Have a goal at a scientific meeting

Meetings are like village feasts. There are so many amazing people to talk to. All those authors and researchers are right there. They wrote the papers you read carefully, studied, absorbed, used to transform your thinking. Whom should you talk to? What can you learn? If you talk to one person, ten more walk by you would also like to corner. What to do?

Not only are there plenty of people to talk to, but there are also talks and posters, more than you could ever attend to at most meetings. How to choose? First, notice that I put talking to people before going to their talks, even though meetings are arranged around those talks and poster sessions. I like talks. I like posters. But most of all, I like talking to people. The mix is great, but the problem of choice remains.

My creativity course says to delay judgement, but this is a situation where that will not help. At 10:15 there are four talks and I will only be hearing one of them. Or I will still be in the hall talking to someone. If I delay judgement, I won’t be hearing any of them. There are different ways of choosing what to do. You could simply go to one room and stay there. The talks are likely to be on roughly the same theme if they are in the same room. Or you could go only to the symposia, or to the special symposia, like the Allee Symposium for graduate students. You could look only at the posters around the edge of the room where there is more space for the crowds.

You could go to the talks given by your friends. You had better go to the talks of your own students. You could go to the talks by people whose research is closest to your own. You could go to talks on your study organism. These are all natural tendencies. But if you do not stray from this pattern somewhat, you will miss one of the strengths of meetings. That is to learn something new.

It is hard to learn new things. The more new they are, the harder they are to learn. You could pick up a journal in another field, or even read papers in your own journals that are more distant to your interests. But it is hard to get the point, or to know what is controversial. These new areas are a lot easier to penetrate by attending talks, or looking at posters. Doing this can make the papers more accessible also. I think it is easier to penetrate a new area if you try to focus on one or two new areas and go to as many talks and posters as you can in the new area. The sum of those talks and posters can give you a synthetic idea of what those people find to be important, how they address their subjects, and what their standards of evidence are.

There was an Evolution meeting about a decade ago where I went to all the phylogenetic talks I could. I got a much better handle on this rapidly changing field in this way. I also met a number of the stars and got to ask them some fairly basic questions.

What is my focus at this year’s Animal Behavior meeting? My first focus is doing a good job as president. I ran the Executive Council Sunday, finishing with more than an hour to spare. I still need to run the Business Meeting, present at the Awards Ceremony, and deal with many little issues before I pass the Roberts Rules of Order book on to Robert Seyfarth, the next president. My other focus this year is birds. What are people working on when they study birds these days? These diurnal, active, vocal creatures are just made for behavioral studies. How has the field taken advantage of the new tools in the last few years? I’m learning a lot.

What is your focus?


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Scientific meetings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Have a goal at a scientific meeting

  1. Pingback: How to attend big conferences: have a focus « Oikos Blog

  2. Pingback: Evolution 2012: Meeting preview « Oikos Blog

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