While conferences are great places to hear talks about what new science and technologies are popular in your field, they also present an opportunity to network and meet other researchers. "I think it is generally agreed that for conferences, the main benefit is meeting people," says Ed Green, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There may be some good talks, he adds, but if that's all you see, then you are not getting your money's worth — you need to meet people.
With budgets as tight as they are, choosing which conferences to attend can be a tricky task. Green says that he looks for meetings in his field that have a good reputation and are a good size. "The one I try to go is the Biology of Genomes conference in Cold Spring Harbor," he says, adding that many of the meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York are well-attended. "They are the right size: big enough to have a good variety of people there and people want to go, but not so big that you get lost."
Before arriving at a meeting, MIT's Manolis Kellis takes a look at the agenda. "I print out a list of speakers before the conference and try to get a sense of what to expect and what the big stories will be," he says. Green also examines the attendee list so that he has an idea of who will be there. While he doesn't draw up a set schedule for himself — he keeps it all in flux — he makes a note of the people he wants to speak with. If he doesn't run into them, then he has the option to swing by their poster. However, if there is someone that he is making a point to see, then he'll ask that person ahead of time to meet for coffee. He says you don't have to know or even have a specific question to ask someone you want to meet who is doing interesting stuff — most people are open to talking about their science.
The best part of a meeting is that there are so many scientists gathered together. Green says that he could be talking about his ideas with his colleagues and they may know someone else at the meeting that he should also be speaking with — all those connections and everyone being in the same room make attending worthwhile. "It takes a certain mingling and regular people skills," he says, adding that "the meeting is exactly for the purpose of meeting people — that's why you are physically there."
Conferences can be a time to get together with your current collaborators and to bounce ideas off of one another, Kellis says. Indeed, Green adds that a consortium he is involved with that is working on the Neandertal genome will often get together during a meeting. It's convenient, he says, to have everyone in the same place at the same time.
It's also a time to meet vendors. Many meetings, though not all, have exhibit halls where vendors show their wares and are on hand to talk about their technologies. Green says he will stop by to see what's new. In addition, he also usually attends the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology meeting in Marco Island, Fla., held in February this year, and learns about new technologies there.
Green's best advice for attending a meeting is not to be shy. "You don't go to a party unless you want to have fun and you don't go to a meeting unless [you want to] meet people and discuss science," he says.