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The Scientific Conference Guide (Or, How to Make the Most of Your Free Holiday)

Love them or hate them, conferences are an inescapable part of the rich tapestry of scientific life. They can be career- and motivation-enhancing experiences, leaving you buzzing with new ideas, contacts, and collaborations. Alternatively they can be dull as ditchwater, leaving you with the sinking feeling that you've just paid over 500 quid for the privilege of napping the week away in a velvet-upholstered hellhole. With the summer conference season fast approaching, I present some tips to help you get the most from what is, underneath it all, a free holiday.

The Talks

I'm sure I don't need to tell you that it's a good idea to take a notebook to a conference. It's also equally important to remember to actually write in it, especially if your boss is expecting you to give a meeting report upon your return. Conferences can lead to some very productive experimental ideas, provided you can decipher your scribbled shorthand after the meeting.

Notebooks are also excellent for doodling in during particularly boring talks, or exchanging notes and playing noughts and crosses with your neighbour. However, unflattering cartoons of the speakers or small-scale renderings of the works of Van Gogh on every other page might be a bit of a give-away that you weren't exactly paying a great deal of attention to the presentations. Some preemptive scanning of the abstract booklet can help with that. There's no point sitting through a talk that is obviously not going to be relevant or interesting when you could be checking out the posters, networking with the other skivers, or shopping.

Get Stuck In

At some big meetings you get the feeling that you can only ask a question after a talk if you are a group leader, or have something terribly clever to say. Because of this, many bright-but-shy young scientists never ask anything. Buck the trend, and get stuck into the discussion! Do make sure you were actually concentrating for at least 80% of the talk, though. There's nothing more likely to make you feel an inch tall than firing off your killer question only to see the speaker flick back a few slides and say "As I showed you here. ..."

Another traumatic experience can be to get to the microphone, open your mouth, and find you have completely forgotten what you wanted to ask. A good trick is to jot your questions in your notebook as you think of them during the talk. If you're an insecure soul, practise asking questions in small meetings and departmental seminars before going for it at a big international conference. I was so nervous at one high-powered meeting that by the time I asked my question it came out sounding really aggressive. I was mortified when people came up to me later in the bar saying, "Wow! You really tore a strip off Professor X in there."

Finally, there's not much you can do when you have the perfect question all ready to ask and some big-shot asks it first. At least you can sit back in the smug knowledge that you thought of it too.

Poster Poseurs

Intrinsic to any conference is the phenomenon of the poster session. This can go one of two ways. Either your poster is a great hit and you spend the whole time cornered in front of it, spouting the same patter for hours on end, unable to see anyone else's work or get to the drinks table. Or your poster develops the scientific equivalent of leprosy and you end up lurching despondently round the session trying to drag unsuspecting people in front of it, in an arm lock if necessary. The best option is, as always, to shoot for the middle ground.

To attract people to your poster you have to be proactive, so for a start make sure you submit an exciting abstract with lots of trendy keywords. Then make your poster big and bold, without reams and reams of text (which is, frankly, a bit tedious to read). Data should also be clearly presented, not too small and not in excess. PhD students with only two and a half figures-worth of results can breathe a sigh of relief here--clarity is the key. A concise model figure to explain your conclusions is always useful, and will help you out when it comes to talking people through your findings. Finally, if you see someone looking at your poster don't just stand there like a stuffed duck, ask if you can talk them through it. At best, they'll be interested and have some useful things to say to you. At worst, it stops you looking like a complete Billy No-mates for a few minutes. One slightly alarming recent trend is for people to have a mini-printout of their poster for you to take away. I haven't yet worked out if this is a good or bad idea, but it does seem slightly desperate.

Do try to find time to at least scoot round the rest of the posters. My top tip here is to scan the poster abstracts first and mark the most interesting ones, and make a beeline straight for them later. Some conferences have more than one session, the idea being you do the "singing telegram" effort for one and can wander about for the others. Unfortunately this doesn't make allowances for the fact that the person you really want to talk to is never in front of their poster when you're not in front of yours.

Watch Your Mouth!

If you are a relative junior in your field, it is well worth making the effort to think before you speak AT ALL TIMES--particularly if your conference is blessed with a free alcohol supply. That will help you avoid doing the sort of dumb stuff that I do--such as loudly declaiming to another guy from my lab how glad I was that all the dull talks were over only to be alerted by a sharp nudge in the ribs to the fact that the keynote speaker from the previous session was sitting directly behind me.

You also need to be aware of who you are speaking to. While I thoroughly agree with the ideal that conferences should be arenas for free exchange of new results and ideas, you can also end up being thrown to the lions if you are incautious about who you blab your latest data to. Take a few minutes to scan the list of attendees and spot the names of people who work for your major competitors, then pay attention to nametags. After a couple of days, you should be able to distinguish friend from foe, and be able to tailor your discretion appropriately.

Extracurricular Activities

Some conferences, particularly swanky American ones, will offer exciting activities in the afternoons. The infamous "Ski-stone" Keystone meetings series in Colorado is a good example. These activities are excellent opportunities for networking, so don't just spend all your free time hanging around with your mates in the bar playing table football. Instead try to speak to group leaders about your work, their work, or the possibility of working for them. I managed to negotiate myself an interview with a group leader I really wanted to work for when we were rowing around a lake together. He didn't really have much option--after half an hour of listening to me extolling my virtues he either had to offer me an interview to shut me up or jump out and swim home.

The Bar

Forget the lecture theatre, the conference bar is where all the really juicy results come out. Seek out members of collaborating labs or quiz that speaker about their latest data. Keep your ear to the ground as well for upcoming job opportunities and similar gossip. And if you're in the job market, do some subtle research on potential employers. You don't want to go for a job with someone in Southern California only to find out they're moving to Nowheresville, Nebraska, when it's too late. Also make sure you don't overdo it every night in the bar. For a start, it's hard to focus on a full "morning-after" of talks when you're bleary eyed and dozing off, dribbling down your chin.

The End-of-Conference Dinner

At many conferences, the last night provides an opportunity for a slap-up dinner and entertainment. In many cases, the entertainment is the spectacle of watching respectable group leaders dancing like idiots to the strains of a dubious covers band. It is also usually the last chance to make new contacts and exchange ideas and/or bodily fluids. Although, despite the obvious set-up (away from home, nice hotel, free booze), conferences are, in my experience, the most unromantic places on Earth. I am yet to meet anyone who has "pulled" at a meeting, though I may just be hanging around with the wrong crowd. Perhaps my chosen field is the equivalent of grey, saggy Y-fronts, while other sectors of biology have conferences that resemble Roman orgies.

Conferences are one of the few perks of the scientific life, so make sure you take advantage of their career-enhancing properties. You too could eventually become one of the jaded guest lecturers who spend the whole summer jetting round the world, moaning that they never spend any time in the lab, so enjoy them while you can!

Kat Arney is currently raiding the minibar. ...