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Sophia N. Wassermann

PhD student in Marine Science at the National University of Ireland, Galway & Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. Interested in computational approaches to issues at the intersection of fisheries and climate change. Currently modelling mackerel collective behaviour. MSc in Biodiversity & Conservation (with Distinction) from Trinity College Dublin; B.A. in Environmental Studies from Vassar College.

Watch, talk, and be merry: Learning to make the most of conferences

I went to a conference a couple of weeks ago and I was reminded, again, how important they are for professional development….not to mention fun.

The conference was the Marine Biological Association Postgraduate Conference, a small gathering of postgraduate students in the UK and Ireland. It was held in Cornwall, a ‘you can’t get there from here’ situation from Galway, taking 11.5hrs each way. The travel was totally worth it, as the talks were phenomenal and the other attendees friendly. I have to say, though, I’m always surprised at how much I enjoy conferences. You can see how much fun I’m having giving this talk….

MBA conference

Presenting at the Marine Biological Association Postgrad Conference 2017

I think I grew up with a bias against conferences, in theory. My father is an academic/physician, so during my childhood, he would jet off to conferences and meetings, and since I’m not a professional contact of his (whatever our linked-ins may suggest) I mostly heard about his distaste for business travel, rather than the relationships he built and conversations he had.

Therefore, when it came time to attend my first conference, I expected it to be boring and impersonal. And, unfortunately, the first conference I attended was not the best experience. This was no fault of the organization. Rather, the size (~1500 people), and a snowstorm in the Midwest preventing my roommate and the only people I knew from attending, made my experience less fulfilling than it could have been. I was too awkward to seek out student events or interact with other attendees. The best part, right at the end, was the poster session, when I discussed my research with outside scientists for the first time. Though I was terrified at the beginning of the session, everyone who came to see my poster was genuinely interested and unendingly friendly. See? A genuine smile….

SICB poster

Our poster at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Conference Annual Meeting 2014

Since then, I’ve had wonderful conference experiences. My second conference was the 3rd International Marine Conservation Congress in Glasgow, Scotland. I presented a poster and, more importantly, built a connection with the organizing committee that has led me to serving on the board of the Society. Now, I’ve given talks at two more conferences, but still, my favorite part of conferences are the conversations at coffee breaks and pub nights. I still need to work on actually approaching people and starting conversations, a manifestation of my ongoing fight against Impostor Syndrome.

Attending smaller conferences, like the one I just went to, can help with feeling more connected to the other attendees and they are equally valuable for wonderful talks, inspiring keynotes, and intriguing posters. Not to mention pub nights and socials.

All of this is to say, please go to as many conferences as you can, even if you’re not presenting. Please strike up a conversation with someone (especially if it’s me!), attend student events. Please end up talking to a scientist whose research you’ve based an entire project on at 2AM at a bar in a foreign city (or the more responsible version of that).

Also, if you have ideas for student events, or want to be involved in planning the 5th IMCC, please get in touch!