You will do few things more important in your academic career than organize a symposium for your retiring professor, or at least that is how I think of it. The point of this entry is to make it easier for others to organize similar meetings. Think of it as getting a hundred thousand dollar grant to have all your favorite people come to a symposium. All you have to do is organize and get the university to throw in a little more for the events. The most wonderful people will pay their own way to come. I did this for Alan Templeton this week and will share here how it is done.
1. Get a list of people who should be invited. This will be the honoree’s students, postdocs, anyone on this list from him. It could include family, undergrads, and collaborators. There is no way you can put this list together yourself, so get your person to identify the people. Get up to date emails for all of them. Ask them if there are people missing from the list.
2. Choose a date well in advance. I think about 10 months in advance or more is about right. That way people will have their next year’s meeting comittments all set. Choose a few dates that are not graduation weekend or anything like that, according to what works for your honoree. Then have the potential attendees let you know. For us, what worked was Sunday evening 2 June, with a symposium on Monday 3 June.
3. Reserve a block of hotel rooms in a nice hotel, preferably walking distance away. We got a great price on a block of rooms at the Moonrise on the Delmar Loop, near to places of nostalgic importance for many.
4. Choose a location. Ideally this should be at the university the students attended, where, with luck, the professor still works. That maximizes the sentimentality and increases attendance, but I have been at symposia elsewhere.
5. Set up a mailing list. This should always contain everyone, even those that say they can’t come. We got some last minute additions from faraway places like Australia. Just keep everyone in the loop. Don’t do blind CC so everyone can see everyone else on the list and get excited to forge new ties and renew old ones.
6. Plan the event and reserve the venues. We decided to begin on Sunday evening with an informal dinner at our home, then have an all day symposium on Monday, ending with a dinner on campus that evening. We reserved the room on campus for the symposium, an auditorium that seated 300 with room outside for posters and lunch. We also reserved the dinner location and contacted potential caterers for that dinner. We planned the menus.
7. Figure out who will come, though this will be a fluid list. Keep in touch with everyone and remind them every month or so about the event. In particular remind them before the hotel releases the rooms.
8. Buy a guest book. People should have something to sign and write something. Make sure the out of town people can email you words to be put in the guest book. Bug people all day to sign the guest book. I got one with lined paper and a nice cover at the campus bookstore.
9. Decide exactly what the event will be like. I met with Alan Templeton, and we decided on a schedule that had 10 talks, including a longer after-lunch one for him. We had 25 minute talks and lots of breaks. After all, what people really want is to talk to each other. Our schedule had six talks in the morning, with a 45 minute break and four talks in the afternoon with an hour break. There were two hours off before the dinner and many of us went to the bar in the Knight center then. You might have lightening talks, or the like. We had a roast at the evening dinner, of course, but it was not open to all. We provided the break food and the lunch to everyone.
10. Have posters. The solution to not having many talks is having posters. Everyone wants to share their science and posters are a great way to do it. Local people can also contribute posters. Posters also give substance to the breaks. We had about 20 posters.
11. Take a group photo. This is something I did not think of, but someone else did, fortunately. We took a photo of Alan and all his students and postdocs, at least the ones that could come.
12. Accept help. In some ways the hardest part of the organization was deciding what the event should look like. Once we decided on a Monday symposium with a party the night before and a party the evening of, things started to fall into place. But I couldn’t have done it without a ton of help from Karla Garcia in our office.
13. Take photos. It is a wonderful thing to see people greet each other. The research team of a brilliant professor like Alan Templeton is like a family. The students helped and supported each other through some of the hardest moments of life, and generally succeeded in ways that carved their careers.
14. Have fun. It was so exciting to realize we had all the food ready for the Sunday dinner, thanks to our helpful students. We were overwhelmed with all the arrivals and the fond greetings. The poster boards filled. The talks were given. There were no glitches. Food arrived, was set out by our wonderful Biology Department Staff, and was eaten. It was an event I’ll never forget. It was an event that taught me a lot. After all, people do science, but it is the science that brought us together.
15. Make a photo book. I have to say I just love these. I use Shutterfly. There is something nice about real paper. Alan, your book will be in your hands soon. Here is the link, if you are curious, way down there at the bottom:
There, that is it. It was some work to put together, but what could be a better use of my time than to gather together a great team of scientists, a great symposium, and honor to one who has given us so much. Thank you, Alan! I hope to see much of you in retirement.