A few things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference

As conference season approaches, I always have mixed feelings about going. I feel like I’m going to be missing a lot of work time and giving a big presentation can definitely be daunting. Honestly, however, attending conferences and presenting my work have been some of the most important factors in shaping my research.  After chatting with other conference goers and getting feedback on my talk, I came back from a conference last fall with an entirely new game plan for tackling my next research phase. There’s a couple of great previous posts on why to attend conferences and how to get the most out of going to conferences. Here’s my two cents on some things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference:

  1. There’s going to be A LOT of talks and posters to see: choose wisely, make a schedule. One of the first things you should do is open up the abstract booklet with the conference schedule (or download the online version). Make notes of which talks/posters to see and have a schedule for where to be and when.
  2. Go to some talks outside of your expertise. Find something that genuinely piques your interest. You never know where you might find inspiration or what you might learn from seeing how work is done outside of your personal research bubble.
  3. Bring business cards. Check out Rutgers Visual Identity website for a downloadable template for designing business cards. I got 250 cards printed at Kinko’s for cheap and they look good.
  4. Have an elevator speech ready for explaining your research. One of the most common ice breakers when you meet people is, “So what do you do?” Be ready to concisely explain what you do and why it’s important at the level of an educated person who has no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t use jargon. Make it quick; up to 30 seconds is fine and if they want to know more, they’ll ask.
  5. Dress nicely. Talk with people who’ve attended the conference before and ask about recommended attire. If in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to directly email the conference organizers. Always air on the side of dressing up than dressing down. You want to make a good impression – you’re probably presenting yourself and your work to almost everyone in your field.
  6. Make a summary of your conference experience. After you return home, go through the notes you took during talks and type them up. Reference the papers you meant to look up. Organize the business cards you got and follow-up with people you said you’d contact. Talk to your adviser about your experience and compare notes with any other fellow students who attended too.
  7. Try to see the city a little bit. You’re there to go to a conference, but why not plan ahead to see some sites while you’re there during break times? There’s typically group dinners organized at local restaurants, like for a school’s alumni or hosted by a sponsor company – check with your adviser on which ones they recommend you seek out. Maybe you could even extend the trip through the next weekend and do some touring!

Communicating science: the elevator speech

In a previous post, I described my experience at a workshop (organized by the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick) on communicating science.  I described the importance of preparing descriptions of your work for a spectrum of likely audiences – having at least some idea of what aspects of your work to emphasize to different audiences and what language or ideas to use are critical.  However, in addition to these more customized versions, having a more generic but highly-polished description of your research that you can recite from memory at any time is probably worth having.  This is often known as the “elevator speech,” since it’s supposed to be something simple and short enough that you can say it during the time you’d spend with a stranger in an elevator.

I’ve had a murky version of this for a while, but it was largely a vague set of examples and analogies I liked to use when describing my research to a friend or family member rather than a well-crafted summary.  But the workshop motivated me to finally develop a better version, so here is my latest attempt:

Every cell in your body contains thousands of different kinds of molecules, stuffed into a very small space and interacting with each other in complex ways.  How does this mess of molecules ultimately do all things that cells do, such as making new cells, extracting energy from food, and transporting nutrients?  And how did the precise interactions of all these molecules develop over millions of years of evolution?  This knowledge is important both for treating human diseases in which these cellular functions go wrong (e.g., runaway cancer cell growth), as well as engineering microorganisms to perform useful jobs, such as synthesizing biofuels with bacteria or making better beer with yeast.  My research uses mathematical models and computational techniques to understand how natural selection changes these molecules and their interactions over time.  We want to use this both to understand how organisms naturally evolved in the past and to predict how they might evolve in the future.