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Turning a Random Walk Into a Focussed Mission

The presentations are all very well, but as Magnus Knecht, a PhD student from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, points out, what conferences are very much about is "making contact and interacting with people who have similar interests." The problem, he highlights, is that "as an inexperienced PhD student you don't know that many scientists, and which are in your area of interest. At best you start a random walk, and with some luck you get into some interesting conversations. But it is quite unlikely that you'll find the person that would provide the best possible exchange." What's more, "even if you know which people you'd like to speak to, it is not that easy to step up to that person and start a conversation."

It's a dilemma that many young scientists will recognise. Your boss has agreed that you should attend THE international conference in your field, and you want to make the most of it. But walking into a crowded reception and striking up casual conversation with the leaders in your research area can seem like mission impossible.

Fortunately for Knecht, he's a mathematical biologist. Earlier this year he attended the annual meeting of the Society for Mathematical Biology (SMB) held in Dundee, UK. Now in the final year of his PhD, "I've been to at least half a dozen conferences," he explains, "however ? the SMB03 has given me more than all the previous conferences put together." This is partly, he admits, because he has grown in confidence and experience. But the conference's success for him was mainly, he says, thanks to the SMB's conference mentoring programme.

Gerda de Vries, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, runs the programme. Anyone attending the conference can apply to take part, as either mentor or mentee. In fact this year, she says, "one of the mentees, a young faculty member whom I matched with a senior faculty member, also acted as a mentor for a beginning graduate student." It's entirely up to mentor/mentee pairs how they want to use their time at the conference together, she points out, but there are a number of suggestions on the society's mentoring Web page which she set up when the scheme was started 4 years ago.

"Although I typically talk with each mentee in some detail about the scientific work they are pursuing," explains Lou Gross, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, he sees the mentors' role as ensuring "that the younger set gain benefit from our experiences, not just with regard to details of the science presented at these meetings, but with all the other aspects of being successful in the 'world of science.' " Therefore, with each of the five mentees he has met at SMB meetings during the mentoring programme's lifetime, he has spent quite a bit of time discussing "where they want to be 5 years from now and how they might spend their effort in getting there." This in turn allows him "to introduce them to people attending--or give them contacts if the person is not attending--who might be helpful to them in reaching their goal."

Paul Anderson, a PhD student at Imperial College London, was Gross's mentee at the Dundee meeting. "This was my first conference and I was the only person from my section attending," says Anderson, but Gross "made me feel at home immediately." Daniel Dvorkin, who was mentored by Leah Keshet of the University of British Columbia, echoes Anderson's sentiments: "It was largely thanks to her efforts that I was able to jump into the activities of the conference immediately instead of taking more time to get my bearings."

In fact, thinks Dvorkin, a second-year graduate student at the University of Colorado, Denver, also attending his first conference, "considering [Keshet's] importance in the field, I was probably a bit tongue-tied [at first]. It can really be very intimidating ? to meet someone whose name you've been seeing in the literature for years!" But then a major purpose and benefit of the programme is that it helps "to break through the intimidation barrier," he points out.

"Having such a well connected mentor helped put my work into perspective with the rest of the research community," says Anderson, who took the opportunity to pick his mentor's brains about a possible future career move into the field of bioinformatics. "I much appreciated Lou's take on what is hot and what is not," he explains, particularly "as he is not involved in the field directly so can take a different perspective to someone whose work has been solely in bioinformatics." In fact, such interactions work both ways. The opportunity "to get a different perspective on what the really 'hot' and important topics are," because "it is simply impossible to keep up with the breadth of mathematical biology today," is one of the advantages that Gross sees, as a mentor.

"I now regard Dr Keshet, and the other people at the conference I met through her, as valuable professional contacts," says Dvorkin. "Overall, I think I got much more value out of the conference because of the mentoring programme than I would have without it." A ringing endorsement, which might encourage other learned societies to set up similar schemes. But with academics so busy these days, just what does it involve?

Having once done the background work to put the programme in place, the answer is "not a lot of time," according to de Vries, who estimates that in total she spends "perhaps one day a year" on it. Of course SMB is relatively small, with somewhere between 200 and 250 people attending the Dundee meeting, and just 28 mentees and 16 mentors taking part in the mentoring programme this year (mentors can have two, but no more than two, mentees). Needless to say, more mentees tend to put themselves forward than mentors, "so I usually end up contacting senior scientists attending the meeting asking them whether they are interested in being a mentor," de Vries says, and gratifyingly, "most are."

However, although she herself matched mentors and mentees this year, "in previous years, I've had my graduate students go over the letters of interest and make the matches. My students loved doing it, because it gave them some insight into research areas outside of their immediate interest, and it gave them an opportunity to learn more about what senior scientists are doing," she explains.

All in all, then, this programme's value seems to easily outweigh the onerousness of its administration. In fact, its model could probably be adopted far more widely, and even implemented by the younger members of a society themselves.

Meanwhile, says Dvorkin, "I would encourage all students attending future SMB meetings to sign up for the programme as mentees, and all senior researchers to sign up as mentors--a role I look forward to filling at some point in the future."

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