Attending conferences as a post-graduate student

Conferences are more important for networking than they are for sharing or learning when you are a post-graduate student.

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A conference without networking is just a proceeding of abstracts or papers. You may disagree, especially if you are shy, but depending on who you meet, attending a conference could change your life.

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The reason I am here writing this for you is because I met my current advisor at a conference.

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So what is the point of networking? Is it only useful if you are looking forward? Why drum up the courage to talk to the Prof or even the Minister of Science?

 

Even if you are not looking for anything, every meeting can still be beneficial. Below are some questions that you can ask any scientist. Even if you study biology and they study astronomy, or if you study plants and they study marine mammals, such conversations could be beneficial to you.

  • ask for advice (e.g. how does a young, South African scientist get ahead in the world?)
  • ask what they would’ve done differently,
  • ask about an experience they recommend (for an international student in SA for example)
  • ask about their personal story (what inspired you to become a scientist?)

 

The timing of conferences is certainly relevant to the pants you wear, but even if you are far from transitioning to a new degree or job, meet as many people as you can. If you meet someone outside of your field or someone irrelevant to your mission, ask if they recommend anyone at the conference that you should to speak to.

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Meet people that aren’t immediately relevant to your project, maybe they will inspire you to shift specializations, or alternatively, bolster your current interest. Conversations with strangers will help you find out more about yourself.

 

There is a positive linear relationship between the importance of networking and the time spent on your current degree, assuming you want to continue learning and pursuing science further after you finish. If you are close to finishing, and you want to continue on the path of advancing knowledge, treat every conference as a career fair, update your CV and make some business cards.

 

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to contact people ahead of time, especially for bigger conferences. Look through the schedule of presentations, take note of the talks relevant to your interests, and send those individuals emails. Introduce yourself and attached your CV. Then, when you meet them at the conference, you can say: “My name is… I contacted you a few weeks ago”.

 

 

Here are some suggestions for taking the next step to actually meet strangers:

  • Follow up with questions. Perhaps the most obvious is to approach people after their talks. This is generally well accepted and usually expected.
  • Eat with strangers. Less obvious but even more casual is to use meal opportunities. Pick a random table and sit next to someone you don’t know to eat your food. Then, start or join a random conversation.
  • Attend social events. Many conferences also arrange social events, generally providing liquid lubricant to alleviate the awkwardness of scientists. Never miss a social event at a conference.
  • Use your poster as a conversation starter or activity. Stand by your poster more often than the actual designated poster session, check back occasionally to see if anyone is perusing it. Also, use your poster as a tool to explain your interests and current research, ask people if you can show them your poster and arrange a time or walk to it with them.
  • Meet people through twitter. Twitter is an incredible tool to participate in discussions centered on conferences. You can shamelessly promote yourself or your poster, or you can use it to have conversations, summarize a main point, add your perspective to discussions or talks, and set up meetings. “Hey I am at this conference too! Come by my poster tomorrow”

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There is enormous variation in science persona, but I am yet to meet a scientist unwilling to entertain a short introduction. Use these opportunities to ‘pick their brains’. Avoid the comfort of your friends and put yourself out there for one or two nights to maximize your conference experiences.

Part 2: activities to practice and improve your #scicomm skills

I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago, 2014. Although this meeting is not directly open to the public, many of the sessions were recorded and broadcast. In addition, this conference was enormous, covering many facets of science, with fairly general sessions overall, completely different than the highly specialized conferences I had been to previously. Despite the generalization, many of the presentations were catered toward small, specific audiences, failing to reach scientists and journalists from other backgrounds.

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One presentation from a session about climate change stands out in my memory: I was a ‘session aid’—a role they give some students to reduce the registration fees—and during the presentation someone from the audience asked me if there was evaluation/feedback forms because she was not able to follow the presentation at all. Unfortunately there were not any forms for that kind of feedback, so the presenter probably continues to lose his audience today.

I don’t remember much about the presentation (surprise), but I do remember the presenter used diagrams directly from their publications throughout the talk. Such diagrams (modeling changing climates, etc.) can be pretty complex, obscuring the main point of each slide, limiting the audience to those who would read their publication.

