My take on non-technical conferences

Hello World!
This time last year, I wrote a blog post on the different types of technical conferences I’ve had the opportunity to attend during my years in graduate school. 2015 wrapped up in pretty much the same way as 2014 – jam-packed with technical conferences big and small (Boston -> Tampa -> Boston -> New Orleans) – but with a few additional non-technical conferences thrown in. Since these types of non-technical meetings are rarely attended by graduate students, but are incredibly useful opportunities for personal and professional growth, I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about them (including one I helped start)!
TTS North America
I was invited to attend the North American Tech Transfer Summit (TTS) in July by the Office of Technology Management at Illinois, a conference I had never heard of before! Over the course of two days, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with a very diverse set of “stakeholders” in early-stage life sciences including university researchers, clinical researchers, biotechnology start-ups, and large pharmaceutical companies. Talks and panels were focused on the business/finance aspects of biotech, such as the state of VC funding for biotech firms and IP concerns.

As these are aspects of my broader research field that I very rarely get to discuss in a professional setting, I felt my perspective of my role as an academic shift to accommodate this larger world view. I realized how little I knew of the needs of large-scale medical corporations, and how I would need to learn more about these needs in order to be a more effective researcher working on translational healthcare technologies. While I can’t claim to have understood much of what was discussed at TTS, I can certainly attest to have enjoyed it! This conference inspired me to take a few classes on business/finance/law for engineers, so I can build a broader technological world view.

Leadership Retreat
During the Fall 2015 semester, I took an “Authentic Leadership” class (taught by CEE Prof. Barbara Minsker) focused on teaching aspiring leaders effective communication techniques and mindfulness practices. My favorite aspect of this course was attending a class “retreat” at East Bay Camp in Hudson, IL where we immersed ourselves more deeply in the concepts we were learning in class (while enjoying beautiful natural surroundings). During the retreat, I worked with a few students to present material on nonviolent/compassionate communication – a technique used to make difficult conversations meaningful and productive. We all also participated in a four hour silent guided meditation, with was perhaps the most impactful experience of 2015 for me personally.
I cannot emphasize enough how important I think it is for graduate students to pursue these types of opportunities for personal growth. Working in interdisciplinary teams of researchers and communicating results to the scientific community/general public requires exactly the sort of leadership and communication skills taught in this class. We’re used to thinking of such “soft skills” as either unimportant or instinctive, but I’ve come to believe that they can be learned, refined, and used to build a stronger professional identity.

SWE National Conference

 I have been very involved with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) throughout my academic career, as I am deeply invested in its goal of building a more diverse workforce by empowering women to pursue STEM education. I’ve attended two SWE national conferences in the past (these are the world’s largest conferences for women engineers), and presented on my research at talks and technical posters during both. However, the main focus of the SWE conference is less on academics/research and more on finding and capitalizing on diverse pathways to success as a woman in STEM.
Conference tracks include a diverse array of topics including “Career and Life Transition”, “Inclusion and Cultural Awareness”, “K-12 Outreach”, “Management and Strategy”, and beyond. There are also tracks focused on careers in corporate technology firms, government/military contractors, and most recently – careers as researchers and academics. This last category has grown significantly during my time in graduate school (hurrah!), and has been a great way for me to meet and network with a tight knit community of women pursuing research focused careers in STEM.
Inspired by the community SWE built for me and countless others as an undergraduate, I worked with several graduate students in my first year at Illinois to build GradSWE, a graduate student-focused committee within the larger umbrella of SWE at Illinois. In 2013, we launched our inaugural conference, Women Empowered in STEM (weSTEM), a one-day forum featuring talks and panels focused on issues of particular importance to women pursuing graduate STEM degrees.
Each year at weSTEM, we hear from speakers with graduate degrees working in a diverse array of fields – some traditional (academia, industry, government policy, law), some non-traditional (museums, television, start-ups, and beyond). I’ve helped organize and attended three weSTEM conferences thus far (our fourth one is in just a couple weeks!), and every year left with an even broader perspective of the career paths open to me after graduation. I feel very grateful to and inspired by the women who have openly shared their stories, struggles, and motivation with the next generation of scientists and engineers, and each year use this conference as a personal reminder about the importance of growing workforce diversity.
In conclusion…
…these are just a few of many many many non-technical conferences that you have the opportunity to attend as a graduate student. While research is the main focus of graduate school (as it should be), it can be an incredibly rewarding experience to take time for personal and professional growth outside of a strictly scientific setting. So take a chance and try one out!