Conferences are expensive and time-consuming . . .

I’ve spent most of the past two weeks waiting in airports in a total of five cities, breathing dry and recycled hotel air, eating unpredictable restaurant food, sitting in dark rooms listening to people talk, drinking overpriced coffee, navigating slippery roads after nasty snow storms, and paying lots of money for the privilege of doing so. And I would do it all over again (well, except for the slippery roads in the snow storm part).

That’s because I think attending conferences, in person, is essential to my mental well-being as a scientist. I know others might disagree, but this is my blog, so . . .

Lyman alum Julia Mlynarek has published a great post on the value of conferences for students. Conferences are also really important for me as an established (?) professor. True, I’m not out there trying to market myself to potential employers (although if a very tasty offer came up . . . ) and I guess another conference talk won’t make a huge difference to my CV, already bulging with committees and administrative appointments and other thrilling padding. On the other hand, conferences give me some really great benefits.

Hallway Science Talk. [mythbuster alert] I almost never talk science with other professors in our offices or  hallways. I don’t know what it’s like in other departments, but when we stop to talk in the hallways here the top topics are along the lines of “space crunch”, “annoying administrative offloads”, “wanna be on my grant application”, “why is it so cold in here”, or “how can we fund this student”.  On the other hand, the sheer range of fly talk, phylogeny talk, ecology talk, and miscellaneous subject talk that I managed to grab at coffee breaks or over beer or supper or waiting for sessions to start filled my brain and boggled my mind. I made notes. I have new ideas, and some potential new collaborations.

Putting Faces To Names. The nature of 21st century communication is such that I regularly correspond or follow or otherwise interact with many people I’ve never met in person. Say what you will about the rise of Twitter and Skype and Facebook and Google+, there is, to me anyway, no substitute for being able to shake somebody’s hand and say, in a real-time, undigitized human voice “wanna grab lunch?”. It’s an incubator for wandering conversations that may not necessarily fit into 140 characters or a focused online chat. Now that I’ve had a few beers, or a burger, or a coffee with some of my now three-dimensional colleagues, it will enrich our future online interactions. At the same time, there are colleagues I’ve known for more than 20 years, but only ever see in person at conferences. It’s always great to reconnect.

New Audiences and New Perspectives. I work on flies. I talk to fly people. I publish papers on flies. But at the Entomological Society of America meeting in Knoxville last week I was one of two dipterists (the other was my colleague Matt Bertone) in a session on saproxylic insects otherwise dominated by beetle people. Now I have nothing against beetle people. Four of my grad students have been beetle people. I’ve published papers on beetles. But, I don’t tend to present my fly stuff in rooms full of beetle people. In three hours the other day, I learned a lot about beetles, I got some great questions about flies in coffee break chats with the beetle people, and I got some great little ideas to file away for future reference. Thanks, beetle people.

Finding Excitement. All of the above stuff, plus listening to great talks and reading great posters, gets me fired up about research. Getting a professor excited about research is a good thing. We sometimes spend a lot of time on the other parts of our job — teaching, research, grant-writing, administration — at the expense of time looking at insects. But conferences rekindle the fire for me. By the end of the few days I’m usually itching to get back to the lab and see if I can answer some of those little questions. It makes me want to free up a few hours whenever I can and dive back onto the microscope.

Conferences — ain’t no substitute.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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4 Responses to Conferences are expensive and time-consuming . . .

  1. Matt Bertone says:

    Great post Terry! You really hit the nail on the head on why meetings are so great. I definitely feel bolstered from talking to you and so many great researchers. The realism of actually talking to colleagues without trying to interpret the feelings behind an ambiguous email are well worth it alone. Also the excitement of others and their supporting (or gracefully refuting) your thoughts and ideas is also incredibly valuable. Until next time we meet…

  2. Cosmin Manci says:

    I’m totally agree with you that any kind of meeting between specialists are good, but for an amateur that do the science in that few free time that he has available and with that amount of money that he has is more or less impossible. When I’m saying an amateur i’m even thinking to a full time biologist that is not working in an research/educational center or related. And this is even more true when talking about person living in countries that are more or less undeveloped. I have a PhD in biology and a salary of less that 300$ for a month and I pay for everything like one from W Europe who has at least 2000/3000 $ (and this without having many studies). And usually going to any kind of meeting (even at a local one) will have to spend at least 100$. How I can compete with a person in that case? For me will be impossible to the same amount of time in the field (even if going at more than 20 km away from home) and thinking to go in good spots for biodiversity on earth is impossible, is just a dream. Here even if will be lucky to work in a research/educational center (or related) to attend an international meeting will be mostly from personal money (and most of this kind of research is done from personal money) mostly here is impossible to have a project from were to have money to do so. You from the west are so lucky !!!!

    I think will be good to have and give as (or at least to me) a “story” about how we, from this part of the world, can meet/see the rest of the world. But for now I’m lucky that internet exist.

    All my best and thanks for existing.

  3. Hi Cosmin. You are absolutely right that it is a challenge for amateurs and people with limited funds to attend conferences. I wish this were not the case. Scientific conferences are more expensive all the time, and even with support from research grants it is hard for me and my students to attend all the conferences we want, especially international meetings. I think there are some solutions though. Conferences often have a lower registration rate, and travel grants, for students, but I really wish they would do the same for amateurs, especially in entomology, where amateurs contribute so much knowledge. I think too much of the budget of conferences is used to pay travel and accommodations for executive members, or plenary speakers, who can probably afford to pay their own way, I would like to see this money used to make registration less expensive for more people who would really benefit from attending the meetings (I’m not sure HOW to make this change though, but I can hope).

    Regional conferences or meetings are often cheaper to attend and cost less in travel, and they can be a great way to interact with other people with similar interests. Beyond that, I think that informal field meetings are an even better opportunity. Here in North America there is a Dipterists field meeting every two years where we can gather for 2-3 days, collect, share stories, have some informal presentations. These are fantastic meetings and are intentionally kept at a very low cost. I think that many such meetings happen in some parts of Europe too. If there are no such field meetings held regularly in Romania, perhaps this would be a great time to start such a tradition! Once such meetings become established, they can attract interested people from other regions as well, so there are good exchanges of information outside the local community (we often have non-North Americans at the Diptera field meetings).

    Another possibility is to take advantage of individual collaborations. Yes, some people are able to travel widely to collect or collaborate or visit museum collections. I think it would be fantastic if, when we make such trips, we connect with local professionals, students and amateurs for at least brief meetings. I know personally that if I am going somewhere distant for a conference or a museum visit, I welcome the opportunity to get out in the field. Similarly, if we are going collecting in a new place, it is always useful to connect with local entomologists. I need to visit some European museums in the next couple of years and I would love the opportunity to spend a day or two in the field collecting with some of the colleagues that I know only from the internet, for example. Imagine if we, in the community, could inform each other when we are planning a trip, so that we might be able to arrange a field day, or an informal lecture, or simply a lunch, with local colleagues. It is a small thing, but it would still allow more people to meet face to face and talk about nature and insects and science.

    Of course, one of the great benefits of the Internet, as you say, is that we can at least make some connections with people who we otherwise would not meet in person. The Diptera group on Facebook has been a great opportunity for me to interact with colleagues elsewhere in ways that benefit all of us. Until we find a way to make face to face meetings possible and affordable, social media is a great step forward.


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