Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Compare and Contrast: conference size and conference experiences

by Dr Jane Bunting

As you might have noticed, it’s conference season in academia (the largest one, anyway – smaller flurries around Christmas and Easter also occur).  I was very restrained, and restricted myself to attending two meetings this summer.  That was partly a financial decision – resources are limited, and if I need to pay part of the costs for going to a meeting myself I need to have a pretty compelling reason to go – and partly because Dr Michelle Farrell and I were hosting one of them, so anticipated a lot of work which would distract from doing actual research.  We’ll say more about the science elements of each conference later, but in this post I wanted to say something about the differences between a small meeting and a large one.
Blurry Twitter pic of the opening session at INTECOL13
(from @Scienceheather used without permission). 
The hall just about sat 2000 people... the tiny bright things at the
front are the people speaking!
The large meeting was INTECOL2013 (see Lindsay Atkinson’s post here about the meeting in general, and check out the twitter hashtag #INT13 for an insight into the range of science AND socialising that goes on at a large meeting).  This was held in a purpose built conference venue in London’s docklands (with air-conditioned lecture rooms!  Luxury!), lasted five days between 19th and 23rd August (with optional trips, registration and a drinks reception on Sunday the 18th), and had around 2000 delegates from 67 countries.

View from the speaker's lectern at the small meeting
(BEFORE the talk began!) own photo
The small meeting was entitled ‘Landscape-scale palaeoecology’ and was part of the Crackles Bequest Project.  The meeting part lasted for three days (6th – 8th August), with workshop sessions offering training in the use of data analysis software on Monday 5th and Friday 9th which most of the registrants also attended.  It was held in various rooms in the Cohen Building, where the Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences Department is housed at Hull, and the middle day Wednesday was spent on a bus and visiting a couple of local nature reserves.  We had 34 delegates
attending at least one day, and they came from 11 different countries.

At a small meeting, it’s possible to know everyone by name by the end of the meeting, and there is only one activity scheduled at any one time.  That means that everyone goes to the same talks, so shares the same basis for discussion.  I made a point of trying to chat with everyone at least once during a lunch or coffee break, or evening meal, and I think I just about succeeded.  At the large meeting, it was probably impossible even to see every attendee, since there were usually multiple parallel sessions of talks spread across up to 19 rooms, and people came and went.  Even the ‘plenary’ talks when one big-name speaker was scheduled to speak in the biggest of rooms weren’t attended by everyone; I certainly wasn’t the only person reading the title and abstract, noticing how far from my own areas of interest the talk was, and using that slot to sleep in a little or to meet with someone to talk science or just to wander around the exhibits or sit down and digest what I’d heard so far.  As the week wore on, some people took advantage of the padded benches in the common areas outside the lecture rooms to take naps, and many used the free wifi to check email or otherwise spend time online.  I set myself a modest goal of talking to one new person each day, since I knew I’d want to spend time with colleagues who are also friends who I don’t see much of outside of conferences, and that worked well for me.  I never did really work out the schedule, though...

For the small meeting, we handed out name-badges, the abstract volume (booklet containing the programme and short summaries of each talk and poster, provided by the author(s)) was put together by Michelle and photocopied the week before, and there was also a box of pens for those who needed a writing implement.  The registration fee also included coffee breaks and lunches.  Large meetings cost a lot more than small meetings, but often much of that cost is related to hiring the venue and venue staff such as caterers to serve coffee or security people to check badges and look after luggage.  We were all presented with a nice eco-friendly carrier bag containing an eco-friendly pen (sadly, these are not chewing resistant, and I bust mine within a few hours of starting to use it), a couple of advertising fliers and a professionally printed programme showing all the events and their locations.  Abstracts for individual talks and posters were available on-line or via an ‘app’, but not issued in printed form – given that there were around 1000 talks and several hundred posters, the choice between teeny tiny print and weighing everyone down would have been pretty difficult!  There was also a large exhibition hall containing stands where groups like professional societies, publishers, equipment manufacturers and software suppliers had displays.  In order to attract attention, many of these displays had Free Things to give away, especially pens (I picked up another eco-pen with a barrel made of recycled cardboard, and it was falling apart within an hour.  I’m just not good at pens!  My eco-pencil, made from lunch trays, is working fine).  The British Ecological Society had particularly great freebies, including notebooks, post-it pads, travel card wallets, badges and even keyring torches, all decorated with their logo. 

In terms of social media, we announced that the conference was happening to the rest of the department by email the week before (so that they wouldn’t be too surprised by the group of strangers traipsing from the Earth Science Lab where we had lectures to the Map Room for lunch or round to the centrally booked computer room Cohen-107 for a practical session) and the schedule was shared via a pink-highlighter-adorned notice on my office door each day.  A few tweets mentioned the conference, but it didn’t have its own hash-tag.  INTECOL made much more use of social media, from the earliest stages of advertising the meeting, with regular bulletins emailed round a mailing list and the conference advertised via listservs and different academic societies, to having all the abstracts and the programme (along with travel information and other useful stuff) available via a free app for mobile devices, and even using Twitter as the only medium for asking questions in the plenary sessions with the big-name speakers.  I actually felt rather left out at times, as I don’t currently have a smart phone, and could have done with one during the day at sessions to keep in touch rather than just logging in occasionally via my netbook when I had a table to put it on.  I joke that I don’t have one because I’m a Luddite and my current phone works perfectly well still so why replace it, but part of the reason is that I am very distractible, and I worry that I’ll spend far too much time tweeting and emailing and playing Angry Birds if I have a smart phone.

Both types of conference are enjoyable, and exhausting, and full of good science and new ideas.  Big conferences are good if you are a bit of an intravert and need quiet time to recharge your energy, since it’s very easy to find a space in the programme when you won’t be missed and a place to sit alone.  Big conferences are exciting, there’s no doubt about that, but they can also be rather overwhelming, and unless your interests are finely focused and align with one of the major themes of the meeting you can feel like you are constantly missing out on talks you really want to go to because they clash with something else in the programme.  Small meetings are intense in a different way, since you spend a lot of time with the same people – but since they are all nerdily interested in the same scientific problem, there are always things to talk about.  For me, both are more enjoyable in retrospect, when the hassles of lugging bags across London on the underground on a hot day or of dealing with all the little problems such as printing off e-boarding passes for return flights, booking taxis, and helping people navigate the bizarreness that is British railway pricing policies have faded into the background, and what you remember are the good conversations, the exciting new ideas and the sense of being part of a scientific community.
Picture of a crowded session at INTECOL13 (from Simon Harold (@sid_or_simon)'s twitter feed, used without permission)
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