Tuesday, 17th April 2012

Reflection of a conference

The science world is an odd one. Almost all ideas are communicated through one of two means, tried and tested means that show no sign of changing any time soon. The first is that of academic papers or journals, these are essentially like the entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica of old. Each piece has an introduction, a methods section, results and conclusions. Typically any given piece will have a minimum of 4 authors and have to go through 2 sets of reviewers and editors before it can go to print.

The second method is conferences. The principle method of communication here usually involves standing before an audience, with the best presentation available given the time, and giving a 10 to 15 minute summary of the last few years of your professional career.

The second method is that of the humble poster. Which allows a person the space of approximately 1 square metre to prove the worthiness of their last year of strife through figures and minimal text.

Ample time at these events are usually given to coffee and wine receptions (we are scientists after all) with an onus to “networking”.

My problem with past conferences is that people (and by extension scientists) aren't very good at meeting new people. Let alone talking to them for extended periods. Which leaves one with a feeling very similar to that of the first week at university.

Essentially you know no one. You're all in the room through a vague common purpose, but that is essentially it. This is made worse when you know that there are over 20 nationalities in attendance; some with significantly better communication skills than others. That and you are acutely aware that you do not want to make a complete tit of yourself in front of a world renowned professor.

Assuming of course you can break into a conversation with the “old guard”, for these are well versed in conferences and already know a lot of the attendance and will already have well established friendships with several in the room. This leaves you with an odd high school type situation whereby the cool kids already know each other and have their own little niches.

Approximately 3 weeks ago I was in the position where I facing another one of these conferences and my expectations for it were suitably low. The speaker list had just been released and my cursory glance down the list revealed an almost identical list of speakers as the year previous with near identical talk titles. Great! The same old boring people giving the same boring talk as last year I thought, remind me why I'm going?

This was being compounded by two things. First for reasons discussed previously, I'd pretty much resigned myself to not staying in the academic research system and if I'm honest not sure if I could stay in science at all. Second, in the year since the previous conference I had (in terms of this conference) made no progress at all; I had no experimental data. Yes, I'd been doing things in the lab, but it was nothing relevant to the people that would be in attendance.

When the initial registration went around for the conference I had signed up to present a poster under the assumption that my work would start yielding the fruits of labour in time for me to present something meaningful.

In reality, my first experiment completed late on Wednesday afternoon when I was leaving for Manchester on the Friday evening.

With this in mind (and given that the university print services take 48 to 72 hours to print a poster!!!) I resigned myself to taking along my poster from the year previous.

The boss came into the lab for a chat on Thursday evening at about half 6 to discuss if I was ready for the conference and ask about the state of my poster. So I explained that I was just going to take the poster from last year. It was at this point that my boss decided to share with me that one of my key diagrams (~ ¼ of the page) was factually incorrect because the system just doesn't work that way.

When I asked him how he knew, he told me that at the previous year's conference that he'd several conversations with people about it and insisted that I was there for at least one of them. Which was indeed correct, but as I then pointed out the conversation had been in German.

So we got the poster out and discussed it. And sure enough the figure was pretty much gobbledegook, I also then realised looking at the poster for the first time in a while that the one of the other major poster figures was of the odd sample that had turned out to be completely the wrong thing.

An interesting moment of realisation then occurred. That I was supposed to stand in front of my poster and defend the science that it contained when over half of it I knew to be wrong.

So when the time came around I defended my poster with the never say die attitude that I could muster and introduced it with “I wouldn't read that; it's all lies.” Which was usually replied with “It cant all be lies”, which actually lead into a nice dialogue about why it was all lies in light of new evidence that I'd collected since Wednesday.

Roll on to the end of the conference and the conference formal dinner. I sat myself with the nice folks from St. Andrews and when it came to the award ceremony part of the evening I was only barely listening to the speaker. The “best poster” part of the ceremony came up and so confident was I that I had not won anything that I thought it was as good a time as any to finish up my wine and neck it.

Apart from I won.

I actually won. I had to replay what the speaker had just said in my head to confirm to myself that it had been my name whilst simultaneously choking on my wine and nearly spraying it across the table. Much to the amusement of the St Andrews lot.

I raised from my chair and walked to the speaker to applause, and whilst shaking hands did asked quietly “You did mean me right?” in quiet disbelief. But sure enough I had won and received over £250 in books as my prize.

rsc.org - Part of the prize

Not bad right? For a year old, mostly wrong poster.

Pleasingly my good friend Daniel picked up second place, followed by my new conference friend Patricia.

But when I thought about it a little more when I defended my poster there were some puzzled looks from people that weren't really interested, but I had at least 3 very helpful conversations. Perhaps the most surreal of which had 3 professors, of which 2 from Oxford telling me that I had a good idea and that they were excited to see the results.

I sent the rest of the evening going around every senior academic at the conference and asking them to sign one of my books. All of them very happy to congratulate me, and very happy with the flattery of being asked to sign. But really it was a shameless opportunity for me to enter a dialogue and try to advertise myself for a research position upon completion of my PhD. And who knows maybe something will come out of it, maybe it wont, but I handed out a few business cards and I received a few offers of “if you're ever in the area, please stop by the lab”.

But the odd thing is. I really enjoyed the conference. All of it.

I enjoyed talking about my work, I enjoyed talking to others about their work, I enjoyed just talking to others from around Europe and the world. I dont know if it is as a result of going in with the mentality, of what have I got to lose and just talking to anyone and whether that was prompted by my own confidence or by my assumption that I wouldnt be coming to another one of these meetings. Perhaps I was just more confident in my knowledge after another year in the field. Or perhaps it was because it was the conference where I was not going with someone from my own group and I didn't have that social crutch and so threw myself into it more. I dont know. But I enjoyed. Enjoyed, to the extent where I'm reconsidering my career again.

Most of all, it was nice to have others excited about my work. At the professional level science becomes more about the pebble than the mountain range. To the extent that family, friends, partners and even bosses and co-workers dont necessarily know what you do and working in such a vacuum of input and excitement makes for a very independent existence. One that second to none when it works and one when it feels hard to find any motivation for anything when it's going badly.

Having that excitement, that interest and input from others has given me the most motivation for my science that I've had since I've started.

For me it just reinforces everything I've ever said. Never start a PhD unless you're completely sure. It is not a job, it's a lifestyle. You can leave the lab, but you never leave the work. It follows you home and keeps you up at night. It is a labour of love. And it will make you or break you. On the other side you can wear it like a badge of honour or a badge of insanity.

About Morgan Bye

Scientist, programmer and all around techie