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Making the Most of a Conference

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If the thought of attending a conference in San Diego fills you with anticipation for a quick trip to Tijuana, then you're in need of Conferences for Scientists 101. People who view these meetings as major opportunities for networking know that far too many scientists think of conferences solely as a way to learn about new research.

"The purpose of going to conferences is not to sit and learn," says Theodore Price, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona. It's one thing if you're a first-year PhD student, he says — but beyond that, there's no excuse for being a passive attendee.

Price makes a point of attending three or four conferences each year. Two of those are set in stone: Society for Neuroscience and the American Pain Society, two large association meetings that are can't-miss for the kind of neuroscience research he does. The latter meeting, which is more clinical in nature, is helpful in guiding his own basic research because it's a good opportunity to make sure his team is working on projects that will have medical relevance, he says, as well as a chance to find "collaborators to move some of the stuff we're doing into the clinic." The other meetings he goes to tend to be smaller. When choosing which conferences to attend, try to select a variety of big and small, targeted and not, to broaden your experiences.

Poster halls are excellent places to make your mark. If you have work on display, go out of your way to engage other attendees in conversation about it. If you're not manning a poster of your own, don't just make a quick pass through the bulletin boards — ask questions to get people talking about their research. Price says when you're at a loss, it's always easy to ask about methods, since that's the section that tends to be cut the most to fit on a poster. "My biggest problem in asking questions was I felt like I was going to say something stupid," he recalls. "Eventually you find out that everybody asks stupid questions and nobody cares."

Even conversations that start with stupid questions can lead to collaborative possibilities, so be on the lookout for scientists whose work might fit with your own — or with research you've been hoping to do. "Especially in times when the financial crush is on, people need to pair up with other people" to get great scientific projects off the ground, Price says.

Finally, don't forget all about the conference when you get back to the lab. Price says he makes a point of sitting down with his team after a meeting to share what he learned. If other lab members attended the meeting, they also offer feedback — that way any differing points of view come to the surface. That's helpful, Price says, in helping the team determine whether to direct projects toward new trends in the field.

See and Be Seen: Tips for Meetings Large and Small

There are some tips that apply to any meeting, whether it's attended by 25 people or 25,000 people:

Be social: Almost everyone at the conference is there in the same situation you probably are: alone. Take advantage of coffee breaks to sit down with some people you don't know, ask about their research, and introduce them to your scientific endeavors. Don't worry if conversations revolve more around the weather than the intricate details of what's going on in your lab — this is a good chance to make new contacts, and you can get down to the nitty-gritty technical details some other time.

Look out for potential collaborators: Whether it's someone who can apply your work differently, someone whose work could complement your own, or just someone who gets you thinking in a new way, the most valuable outcome of a conference is a chance to start a collaboration. "You never know how one of these random people that you'll strike up a conversation with will have an impact on your career," Price says.

Follow up right away: If you made good contacts at a meeting, don't toss those business cards in a drawer and tell yourself you'll follow up in a week or two. (We all know those cards will soon be covered with take-out menus and diagrams of experiments.) Take a few minutes to send out e-mails letting people know it was nice to meet them, or, in the case of someone you want to collaborate with, sketching out some details of how you see your work fitting together.

Here are some approaches to try at very large shows:

Always submit a poster: "You have to get out of your shell and start talking to people," Price says, "and the best way to do that is to present posters." Stand with your poster as much as possible — not just during the hour or so that's required — and take initiative in talking to people as they come by. "It's your work, after all. If you can't demonstrate some excitement about it, it's going to be hard for someone else to get excited about it," Price says.

Divide and conquer: Because large tradeshows can be so intimidating, there are often opportunities to meet in smaller groups — alumni parties, for instance, or more targeted scientific workshops. Take advantage of those to get to know your colleagues in a more familiar setting.

Plus a few tips for those smaller scientific meetings:

Ask questions: Since smaller meetings tend to be driven by talks rather than posters, you may not have a venue to showcase your own work. Instead, take the opportunity to express an interest in other people's work. Pay close attention to talks and, when appropriate, ask a question. Avoid gotcha questions, Price warns — they'll generally make you look bad. Try to ask big-picture questions about how the work presented fits into a broader context. "It shows you have a depth of understanding of the field," he adds. Most importantly: introduce yourself before asking your question. "You want people to know who you are," Price says.

Never sit with the same people: Small meetings tend to be places where attendees will have meals together, and it's easy to feel relief at finding a group of people you work with or scientists you already know. But that won't help you meet new people, so Price encourages attendees to mix it up.

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