The point is not that everyone needs to communicate science better. This presenter was undoubtedly on the front line of scientific discovery, making climate change projections, and advancing knowledge—a noble, traditional scientist. But, the point is that sometimes you may want to cater your talk to a broader audience. The purpose of this blog post is to provide ideas for practicing communication with broader audiences, ultimately helping you avoid creating stories similar to this one. Bear in mind, I’m not an expert, but I have not been afraid to dabble in science communication myself. And I have the benefit of still being a student; learning is all I do…

Participate in a #scicomm training course or workshop:

I know about some of the science communication workshops available in SA, but if you know of more, comment below so other readers can find out about them.

  • Pretoria: The University of Pretoria hosted a Media Skills workshop for post-graduate students in May 2016. The workshop was organized by Science Link and was designed to help scientists work with the media. Science Link will organize similar workshops for other universities. Attending the workshop at UP was free for post-grads, but the university had to pay for Science Link to organize the activity.

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  • Online (Stellenbosch): There is an incredible, local online training course starting in September. The program, ‘Science communication: An introduction to theory, best practice and practical skills,’ is a six-week online course accepting applications until August 1st. It is led by members of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) and the Department of Journalism. Unfortunately, the course is not free, but the cost is worth the training.

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For free training resources, I recommend following the Science Communication Africa group on Facebook or occasionally browsing the #scicomm hashtag on twitter. There is a pretty big science communication movement internationally, so there are a lot of resources out there.

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Join or create a #scicomm group

The CREST group at Stellenbosch University, mentioned previously, is an excellent example of a group of science communication specialists. The group organizes a regular public seminar that often features talks about communicating science. This group would be difficult to clone, but you can organize or join a more ‘light-weight’ group that serves a similar purpose if your institute or university doesn’t have one already. For example, while I was at Oregon State, I was part of a voluntary science communication steering committee that organized and offered a monthly brown-bag-lunch (bring your own lunch) seminar featuring various speakers (lecturers, researchers, media specialists, journalists, etc.) from around the university. This group organized seminars about interviewing tips, science writing, crowdfunding, science engagement and much more. All it takes to start a group like this is to email some media specialists asking them to prepare a talk to help scientists communicate with them, and finding a venue. And believe it or not, your university (however tiny) probably has a public communications section.

Compete!

If you are a Post-graduate, there are many competitions about communicating your thesis (FAMELab, TEDx, etc.). These competitions generally require you to present the importance of your thesis in 3 minutes or less, sometimes without any help from power point or video footage. Although this may be the most daunting way to present information, it is probably the best science communication practice you could ever have. Other competitions also exist where you create and submit videos, which may be a little less daunting, but requires more post-production. For example, here is a competition where you actually dance your thesis: http://gonzolabs.org/dance/ —it’s a form of communication, right? Would you dance your thesis for $500 USD?

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#FAMEClub is a combination of the two activities mentioned above. Innovator and leader, Darryl Herron, organized a sort of journal club called #FAMEClub that invites post-graduate students at University of Pretoria to select and present recent science publications in less than 3 minutes, then having a discussion about the topic. After a few weeks of presenters, the group hosts a competition, open to anyone at UP, to see who can communicate the importance of their selected paper the best, under 3 minutes of course. I participated in the first competition, but I didn’t win. So it goes.

Just this week (June 20, 2016) a science writing competition was announced (great timing). Science Today is a competition for post-graduate students studying in South Africa to be recognized one of the country’s best post-graduate science writers. The deadline for applying, submitting a short essay, is July 20th. Submitting an essay for this competition will be good practice because it requires you to write for a broad, popular audience.

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Write to the public

Speaking of writing, it doesn’t have to be a competition to be good practice. Some news platforms, specifically thinking of The Conversation, help scientists write for a broader audience. The Conversation has an Africa-focused pilot section and I hear their editors are exceptionally helpful and brilliant when it comes to the final touches of a writing piece. It is a platform where scientists or specialists write articles, which are then made available for free to journalist and news sources to republish. I think of it as a pseudo press release. Try it out! Try submitting an article on The Conversation to supplement and summarize your next journal publication, then see if the feedback from the editors helps you learn/practice communicating science.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 4.50.55 PMOk, remember Science Link? Well they have a little sister called SciBraai. SciBraai is an awesome platform for helping scientists connect with the rest of the society. Last year, I had the opportunity to attend an actual braai hosted by SciBraai, where they divided the 20+ participants in several mixed groups containing scientists, tech specialists, and journalists. The goal of the afternoon was to use open-access data to present and write a popular media article with your team. This activity, mixing scientists with tech specialists and journalists face-to-face, was excellent practice. SciBraai deserves some serious credit for the novelty and ability to make such an incredible event work. Keep your eye out for more activities organized by SciBraai, especially if you want to team up with journalists or improve your #scicomm skills.

