Want to confer on conferences? Peruse a post on posters? Maybe talk a tad about talks? (but not TED talks) then you’re in luck! But not as lucky as I am! Because, I’m going to get to attend the RNA Society’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada next year thanks to the generosity of the IUBMB. And I’m soooo excited!  The meeting’s not until May 2020, but I can’t wait! So I want to give you an idea of what goes on in such SCIENTIFIC CONFERENCES & meetings and why I’m feeling so grateful. 

Scientific meetings and conferences are a great way for scientists to communicate their latest (often unpublished) work to one another through a combination of talks and posters. Add to this great opportunities for networking and you’ve got yourself a protocol for mols and mols of exhilarating yet exhausting explorational educational enjoyment! 

So I’m soooooo excited that the International Union of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (IUBMB) has offered to send me to next year’s RNA Society meeting. My role as IUBMB Student Ambassador (which I’m still jazzed about…) usually involves weekly “Bri*fings from the Bench” but during the conference I’ll be briefing you (more frequently) from the scene of the conference, giving you a trainee’s perspective of what’s going on.Here are some things to expect when you’re expecting to go to a scientific conference!  

Conferences are often hosted by scientific organizations (like the RNA Society) or groups of organizations (like the Experimental Biology conference which the ASBMB national conference is part of). They come in all sizes & types – from small local gatherings with a single lineup of talks in 1 room to huge international meetings held in giant conference centers with multiple talks being held at the same time in different rooms, so you have to scout out your schedule ahead of time and hope that the talks you want to go to don’t overlap in time but are close-by in location (rushing from one talk to the next can be quite the workout)

This talk “scouting out” is aided by abstracts – not “abstract” in the sense of my strange analogies, but “abstracts” as in the paragraph (or couple paragraph) summary that presenters provide. Just like you can find such abstracts to articles in scientific journals (and can usually access them even if you can’t access the paper itself due to a paywall), scientific talks and posters have abstracts too. 

These abstracts have traditionally been published into abstract books that attendees get, but these days more and more conferences are going green and making the abstract books digital, sometimes accompanied by conference apps that include abstracts, schedules, and locations. 

In addition to the formal scientific programming, there are often social and community service events before or after the official meeting. Usually these events are before the conference because after the conference you’re way too exhausted! For example, when I attended the ASBMB meeting this year, I did a “Day of Service” helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity – and I actually got to meet & work with one of my Instagram friends, Juliet Obi (@queening_in_science). We continue to stay in touch and it’s so exciting to follow her journey!

But back to the meeting – let’s talk about the talks. Usually there are a couple types of talks – some are from invited speakers – often leading scientists in the field – and sometimes accompanied by the receiving of an award. For example, at the RNA Society meeting I”m going to, the IUBMB is sponsoring “Jubilee Lectures” from Modern Therapeutics’ Melissa Moore and Harvard’s Jack Szostak. These invited lectures tend to be longer and held in the fancy big rooms because they draw big crowds. 

And deservedly so – it’s an amazing experience to get to hear directly from scientists who you’ve only read about (and sometimes have based much of your work around). I especially love when they talk about the history of their discoveries (and show funny pictures of them in their youth)

But don’t overlook all the other great talks from people that have to “toot their own horn” and submit an abstract convincing the organizers why their work is worthy of stage time. The organizers choose speakers from submitted abstracts 

Name recognition isn’t just a thing for politicians. When “big names” publish papers, their results can make a bigger splash than papers from “small names” but that doesn’t mean the “small names” don’t have big ideas to share. So a great thing about these “non-headliner” talks is that you get to hear from people whose work you might not have heard about.

After each speaker’s talk, there’s usually a few minutes for Q & A. Depending on the setup, questioners line up at mics or raise their hand and hope to be called on. Asking questions in front of crowds of experienced scientists can be intimidating, especially for students and especially when the topic is slightly outside of your field so you don’t know if the answer to your question’s “obvious” to those “in the know”

This is one reason I love poster sessions. These are kinda like the grown-up version of a science fair (usually without the fun props like exploding volcanoes). They’re typically held in big rooms with a maze of cork boards stuffed full of giant posters. The posters usually have numbers making them easier to find and often presenters have designated presentation times where they’re “required” to stand by their poster to answer questions. Sometime conferences do things like “even numbers present from some time to some time and odd numbers present from some other time to some other time” so that the presenters get a chance to look around too. 

