Undergraduates can benefit from attending scientific meetings even more if they have a plan. This plan should be focused around what you want to learn. The meeting overall will be broader than your specific interests, so it is good to pick something in particular to learn. For example, at one Evolution meeting, I decided to learn more about phylogenetics. I used that goal to guide me towards both useful talks and people to talk to. I didn’t ignore more general discussions and talks, but with this focus I could judge how well I was getting something out of the meeting.
You can achieve your goal by going to talks, going to posters, and talking to people. The first two are much easier than the third, but the third is at least as important as the first two. So choose people you want to talk to. The easiest way to do this is to figure out who the lab heads are on topics you are interested in, then find someone else in that group who is attending the meeting. You can talk to the PI, but others will have more time and be as good or better. You can also meet people at posters to talk with further. You can email people also. It is crucial that you look at who is coming to the meeting and figure out in advance both your goal and a few people you want to talk with.
Conversations with new people about science work best if you have read some of their papers and have some specific questions to get the conversation going. It is fine to have these written down. Even if you just do three people and their papers, that will be a good start. Really the whole meeting will be less intimidating if you do some homework first.
Oh, and while you are hunting down the famous and their lab members, don’t forget to talk to your peers. There will always be someone more alone than you, someone whom you can befriend. Who knows, this could be the start of a delightful collaboration. So even if you feel you are struggling, remember you have something to give to someone with even less confidence. Be alert to them, and see what you both can learn.
You may also be giving a poster, so this is another important part of your meeting experience. Both at the poster and elsewhere you have a chance to share what you are doing. I’ll write more about this in another piece, but the key is to make it short. Have a summary of a few minutes or less. Tell the big question, what you have discovered and what you are struggling with. Listen to comments even if they are not that helpful.
If there are any specific events for undergraduates, go to them. Go to the receptions. Sign up for field trips. Use any opportunity to learn from people. Don’t be shy!
After the meeting, try to solidify what you have learned. Write down a summary. Look back at the papers you read before and read more. Make a list of what you have learned. Contact and thank the most important people you met.