As I write this, I am sat in the departures area of Denver airport waiting for my flight back to the UK. I have just been to my first international conference and, to say the least, it was an interesting experience! The conference was the Keystone Symposia on Plant Signalling: Dynamic Properties, held in Breckenridge , Colorado (a ski resort; scientists really pick the best conference locations…). The focus of the conference was on the relationship between signalling events at the molecular level and the corresponding response of the cell or organism. The conference featured a long series of talks, organised into themes for each session (such as “The versatility of calcium-mediated signalling”), two post dinner poster sessions and a panel discussion to round off the meeting. As this was my first conference, I thought I’d kill some time by sharing some of my experiences with you all!
Smaller meetings are great!
If you are attempting to disperse your research amongst the maximum number of scientists, or to receive feedback from the widest array of different specialists, then a small meeting might not be what you are looking for. However, for a second year student without foundation shaking results to show off (yet…?) my priorities were different. This particular meeting featured only around 200 project leaders, post docs and students, an ideal number allowing a reasonably wide variety of view points and backgrounds, but allowing plenty of time to meet both the VIPs of my field and the other early career scientists. Such a meeting size gave the opportunity for some really interesting discussions with project leaders that I, as the youngest PhD student attending, may not otherwise have had the opportunity to have at a larger conference.
Presenting to strangers is terrifying… at first glance
I of course took a poster with me and I thought I was prepared. I had presented posters before, at the Annual Science Meeting here at JIC and at the Norwich and Cambridge Student Symposium, held in June last year. However, presenting a poster to people you know and talk to on a fairly regular basis is much easier than when presenting to a complete stranger who also happens to be a leader in your field! My poster session was the first evening of the conference (which adds a further lesson: don’t present when jet lagged!) so I had yet to meet a lot of people. However, in the end that really doesn’t matter. The thing I learnt from this was to not see presenting a poster as a test of my science as much as an opportunity to see my work in a different light. Being asked questions that I had never thought of, even if they completely stumped me at the time, was incredibly valuable and will only make me a better scientist in the future. I hope that it will make things easier in future to see poster sessions as an opportunity!
If you have a question, it’s generally worth asking
An important skill that most project leaders have that and most students lack is the ability to ask questions on other people’s research in front of others, even when that research isn’t in your subject area. Part of that is of course experience, but mostly it is confidence. During this meeting I never stood up and asked a question at the end of a talk, but I was able to ask questions on a one to one basis at dinner or coffee, and that allowed me to have really interesting discussions in some cases. More importantly it gave me some confidence that my questions were sensible and occasionally interesting! That doesn’t mean I’m going to be asking questions at the end of every seminar, but hopefully it’s an important first step, and that I can build on these experiences in the future.
Mathematical Modelling is awesome
As a mathematical biologist I knew this already of course, but what really impressed me about the meeting was the number of experimentally orientated project leaders who had a great deal of enthusiasm for using modelling to aid their science. A number of speakers made a point of how members of their group had backgrounds in physics and mathematics, and more still had strong collaborations with modelling departments. Speaking to these scientists afterwards, many said how they would always look to have a modeller in their group in the future.
This is hugely encouraging to hear for the future of cross-disciplinary research in this field (not just for my job prospects). Of course plant signalling, with its inherent emphasis on spatial and temporal dynamics quantities that vary in time and in space, is a field where the insights of modelling may have a more obvious benefit to the classical approaches of experimental biology. The feeling amongst those project leaders I spoke to though, and what came out in the panel discussion at the end of the conference, was that the influence of cross-disciplinary collaboration would be of value to all areas of biology: one can only ever benefit from a different way of looking at things.
Panel discussions can be fun
Generally in meetings, from the smallest talk upwards, project leaders dominate the questions and PhD students in particular struggle to find the confidence to contribute. At the end of this conference was a “panel discussion ” in which 5 senior scientists posed questions on the future of research in this field, and invited discussion from the audience. This took the slot normally reserved for a keynote speaker, a decision that emphasised the desire for discussion as apposed to lecturing the organisers had worked hard to instil. Topics discussed ranged from the importance of mathematical modelling to what makes a perfect PhD training program. The format of the panel discussion was great in that it encouraged contribution from students. While it was still terrifying to speak in front of 200 more experienced scientists, the subject matter was such that I didn’t feel so worried about contributing as I might during a discussion on cutting edge science. I feel I gained a lot of confidence from having the opportunity to take part in this. If anything I feel it is a shame this was at the end of the conference!. Having something similar at the start may have given me the confidence to take part more during the scientific talks and posters that made up the body of the conference meeting.
It is generally quite unusual for students to go to international conferences so early in their PhD, particularly when they have so few results! If the main purpose of such a conference is purely to present your research (which perhaps it is for students in later years), then I didn’t get the most out of it. However, I think attending a major conference so early in my career was exceptionally valuable in other ways. Most importantly I believe that I’ve gained a lot of experience in talking to more senior scientists, particularly in a public setting. I’ve still got a long way to go, and I will find out over the next few months whether it has had the positive effect I hope it has! Nevertheless, going through these learning experiences at the start of my career will almost certainly be valuable at later conferences when pressure is higher. Part of the job of a PhD supervisor is to guide a student’s research, but I feel a more important role is to inspire the confidence to take part in scientific discussion at the highest level. From my experience at the Keystone Symposia, getting involved at a scientific conference is a superb way of doing that, and I hope that many other students are able to have the same opportunity I did here.
By Matt Evans a 2nd year PhD student in the lab of Richard Morris