance of evolution to anyone interested in life as we know it. Some enthusiastic feedback after the conference now confirms that we achieved at least one of those goals. Additionally, we learned some hard lessons in organisational management and European bureaucracy in the process.

The symposium was the second in what appears to be becoming an annual series of meetings organised by PhD students from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory ( EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. Our organising team shook out at 12 students, all working on different subjects in molecular biology. The two in the group who had some experience in evolution research were able to steer things in roughly the right direction, but our different scientific interests--and the fact that there were no established reputations at stake (at least not ours)--gave us a good framework to put together an interesting, if perhaps somewhat eclectic, programme.

The focus was on molecular evolution, but a number of speakers on the topics of experimental and cultural evolution reminded us of the broad scope of the subject. This diversity, together with the fact that our target audience wasn?t necessarily expected to specialise in the theme of the symposium, was a formula that had worked well for another group of students in the first EMBL PhD symposium, "From Genes to Thoughts", a meeting on neuroscience.

Our first organisational meetings were pretty frenzied as we got our wish list of speakers down on paper. It was only once our letters of invitation were winging their way to scientists in many corners of Europe and North America that our thoughts turned to the more practical task of how on earth to get the speakers to Heidelberg--money had to come from somewhere. A barrage of begging letters was aimed at all the lab-supply firms and pharmaceutical companies we could get hold of a contact address for.

Unfortunately, despite our attempted transformation from disorganised students into responsible, business-minded people, evolution didn?t seem to come across to potential sponsors as much of a money-spinning topic, and so our budget remained quite primitive. But once we started selling the fact that a lot of the participants would be molecular biologists with an inherent interest in all kinds of brightly coloured rotating/vibrating/beeping lab equipment, the sponsorship started to roll in--in return for a display stand or advertising during the meeting. Sponsorship in the form of library books or free meeting announcements didn?t ease our immediate worries of keeping the travel agent at bay, but it was certainly gratefully received.

A couple of months into the planning, our attention was drawn to grants awarded by the European Commission aimed specifically at meetings involving young researchers. Apparently in with a fair chance, we battled through the imposing application form, applying a good sprinkling of ?European added value? and promises of ?enhanced scientific integration?. And although the elaborate diagram we included to describe our ?management structure? may have been close to a work of fiction at the time, it did turn out to be a good model on which to base our organisation.

Buzzwords aside, the grant application procedure was very useful in that it forced us to justify our plans on paper. Working to a budget (particularly when we didn?t know what it was exactly!), managing to remember the decisions we?d come up with during meetings, and respecting each other?s opinions and responsibilities were amongst the most valuable skills we developed during the organisation of the symposium. We had no doubt about the relevance and potential of the meeting, but the ample grant we eventually received from the European Commission certainly increased our confidence and--perhaps more importantly--that of our superiors.

Although the meeting was to last only for 2 days with a total of 14 speakers, we spent a lot of discussion time organising the programme. The 11 September 11 attacks occurred 2 months before the symposium was due to take place. Facing cancellations by three of our speakers as a result, we realised that the impact of tragic global events had filtered down to our level. The meeting seemed to be falling apart, but after some hurried phone calls we were lucky enough to convince three new speakers to fill in.

With the programme almost settled, we got down to more practical matters; scientific articles were rapidly replaced by bus timetables, menus, and abstract book layouts. Discussions on how we should be recognised as organisers during the meeting--special T-shirts? Badges? Going naked and shouting ?organiser? every 5 minutes?--were perhaps a sign that we were being driven crazy by minute details. It was time for a break. Equipped with stacks of papers and bags of pasta, the 12 of us packed off to a friend?s holiday home in Belgium. A couple of days in the Ardennes discussing the evolutionary value of petrified human excrement might not come across as the most thrilling way to spend a weekend (no disrespect to Belgium), but it gave us some relaxed time together and did a lot to restore our enthusiasm for the meeting. In between delicate and lengthy negotiations over what to eat for dinner, we presented summaries of each speaker?s main research interests. As the weekend passed, we happily realised that the scientists we?d invited were doing some brilliant research. We didn?t understand all of it, but the point of the symposium was to learn something new after all.

The major part of the organisation was now out of the way, but that didn?t stop the days running up to the symposium from being extremely hectic. Our nerves and anticipation were at fever pitch. In a few days time we would find out whether all the work over the last year had been worth it. ...

Editor?s Note: Please check back next week, when we?ll publish Part 2 of this series, in which the authors will tell us how the symposium went and offer their advice on organising a meeting yourself.

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