What can you give others at a scientific meeting?

A meeting in Florence in 1993, Polistes as a model system, where I was seated between Bill Hamilton and Mary Jane West Eberhard.

My undergraduate advisor, Richard Alexander of the University of Michigan once told me that there was nothing I could do better for my career than to give a great talk at a national meeting. Unfortunately, the converse was also true, that there was nothing worse I could do than to give a poor one. Ever since that advice I have taken giving talks extremely seriously. After all, if only 10 or 20 people read any particular paper carefully, there could be 30 or 40 in a talk audience. Some of them are even listening. But I only partly jest. Everyone wants to tell about their own work at a scientific meeting, either with a talk or a poster.

But there is something else perhaps just as important that we can all do. It is something that becomes more and more important as we advance in our career. It is to help someone else at the meeting. This is easily done if people come up to you and ask you questions. Make time for them. Ask if they have lunch plans. Pay for their lunch. You probably have more funds at your disposal than they do. You could after all make a real difference in someone’s career.

If people do not come up to you, approach them. Approach the younger people, particularly those that are alone. Be friendly and get them to talk about their research. This is easier if you came out of the same talk, or if the meeting meals are together. Try to make a difference to someone every day. Try to figure out what you know that might be useful to them. Listen.

Taking the time to talk to people thoroughly at posters is another way to do this. Look at them and listen to their story. If they don’t have a summary point, ask for it. If they don’t have what’s next on their poster, ask for it. Don’t just go to the posters of your friends, or your friend’s students.

As scientists, it is wonderful to discover new things and to solve puzzles. It is also wonderful to make the path easier for the next generation of inquiring minds. Meetings offer an excellent opportunity to do this. So while you are keeping track of what you are learning at a meeting, also be mindful of how you are helping.


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, Undergraduates and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What can you give others at a scientific meeting?

  1. knharpe says:

    I love this advice about reaching out to junior scientists. And with regard to giving talks, I always try to think about all of the person-hours I am responsible for each time I give a talk. For a big talk at a big meeting, each of us might be responsible for hundreds of hours of people’s time. It’s a big responsibility!

    • The person hours is a good way to think of talk preparation. Selfishly, you can remember that good things come unpredictably from excellent talks. Altruistically, you can remember that you may mentor the next great in the field. Or just make a difference in someone’s academic life!

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