08 March 2012

Small conference, big conference

Scientific meetings come in all shapes and sizes. There are the small regional conferences, with mostly students, and there are major international conferences, with scientists at all stages of their careers.

What are the differences between these conferences for poster presenters? Should you expect a different treatment at one event compared to the other, and should you prepare and think about them differently?

I’m at the stage where I’ve gone to enough conferences that maybe I’m... not jaded – I still love conferences – but I may not be as sensitive to how different those experiences are as someone going to them for the first time.

I asked two of my students, Nadia Carreon and Sakshi Puri, to write up their experiences of presenting at poster sessions. Both had been to conferences before. But could those experiences prepare them for last fall, when the three of us went to Neuroscience, the biggest scientific in the world?

Nadia’s view

Where should begin describing the difference between the Texas Academy of Science and Neuroscience poster sessions I participated in?...

Texas Academy of Science meeting

Neuroscience meeting

The difference may be obvious. Several thousand people obvious!

My experience presenting our poster at these two conferences can be best explained as taking a step and then a leap. I’m glad my first conference was at the Texas Academy of Science because it was smaller and allowed me to get a feel for what it’s like to be approached with questions and comments. In other words, it was a great warm up!

People from all science fields present at the TAS, so their questions were a bit more diverse; from environmental to behavioral. At the Society for Neuroscience, everybody is in the same field and the questions were solely on the nervous system, something that made me quite nervous at the beginning. It was a good nervous though, and what I enjoyed the best because this kept me on my toes.

I presented at the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) poster session (right), which wasn’t the main conference. [Over 700 people attended the FUN session, which is bigger than many international conferences! - ZF] The picture of the SfN above shows a section of the main poster session, and it’s apparent that it can be both a very scary and exciting experience. Not to mention those last four hours! I’m glad I presented with other undergrads and for half the time because it eased the neuroscience overload I had built up from all the posters I visited during the day. I got the chance to see what my neighboring posters were about and a look into what other undergrads were doing in different universities. This FUN poster session was a great way to take the first step into this vast conference I certainly hope will not be my last.

Nadia Carreon is co-author of this paper:

Carreon N, Faulkes Z, Fredensborg BL. 2011. Polypocephalus sp. infects the nervous system and increases activity of commercially harvested white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus). Journal of Parasitology 97(5): 755-759. http://dx.doi.org/10.1645/GE-2749.1

An earlier version of one of Nadia’s posters was featured here.

Sakshi’s view

That was my first impression of Society for Neuroscience. I had been warned many times that this meeting can be overwhelming, but there is really no way to anticipate the effect of a phenomenon that brings together thirty thousand people of the scientific community, all whom are interested in one common thing: neuroscience. You feel like a speck among those who are vastly accomplished and whose level knowledge far exceeds yours, and yet the geek in you is overjoyed to find companions who fully understand and share your enthusiasm for neuroscience.

One of my favorite moments at the conference was talking to a graduate student about electrophysiology. I mentioned to him that the sound I love the most is the one that a firing neuron makes from a perfect dissection. It’s my Nessun dorma, mostly because I’m not lucky enough to get that as often as I would like. He looked at me with an understanding I seldom find outside of my lab. I think it was in that moment that my inner neuroscience geek felt like she had reached home. This was feeling I would never forget.

I presented a poster at this conference. I should say this, this is not the first poster I have presented or the first conference that I been to, but it was much different, in terms of my interaction with people about my work. This might have been due to the fact that most people presenting their research are graduate students or post docs and I am neither, but I felt that the level of interaction about my work was a lot higher than I had anticipated.

Usually, when giving a talk, I am asked basic questions about my research, but at SfN, I felt that after I gave people a short tour of my poster, most were interested in talking about future potential research and discussing literature. I thanked my lucky stars that day because I obsessively read up on just about everything that has to do with invertebrate nociception and even nociception in general, but even so, I felt that I stumbled on some questions that people were asking.

But even so, I had a lot of people around my posters for four hours straight and had some very insightful conversations that have proven to be extremely helpful. I didn’t realize it at the time but adrenaline rush you get when people genuinely want to know about what you’re doing can make time seem to fly. By the end of it, I was exhausted, but excited at the same time. I celebrated it by eating the best gluten free pizza I have ever had in my life!

By the way, a tip to people who want to attract bodies at their poster: If you have a cool video that goes with your poster, use a QR code. I did, and it was a major hit. And it was extremely useful.

I think SfN is an extremely useful place to network and the fact that there are socials designed specifically for your interest really helps narrow down the people you may be most interested in meeting. And when you do meet them, you realize just how small the scientific community really is. Everyone seems to know everyone in their field and you realize that you are connected to more than more people that you would think. I believe that by going to the conference and meeting the people who do the things I am interested in, I finally feel like I am in the loop. For such a long time, I have been the only one in my lab working on invertebrate nociception, wondering who out there likes this stuff and what would it be like to hang out with them. I finally met them and had the time of my life. I know this will sound cheesy but for a small town girl, Society for Neuroscience opened some rather large doors and for that I am extremely grateful. It was truly an experience that I will cherish for a long time.

Sakshi Puri is co-author of this paper:

Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2010. Do decapod crustaceans have nociceptors for extreme pH? PLoS ONE 5(4): e10244. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010244

Earlier versions of Sakshi’s posters are featured here.

What was the experience of giving a poster like at your first big conference?

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