You’ve arrived at NSF, or NIH, or at any kind of small meeting with a job to do. You walk in the door, see the big table and find your name plate. Do you sit down and get to work, or check your email? Do you get a cup of coffee and one of those dry muffins, or do you look to see who else is there? The right way to play this is to realize that for the next few days you will be in a room with fabulously talented people. They collectively know a lot. Your challenge is to figure out who knows things that might be useful to you and vice versa. So don’t let your common panel tasks get in the way of expanding your knowledge and your contacts.
The first thing to do should be done before you arrive. That is to look at the web pages of your fellow committee members. What do they do? What might you learn? Make a list of things you would like to learn, but also be prepared for novelty, for things you want to know you didn’t even realize. Pick some people to meet and learn from. Be open to other people who want to contact you.
Don’t be shy when you walk in the room. Walk up to people. Introduce yourself. Ask them something right away. Find common ground with people you don’t know but are interested in talking with. You might even be able to move the name tags around to position yourself next to someone interesting. Go to the group dinners. Don’t be timid.
Don’t stick to just a few people. Talk to several. Sit next to people at meals that are not the people you sit next to at the table. If you are NSF be sure to make time to visit your program officer. Move surely towards learning whatever you identified as interesting. Be surprised. You will get a lot more out of meetings and panels if you make a plan and figure out how to learn from your colleagues.