April 2010

Getting the Most Out of the Annual Meeting

It’s, well, big!


EB audience
Audience members listen to a lecture at the 2009 annual meeting in New Orleans.

When recollecting the first time I entered the main exhibit hall at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting as a graduate student, my mind often wanders to a scenario from a fantasy-adventure film. The heroes, in the midst of exploring some strangely deserted location, suddenly turn the corner or open a door to find a hidden city. There, spread before them, is a teeming mass of people, colorful banners and strange structures filling some vast cave or undersea dome in which the heroes seek refuge. The heroes are pressed for time. They must find within this bewildering maze: a) the leader of this hidden city, b) the rebels battling to bring enlightenment to the people, c) a hidden radio, so they can contact their companions, d) some special element needed to power their crippled spaceship or cure some raging epidemic or e) the location of some critical poster presentation before it is too late!

While we all know that some fortuitous event or remarkable coincidence will take place to guide our fictional heroes to the object of their quest, a novice conference attendee cannot rely on the intervention of a Deus ex machina. This article summarizes a few basic practices that will help the first-time participant successfully navigate the acres of conference center, thousands of posters and hundreds of talks that typify each year’s gathering of the ASBMB.

The Venue

For several years, ASBMB has met in concert with other biomedically oriented professional societies at a joint event called “Experimental Biology.” The sponsoring societies for Experimental Biology 2010 include the American Association of Anatomists, the American Physiological Society, the American Society for Investigative Pathology, the American Society for Nutrition and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. The attendees are thereby afforded the opportunity to explore the offerings not only of their “home” societies but those of the other participating organizations as well.

The geographic hub of the meeting is the main hall, a several-acre expanse where row upon row of posters, each marked by a unique alphanumeric identifier, alternate with a colorful kaleidoscope of display booths, where myriad vendors— equipment manufacturers, publishers, supply houses, etc.— vie for the attention of the passing throngs. Every day, a new set of posters is erected, with the presenters assigned an hour or two during the afternoon to stand next to them and answer the questions of the curious onlookers. Scattered throughout the convention center are the many halls and smaller rooms in which plenary talks, award sessions, symposia, and workshops spanning a wide variety of topics will take place. Other functions, such as lunches and various types of social gatherings, occur in the convention center and surrounding hotels.

In the lobby of the convention center are registration booths, a mailbox for leaving notes for other participants and a set of computers for accessing e-mail. Adorning the lobby, corridors and central hall are banners and billboards advertising the participating societies, meeting sponsors and events.

The ASBMB meeting begins with a plenary talk on Saturday evening and proceeds through Wednesday. In addition, a number of special events and small conferences on specialized topics take place on Saturday and Sunday. Among those are the undergraduate poster session, on Saturday afternoon, which is accompanied by workshops targeting the participating students and members of the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliate’s Network, which organizes this event.

Map Out a Game Plan

Preparation is crucial to getting the most out of the ASBMB meeting. The sheer volume of topics covered at the meeting requires that multiple oral presentations or poster sessions take place concurrently at several locations throughout the building. It is, thus, important that attendees search the program to identify the events that are of greatest interest to them and determine where and when they will take place. The prudent attendee also must examine the floor plans for the convention center to determine how to get from one location to the next.

Meeting attendees relax at the 2009 opening reception in New Orleans.

Indulge Your Curiosity

The No. 1 priority of most meeting attendees is usually to maximize their attendance at oral presentations and posters covering topics directly related to their work. While this is a natural and understandable objective, to pursue it to the exclusion of all else is to miss a marvelous opportunity to learn about new things and meet new people. Sampling from the broad spectrum of topics covered at the conference offers one the opportunity to put aside the pressures of deadlines and competition for a moment and experience the simple pleasure of satisfying one’s curiosity.

Stepping away from the trees to view the forest offers many practical rewards as well. Students can open their imaginations and contemplate their future. Where do I want to go next? What would I like to work on? With whom would I like to train? Investigators can step back and view their own science from different perspectives: applying new concepts to the interpretation of their data, imagining new directions for their research, visualizing novel collaborations and previously unsuspected applications for new technologies. You can also learn about the best practices for reaching nontraditional students and mentoring women and undergrads at the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee symposium on mentoring. These “complimentary skills” certainly will pay dividends as you progress through your career. Taking advantage of the full breadth of the conference is a good way to refresh both your spirit and imagination.

Research or Education? Do Both!

You also can broaden your experience by attending the education and career sessions and workshops offered by the ASBMB Educational and Professional Development Committee. Learn more about the current pedagogy of the classroom and laboratory and find out the latest about new careers and what employers are looking for. Take the time to prepare yourself for your next teaching assignment or even a new career!

Pace Yourself

The meeting’s four-day span may seem like a short period of time, but it is remarkably easy to feel run-down long before it ends. The conference packs each day well beyond overflowing with presentations, posters, vendors and interesting people. In addition, most attendees spend the evening hours socializing with old and new friends and taking in some of the sites of the host city. Long hours and high energy can take their toll. Build time into your game plan to slow down. Don’t pack your schedule just to appear busy. Here is where budgeting some time to indulge your curiosity and expand your horizons can help. No need to take frantic notes for fear of missing out on something relevant to your own work. You can sit back and simply listen.

Don’t run around trying to visit every vendor and collect every “freebie” on the first day. Space out your interactions; use them to provide a change of pace. Be selective, lest you end up dragging around a bulging bag of brochures and giveaways like a ball-and-chain.

Don’t Be Passive!

By far, the most enduring benefit of an ASBMB meeting is a set of newly acquired connections and relationships. The conference provides a unique opportunity to meet scientists from all fields and every corner of the globe. However, meeting new people and establishing new relationships requires active participation. The only real barrier to participation is your own reluctance to act. Your fellow conferees are ready and willing— indeed eager— to answer questions and share their experiences. Like all scientists, they are curious and want to know more about their fellow participants. Even the most distinguished scientist can still vividly recall his or her own experiences as a student.

The meeting provides numerous opportunities for interaction. At the conclusion of every talk, there are a few minutes to answer questions from the audience. Every poster presenter will stand by his or her display at the appointed hour, waiting to discuss his or her work. Posters are a wonderful mechanism for first-time attendees to get involved. In addition, the society has created many interesting opportunities to actively network with your peers: Dance with scientists at the opening reception, run a few miles with your next potential grant reviewer in the 5K Fun Run or talk to Journal of Biological Chemistry editors at a special lunchtime discussion. And, finally, there are few better opportunities to meet people who offer good advice and perhaps affect your career than by attending one of the thematic receptions, the minority scientist reception or the women scientists’ networking reception. Those casual interactions can lead to new collaborations and great ideas… all over a plate of snacks and a drink. And, remember: Don’t just sit back and eavesdrop— introduce yourself!

Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is professor of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Joseph Provost (provost@mnstate.edu) is a professor of chemistry at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Feel free to add your suggestions for how to get the most from the meeting below.

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