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.