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Conferences Are Not Just for Faculty Members

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There was a time, perhaps even a decade ago, when student participation at conferences, national meetings, and workshops was rare. Times have changed, and efforts to foster and promote the participation of graduate and, most recently, undergraduate students have steadily grown. Soon, their systematic presence may be the norm. Nevertheless, relatively few eligible students are aware of the steps required to increase the likelihood of being invited to these scientific events.

Although faculty members should play a major role in supporting these students, they are not as helpful as they could be. In fact, faculty members often either are unaware of the possibilities or assume that students can find out about them on their own.

The application process for attending a national meeting may seem daunting for a first-timer (requiring the payment of fees for registration and housing and applying for travel grants and the like), but the end result--having the opportunity to learn from and converse with some of the best minds in the field--is well worth it. In this article, I provide a few suggestions that may encourage more student participation and help faculty members fulfill their roles as conference advocates.

How Was It Then?

I attended my first professional conference, the annual meeting of the American Mathematical Society ( AMS), 20 years ago. The reasoning behind my decision to attend was simple: Potential employers set up shop at the meeting to speak with new Ph.D.s who gave oral presentations about their research. There may have been limited funding to support student travel, but this issue didn't even cross my mind. In those days, most students (unless their adviser had funding) paid their own way, so I looked upon the expenditure as an investment in my future.

Although I was surrounded by thousands of mathematicians, I felt lonely and disconnected, because I didn't know anyone and was a nobody. I had no idea about the kinds of activities that were taking place or what I was supposed to do at this meeting. I gave my 10-minute talk, held about seven job interviews, and looked in awe at the host of mathematicians.

Now, as a tenured faculty member, I routinely take or send students to national meetings and workshops including the Gordon Conference in Theoretical Biology and Biomathematics, the annual AMS meeting, and the annual meeting of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, to name just a few.

Why Should Students Attend a National Meeting or Workshop?

Participation at a professional meeting could be a life-changing experience. If you are a graduate student, this is the fastest and most efficient way to meet your community and network. A large percentage of the people who will be your peers and colleagues will be there! If you are an undergraduate student, this is the best way to find out what activities and interests are important in this community.

There was a time when it was unthinkable to encourage undergraduates to attend these gatherings, but students with documented research experience (poster or manuscript) are highly recruited. In addition, organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and Los Alamos National Laboratory systematically fund a large number of undergraduate researchers.

What Are the Roadblocks?

Some of the obvious roadblocks are being unaware of programs or finding out about them too late. Most national meetings (e.g., the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) send flyers and e-mails, build Web sites, and use the networks connecting faculty members at various institutions to get the word out. Yet many complain that this information rarely reaches a large percentage of the intended audience. We must take it upon ourselves to pass along meeting information to as many of our peers as we can. Missing application deadlines massively limits the number and type of opportunities available, so you must decide which applications you will be submitting early in the fall of each year and what materials are needed to successfully complete the application process.

Another roadblock is lack of research experience, so spending time in the lab is critical (particularly if you are an undergraduate). Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to carry out research during the academic year (at your home institution) or during the summer (research experiences for undergraduates programs, or REUs).

For example, at Arizona State University, the Institute for Strengthening Understanding of Mathematics and Science will take six undergraduate students to the Mathematics Faculty of the Technische Universität München, where they will carry out mathematics research with German undergraduates for 10 days. This is a pilot program that I hope to continue in the future.

However, in order to get into a local or national research program, you have to send your application well in advance. In other words, you have to get on a fall schedule as early as possible in your studies. Ideally, you would apply during your first fall semester or quarter of college, but certainly no later than by the start of your second year. There are high school research programs too!

For the past 9 years, I have been the director of the REU program at the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, which has trained and mentored more than 225 undergraduate and at least 30 graduate students. Despite having gone through many "bad" experiences with regard to students' missing their deadlines for the standard academic-year programs, it continues to be painful for me to receive dozens of "perfect" but late applications every year. Too often, busy students tend to think instead about summer programs when the summer approaches. There does not seem to be an effective way to communicate the importance of timeliness to students.

Another roadblock may stem from lack of mentoring. Underrepresented minorities often need encouragement from faculty members before they even consider the possibility of requesting an application. Because there is a tendency to let students "fend for themselves," faculty members often don't become involved unless they are explicitly asked. As the population of underrepresented minorities in science, mathematics, and engineering grows, it is worthwhile to notice that such "distancing" is often interpreted as an unwelcoming position by the faculty. In my opinion, continuous and systematic efforts to promote and enhance communication between faculty members and students are simply essential.

What Should I Do as a Student?

In order to get some feeling about the current (real or perceived) level of communication with your faculty member, a student should ask the following questions: Do you know your adviser? Have you had informal conversations with this faculty member? Does he or she know your name? Is he or she aware of your professional interests? Does he or she provide relevant information to your career interests regularly? Is there a director in charge of your major field of studies? If so, is he or she in regular contact with you?

What Should My Department Do?

Departments that do not foster the establishment of scientific communities that actively involve undergraduate and graduate students invariably limit the students' access to resources designed to enhance their professional development. The next generation of scientists will come from this pool of students, so we (faculty members) must actively support that development.

Potential Strategies

So, how simple or difficult is it to get support to attend a workshop or a national conference? First of all, you have to be qualified. If you are an undergraduate, this often means that you have carried out some research. If so, you would then submit a description of the research (or abstract) for the relevant poster session. On occasion, a letter of support may be required.

Substantial funding to attend isn't guaranteed; you may receive a budget of $600, whereas the cost of the trip may be $1000.00. What then? You should ask for support from the chair of your department, the director of your major field of study, and even the dean of your college. If your university has an office that supports underrepresented minorities, that office can often guide your efforts. However, remember that the key to success is to start the process early. As a director of a summer program, I often send letters to university administrators on behalf of students requesting funding to present their summer research. Again, planning is the key, and last-minute requests make everybody unhappy.

If funding is a major issue for you, then consider attending a workshop. Conferences may or may not have support for students, but workshops often do. A few workshops are geared toward undergraduates (e.g., the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute), and these may be listed on your CV.

Graduate students are now expected to participate at national meetings or workshops. There is an application process, and typically a letter from your adviser is required. Again, timeliness is the key. Will full funding be provided? Usually, this is not the case. Advisers sometimes (much less often than you think) have grant funds to help support your travel. Programs such as Vertical Integration of Research and Education in the Mathematical Sciences or Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship often have funds to pay for graduate student travel. Departmental interdisciplinary programs, the graduate school, or graduate fields sometimes have limited funding for travel. There is no single way to get full funding, but more often than not there is a way to get funding to attend one or two activities per year if you have a piece of research that is relevant to that meeting or a compelling scientific reason to attend.

New World

Mathematicians have always built collaborative international research efforts, and there is no reason to prevent new generations from getting an early start. Because national conferences and workshops are the hubs of scientific activity, they are ideal places to hone these important networking skills. A scientist's professional career is highly dependent on their participation at these scientific events. Do not postpone your integration into your community.

Carlos Castillo-Chavez is a Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of Mathematical Biology at Arizona State University and may be reached at