I just attended my last conference. A few months back, around November, I thought I had done just that, but turns out, I was lucky enough to a. get a bunch more of results and b. find a conference solely dedicated to my subject (phosphatases, just in case you were wondering) and on my way I was.
While I still stressed a bit about my presentation, the fact of knowing that I was pretty much done with the project AND the fact that everyone there was well acquainted with the subject, actually calmed me down. You would think that I would’ve been afraid of getting very hard questions, but you see, to quote one of the PIs I met this week: is not the hard questions that are a problem, is the dumb ones.
Now, I’ve always been told that there is no such thing as a dumb question, but that is not necessarily true. Here, the dumb question is the type that shows that the person wasn’t even listening to you in the first place. And the problem with these questions is that you can’t really dismiss them and you have to find a way to answer without showing that you are annoyed by this.
But let us go back to the conference itself. Because it was such a focused meeting, we were maybe 75 participants total. This was great, because it is much easier to mingle, and you would’ve been surprised as to how easy it was this time for me to approach people. I think I have mentioned before that I am very socially awkward. But here, the interest I had in meeting the people behind the research was greater than the fear of talking to strangers. Off course, there is also the fact that I have been super relaxed ever since I submitted my thesis, but that’s a different subject.
It saddens me greatly that it took me so long to find a conference like this. I learned a lot in three days, not only about my subject but many topics related to it. But most importantly. I learned about myself. I learned (or rather confirmed) that my struggle with socializing, even in a professional context, has to do more with the environment than with anything else. And why is this important you ask? Because whether I like it or not, socializing is a big part of what we do. Even if the interactions are made through a computer (hi, nice to see you again) or in person, the fact is that in science we shouldn’t forget about the fact that our research isn’t and shouldn’t be just for ourselves, and part of accomplishing this is being able to talk to others about it, independent of the background.
Being personable and finding a way to be comfortable makes it easier to talk about the complicated parts of your work, without making it complicated for the other person. Case in point, and you may laugh, but for the first time in my professional life, I did a talk and my voice didn’t tremble one single time. Did I manage to answer all of the questions? Well, no, there’s still some things we haven’t been able to answer on my project. But I didn’t freeze, even when a certain professor, known by making quite harsh questions (“I have 2 questions and a comment”) often oriented to destabilize you, was the one asking. And hey, I survived, didn’t I?
I also met great students, and several working on the same protein I do although in very different models. It is very exciting to see how many questions are being answered around it. After 7 years of working with it, it is always nice to see it in other mechanisms.
This time I actually had a poster AND a talk to give, which had never happened to me. I have told you before that I preferred to have posters to talks, because it allows me to open one on one to people and I usually find that discussions are more productive, since the person coming to see your poster is either interested or a judge and in both cases there is a more genuine interaction. This time however, I was extremely lucky; since it was a very small audience, even for my talk I had the attention of (almost) all of the public and both during the poster session and during my talk I got very good comments and relevant questions that I feel can only advance the way I will discuss my results. It is true that a couple of times I ended up answering “that is a great idea, I will pass the suggestion along, but since I am leaving the lab this summer, it will be someone else who answers your question in the future”. But the point remains that there were great ideas.
I wish I would have the opportunity to have more meetings like this through my PhD. That said, I don’t know if my research, or me for that matter, was ready before nowadays. In all, I am extremely happy with this last chance to share my results. Even better, I got to visit England for the first time.
So what I am trying to say with this post, is that if you are still in the search for the right conference for you, don't despair. We all had to pass through symposiums, conferences, congresses etc, where our subject seems to be borderline relevant. But it's by attending this that we manage to identify what we like or dislike of a conference, and how, finally we can find the right match for our research.
What has been your favorite meeting and why?