Science conferences: All they’re craic-ed up to be?

Submitted by Melissa Woodward, PhD Candidate at University of Rhode Island, STEEP Trainee, K.C. Donnelly Externship Awardee

Whenever I am asked about my work, my go-to topic is my research in the Faroe Islands- a small cluster of islands in the heart of the gulf stream between Scotland and Iceland. The Faroese are a remote community uniquely affected by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), an emerging contaminant of concern, in part due to their traditional diet of pilot whales. If I’ve piqued your interest, I redirect you to the STEEP website to learn more about the community and our research with them as that’s not the topic of my writing today. But it should be no surprise that when my advisor suggested presenting my research at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) annual European meeting, I immediately began searching for flights.

The SETAC Europe 33rd Annual Meeting was scheduled to be held in Dublin, Ireland, which also happens to be just a one-hour flight from my family and beloved hometown of Manchester, England. Conferences regularly present as opportunities to travel, explore new places, and immerse yourself in different cultures, but for me traveling to Dublin offered something even more exciting: the chance to present research that I’m truly excited about, whilst surrounding myself with culture and people I love and miss. After all, there’s nothing like dry humor and sarcasm to give an English person warm-fuzzies. Still, even if the conference wasn’t so close to home, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to go, given the ample benefits to attending such an event.

Science conferences are gatherings of researchers from all areas of academia, industry, and government, each in varying stages of their career with their own wealth of knowledge. Presenting and discussing your research amongst such a crowd can often spark new ideas and raise exciting questions that you hadn’t considered before. Many conferences also offer workshops on a variety of topics from resume writing to mastering the latest technology. Maybe you’re just starting out in your field and trying to get your name out there, or maybe you’re coming to the end of your PhD and looking for your next job; conferences provide the space for both. Without a doubt, one of the major benefits of attending any academic conference is broadening your network. A connection made at a conference could be the lead on your next job or a collaboration for your next research project. Beyond the seemingly endless professional development opportunities, conferences also offer a wide array of social events; SETAC offered a student social night and bike and kayak tours of Dublin that filled up within minutes of registration opening. 

It’s easy to see why conferences are considered rewarding academic events. But with such an academically and professionally diverse crowd, sometimes we forget to take a step back and recognise that these events can actually be inaccessible for many. With so much to offer, these events aren’t free, and the cost of registration alone can make a conference unfairly exclusive. After paying registration, there’s transport to book, hotels to find, and food costs to cover. Even a local conference racks up an expense that can make attendance difficult for early career scientists, and researchers from low- and middle-income backgrounds. Virtual options introduced in the pandemic have pushed conferences a step towards accessibility, especially for those unable to travel. However, there’s still a long way to go for equal accessibility. For those who are able to attend, the pressure to squeeze every last drop of opportunity can be mentally and physically draining. I decided that my recent visit to Ireland for SETAC’s annual Europe meeting was the perfect chance to revisit my approach to scientific conferences.

As an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to attend an American Chemical Society (ACS) annual meeting to present a poster on my senior research project. This was around the same time I was trying to figure out my next step after graduation, and it almost felt like the only way to get that next opportunity was through “who you know”. I arrived at the conference anxious to attend every single talk and event, and also feeling immense pressure to be networking at every possible moment. By the end of the first day, I was mentally and physically drained, already tired by the thought of having to do it all again tomorrow.

In the end I didn’t get much out of the ACS meeting. I spent most of my time running around the convention center trying to attend every talk I could, and my brain battery was too low to engage in conversations and connect with people. SETAC was not my first rodeo. I learned from my mistakes and went about the conference in a whole different way: I picked just a few talks a day that really intrigued me, some topics that I was familiar with, and others that sounded interesting, but I knew nothing about. I also allowed myself some guilt-free time to explore the city, visiting local coffee shops and historical sites. Unsurprisingly, the whole conference ended up being extremely rewarding. Being fully present and engaged in talks and events I attended, and making some really cool connections, I left the conference with new ideas about the research I had presented and possible avenues for future projects.

Clearly I’m still learning about best practices for being a conference attendee, so I won’t pretend to have all the answers when it comes to hosting one of these events. But if I could offer some advice, it would be to spend time and energy on figuring out what makes your conference inaccessible so you can employ new practices specific to improving accessibility for your meeting, as it isn’t always a one size fits all. One idea from a conference I recently registered for is providing a space for attendees to tell hosts what exactly they need to make the event accessible for them. And for the attendees still figuring it out, whilst I’m sure my approach isn’t revolutionary to any conference veterans reading, I hope you can approach your next meeting without feeling so much pressure. Take some time to really be present, and make sure to explore the local culture too. As they say in Dublin, it’s a lovely day for a Guinness.