The “Less Obvious” Benefits of Attending Scientific Meetings

I am Junior Faculty Member in an institution where there isn’t a large group of other scientists working in my field so I typically go to 2 to 3 research-specific conferences per year. Students often think that the only reason to attend scientific meetings is to hear about the latest science in your field, and to share your own recent findings. They are surprised to learn that, while it is true that it is one of the best ways to learn about unpublished and new data, this in NOT the major benefit to attending a conference! I just got back from the annual meeting for the Society for the Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC) and below is a summary of 15 things I got out of it:

1. Yes, the most obvious thing gained is the new knowledge and findings of leaders in the field.
2. Less well appreciated is the re-enforcement and reminders of things I know, but maybe had forgotten the importance of, as it relates to my research.
3. Hearing about the exciting novel findings of others, AND what still remains unclear, was a great way to get re-energized and motivated to complete and share my current work.
4. I made some new friends. I met 5 MDs that I had never met before and had a great and unexpected dinner socializing with them. I got to hear their perspectives on the field and share my academic PhD perspective with them. (It was also a refreshing reminder that I definitely made the right personal choice for me in not pursuing a MD. To each his own.)
5. I introduced myself to a well-known famous scientist in my specific area of research.
6. I got a chance to test out my 2-minute elevator speech about my research at a special networking event. I worked on re-phrasing it! It was much better the 2nd time.
7. One of the scientists from that networking event liked my 2 min elevator speech (the 1st version), and the next night found me and discussed data that he had from years ago that was relevant to my studies. He was willing to dig it up and share it with me. Score!
8. I solidified a formal collaboration. I met an American scientist at a conference in Italy 3 months ago. We had discussed our shared research interest and about establishing a collaboration. We ran into each other at this meeting, talked, and actually came up with a plan for sharing materials to divide the division of labor and answer a question we are both interested in. The materials are coming next week. Score!
9. I chatted with the program officer for a recent grant submission and found out about a planned grant posting that is particularly relevant to me. I also learned a little more about the NIH funding process that I hadn’t heard before. We also talked about a publication for a special issue of a journal he is over.
10. I went to a meet-the-expert breakfast and got to talk with a very established senior scientist and get advice on grant writing. The more established scientists I meet one-on-one the better. He pointed out that he got his graduate degree before I was born. It certainly made me realize that this is a marathon and not a sprint.
11. I got to see old friends. I met with old colleagues from my post-doctoral days and got to hear about their current positions and research. From government, to biotech, to academia. We are a very diverse group.
12. In a talk unrelated to what I do, I learned of a nice experimental technique that I could easily apply to my studies to answer a current research question in my lab.
13. I got time to think about my current research and how it fits in to the bigger picture. This is a precious and rare commodity.
14. I got some helpful career development training. I attended a professional development session designed for early career scientists and learned some strategies for being a better mentor and navigating the tenure process. The learning process never stops in this job.
15. Last, I got useful teaching materials. Introductions to talks are always great ways to get references for new articles that I can use for the tumor immunology course I teach at my university.
Most scientists will tell you that besides the knowledge, the second most important thing about attending meetings is “networking”. That word used to scare me. A lot! I imagined myself walking up to random people and having to say “Hi, my name is Charlie. What’s your name and what do you do?”. Ugh! While this actually works great for naturally outgoing people, I am….. unfortunately NOT… of those people. In spite of this, I’d like to point out that the list above certainly includes some successful networking in several places. Number 6 was a very deliberate attempt at making myself network at this conference by attending a special networking event. It worked out great and allowed number 7 on the list to happen. Then intentionally forcing myself to make the acquaintance of a well-know scientist in my field (number 5) is actually how number 4 happened. As hard as it was for me to walk up to someone who doesn’t know me and introduce myself, it worked out just fine. No blood was shed. In fact, she was extremely nice and invited me to join the table with her and a few others. Everyone got to chatting and having a very nice time. We moved to a restaurant and continued a very fun evening. An unexpectedly nice surprise that will make it much easier next time! In fact, there wasn’t a single person that I talked to that gave me the evil eye or wasn’t quite friendly. I unknowingly sat down at a table where a program officer (the administrator over grant applications) from NIH was eating and we began talking. I chatted a little about myself, and my research, and learned some new information about the NIH funding process that I wasn’t aware of previously. More unplanned, but fantastic, networking. This networking is still something I will continue to push myself to do. But I imagine that the more I do it, the easier it will get. And if I can do it, ANYONE can do it.

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