Campus Life the secret lives of researchers

A conference cynic’s conversion

Conferences provide a catalyst for academic innovation

While the belief was totally unsubstantiated, I had long believed that conferences were a secret academic conspiracy. Yeah, you really need to go to Hawaii to meet with other scientists and share your work ­— this is something that just couldn’t be done via internet or phone. What a thinly veiled scheme to take a vacation and hang out with academic buddies! On my least cynical days, I thought it was merely a holdover from the pre-internet era when communication and dissemination of ideas would have been more difficult.

So I was quite surprised as I sat on the plane coming back from Portland, Oregon this fall and reflected on my experience at the Ecological Society of America conference. It had fundamentally changed my expected course of research, made me more excited (than even my normally excited self) about my research, and given me ideas for dozens of new projects I may never have time to tackle.

But let me back up a bit. First off, the conference was bigger than I had expected. It was hosted in a monstrously large conference center — it took at least five minutes to sprint from end to end (which I did on numerous occasions to catch different talks) — with many small rooms, ballrooms (of course converted into lecture halls by the addition of hundreds of chairs), kiosks, and gymnasium sized rooms full of posters. At any given time, all of these rooms were full of talks and the four-thousand or so attendees had to decide which of the ten plus talks to attend. Twenty minutes later, we’d sprint to a new room and repeat.

The afternoon was full of poster sessions, a more intimate time to ask questions and skim the current research by glancing at pictures. It was also a great chance to form research collaborations. There was a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers present who are the rock stars of the ecology field.

None of this experience was new. I knew the basic format. What I was missing is how instructive it is to have so many ideas in the same place. I could go from a talk on how brain size influences extinction risk, to a talk that studies the economic optimality of marine reserves, to talking to a person about zooplankton metacommunities. I could hear about how other people approached problems. I could hear about other problems I didn’t even know existed.

The fast pace doesn’t allow you to focus for too long on one thing, which I found to be a great way to engage creatively. I was forced to continually consider a new topics, and all these new things I was learning stewed and fomented together in my brain. Some of this information made me realize there are better ways to approach my own problems, and in other cases, I thought there were better ways to approach other people’s problems. On the side of every sheet of my notes there are scribbled sections — “new ideas,” “new project idea,” “new approach?” or diagrams of how I would approach a problem. There are pieces of contact information from people I was introduced to; there are mentions of datasets I didn’t even know existed but that could be useful to use in my own work.

So I’m a convert. Conferences are important. As great as journals, e-mail, Dropbox, and all the other technology is, it hasn’t quite replaced the utility of getting people together to share and talk. If my own experience is typical, I think maybe ideas are the equivalent of rock music for exercise; they get you motivated and going. And what researcher doesn’t need some rocking motivation and fresh ideas sometimes?

This is a new column for students to share their experiences in research. Write to and if you are interested in contributing!