Speaking of which, there can be a lot to explore on the poster floor! So in addition to the abstracts, some conferences have “flash talks” where poster presenters give a short (~1 min) “elevator pitch” for why you should visit their poster. I really like these – from an audience perspective, they’re as they’re a great way for you to find out what’s out there to see – and, for the presenter, they’re a great chance to practice public speaking and really getting to the heart of the message (something that rambley me definitely needs to work on…)

Unlike published papers, which require a lot of “lead time” (and pencil lead time (although nowadays more like keyboard time), posters, while requiring significant thought and attention, don’t have to go through the whole editorial process, so they often feature work that’s more “hot of the presses.” 

Another benefit of the poster sessions is that you can spend as long as you want looking at and thinking about figures and data that’s presented (as opposed to just seeing it quickly flash on a screen). Sometimes when you’re in a talk something you see can turn on an idea lightbulb in your brain but then you get really distracted thinking of that exciting idea you just had and zone out the rest of the talk. 

So, especially for people like me who learn best with visuals, being able to stare at figures for as long as you want is great (even if a bit awkward). And speaking of uncomfortable situations, a great thing about poster sessions is that you can ask presenters your questions directly with less risk of embarrassing yourself in front of a room of colleagues and potential future hirers/collaborators.

For students and early career researchers especially these poster sessions are a really great way to learn about the latest techniques and findings – and meet new people. For established scientists, poster sessions might not hold the same appeal – these scientists often all know each other well so if they have questions they can just talk to the researcher directly whenever. Although, especially at smaller meetings, many senior investigators take the time to come to our posters and talk to us. This is often a good way to get your work on their radar for postdoc opportunities! 

I also LOVE going to the undergraduate poster sessions and talking to undergrads about their work. It’s my dream job to work teaching undergrads at a small school, so I find these interactions so rewarding and I love seeing their excitement for their work. 

I attended my first conference as an undergraduate – thanks to my college’s undergraduate research program I was able to attend the ASBMB’s National meeting in Boston and present a poster about my research. I came from a small liberal arts school (shoutout to the great people of St. Mary’s College of California!), which didn’t even have graduate programs in science, so the conference was an amazing opportunity to get a look at the wider scientific world. I learned a lot, met lots of great people, and, for the first time, was really able to see myself as a “scientist”

This year, thanks to my PI (lab head) Leemor Joshua-Tor’s generosity I was able to attend the national ASBMB conference again. And it was actually there that I met IUBMB president-elect Alexandra Newton, which eventually led to me becoming Student Ambassador for the IUBMB. Which brings me to another major benefit (albeit one that’s hard for me) – networking!

As much as it may surprise people based on my alter ego, I’m actually an introvert, so conferences are especially exhausting for me because I have to “switch on” my extrovert fake-it-til-you-make-it-ness in order to reap the benefits of networking. Conferences are a great way to meet scientists of all levels from all over the world. You never know who you’ll meet in the hotel lobby! You might even run into president-elect Alexandra Newton who, although you don’t know it yet, will play a huge role in your life.  

There’ll be a ton of information coming to you from all over, so you’ll want to take notes. If you forget your pen, no worries – you can pick up like a mol of them in the exhibit hall where vendors from different companies demo their equipment, tell you about their reagents (chemicals you use for experiments), and give you SWAG like pens with their contact info printed on them (speaking of which, I’ve been informed that there shall be IUBMB pens! (and info about all the great things the IUBMB does to support biochemists around the world).

When I attended a smaller meeting a few weeks ago, the New York Structural Biology Discussion Group (NYSBDG) Summer meeting, there was a virtual reality company called Nanome there doing demos and I got to play with proteins in VR and it was SOOOO COOL! And they might even come demo it at our lab 🤞

Not all the exhibitors are there to make $$. At the ASBMB conference I met a group from the MSOE Center for BioMolecular Modeling (CBM). They have a molecular model lending library – they’ll let you borrow 3D-printed molecular models for 2 weeks to use with your classes – you just have to pay the return shipping! 

Yesterday I led a camp activity for middle-schoolers about protein structure – and I used model kits from MSOE to help explain concepts. I also used another tool I learned about at the ASBMB conference – print & fold models from the PDB-101 (RCSB PDB (Protein Data Base)’s educational website. Ever since the conference I had been looking forward to a chance to try these out and at the camp they provided a great tool for explaining protein structure and the relationship between structure and function. It was a of fun (hopefully for the students too!) and you can learn more about it here: http://bit.ly/2zzgGGE 

Conferences are mostly awesome, but one unfortunate part is that lab coat capes are not yet traditional attire – although I did wear one when giving a talk for the ASBMB about using social media for science communication. Speaking of which – not all of the talks are “research-focused” ones – there are often sessions on topics such as communication, education, and addressing issues of inequality in science to foster diversity (something the IUBMB is devoted to, providing fellowships and resources to underserved populations around the world). 

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