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Reach out

Outreach activities are great for sharing science and research, possibly inspiring and educating visitors, but they are also prime opportunities for science communication practice. Below are a few outreach activities where the success depends on the science communication.

Science expos provide opportunities to put up a booth or table and tell people about ongoing research projects. The Science Forum in South Africa is an example of an expo, providing opportunities to institutes, departments, and research groups to table. Tabling at SciFest Africa, an expo aimed at engaging youth, is another opportunity to practice science communication.

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Tabling doesn’t have to be limited to science expos though. Craft and farmers markets also provide a good venue for outreach, reaching out to the people who don’t go to science expos. Imagine if your department or institute had a booth at a craft market every weekend. Students could rotate, each spending a couple mornings of the year promoting your research and practicing communicating to the public. Talking to the public about your research is more fun than you might think.

Ecology programs could take tabling even further by going outside to trailheads or nature reserves, engaging vacationers in their own turf, where they can physically see what you are researching. This would be great for raising awareness about invasive species, for example. “Go outdoors for science!

These ideas came to me during a crowd-funding campaign where I raised money and support for our research project. Crowd-funding is a concept where you ask many people to chip in little amounts of money to reach a goal and fund a project. More than 70 people contributed to reach our goal of $5000 USD. Here is the link, incase you are interested. I spent many hours at markets and trailheads telling people about what we were raising money for and why it is important to have their support. It is because of this experience that I also suggest crowd-funding campaigns are great practice for science communication. Fundraising is fundraising, but it was a good experience for me, and I certainly, in a free-choice way, grew as a science communicator.

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I met an English teacher at the South African Science Forum last year. ‘What brought you to the Science Forum?’ I asked, because he wasn’t directly involved in a field of science. He told me he was trying to network because he had an engineering hobby and wanted to share some ideas. How amazing is that? We should organize more science symposia that are open to the public. For example, if a post-graduate research symposium was advertised to the public, and the students were asked to present to a broader audience, it would be great practice for science communication. I am not suggesting every symposium should be, just one a year or so, because students need to learn to communicate technically as well, but imagine a symposium where every presentation explained how the research fit into the big picture.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 4.49.01 PMWhen I first arrived in South Africa there was a series of seminars organized by the NRF titled ‘Science for Society’. Each of the seminars was broadcast over SAfm, challenging the speakers to not only give a presentation, but to keep the interest of an audience that couldn’t see the power-point slides. What will you do if you are asked to give this sort of seminar? Could you give a presentation without slides? Fortunately there are ways to practice this type of presenting, although there could be a lot more opportunities. Radio interviews are one form of practice. I gave a radio interview about our research proposal to promote our crowd-funding campaign and all I did was email the radio station. However, South Africa could use more platforms for scientists to reach out over the airwaves. For example, we could start a program similar to Inspiration Dissemination, a radio show that invites post-graduates to share their stories and introduce their research live over the air. OR we could create a science podcast, similar to radiolab that focuses on research produced in South Africa. These sort of programs would increase the accessibility of science to the public and provide a platform for science communication practice.

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Finally, the best for last: science pubs. I have wanted to organize a science pub ever since I first attended Science Pub Corvallis in 2014. If you enjoy talking science and consuming products of fermentation, then science pubs are for you! For those in the Western Cape Province, Pint of Science South Africa is an annual event featuring several nights of science talks at different pubs throughout Cape Town. More regularly, the Science Café Cape Town organizes monthly seminars. Science pubs like these are great opportunities to practice communicating science. You will undoubtedly engage people outside of your field, drawing some interesting questions, and requiring you to communicate broadly.

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Well there are a few ideas, cobbled together in a really long blog post. Feel free to contact me in regards to any of it, especially if you have the time put any of these ideas into action.