Types of research conferences

Hello World!

I’ve been “in motion” quite a bit over the past month, so I thought I’d compile all my travel experiences into one grand special conference edition of my blog – something encompassing the huge, the tiny, and the medium-sized but just plain exotic research conferences that make the lives of graduate students all the more exciting! If you’re a student looking to attend more conferences during your academic career, I hope this blog entry gives you some insight into which type of conference may fit your interests best.

The Huge Conference

My advisor and several members of our lab attend the BMES (Biomedical Engineering Society) annual meeting every year. As the name would suggest, this conference encompasses an entire field of engineering research: biomedical engineering. When you consider that BME is, in itself, largely interdisciplinary and includes researchers from nearly every engineering, science, and medical research field… you can understand why I call BMES “huge.” In terms of number of attendees, it’s not the largest conference out there (~3,000 people), but the sheer scope of the research being presented makes it quite difficult to find and attend talks and posters by all your research soulmates. The great thing about these large conferences is that you can see focused research talks on specific topics by the graduate students who specialize in these subjects. You can also attend big thematic plenary talks by legends in the field – something for everyone!

I gave my first research talk at BMES this year in San Antonio (I had previously presented a poster at BMES 2013 in Seattle) and it was quite a nerve-wracking experience! The room I presented in was packed (including many folks standing in the back) which was reassuring – at least people care about my research, eh? I made it through my talk within the time frame and answered all the questions from the audience without any glitches… but other than that, I have no memory of the experience. I think sheer panic erased my ability to truly process my surroundings. My only advice to first-time presenters is… practice your talk out loud several times! If you “blank out” like I did, you can still give the talk on autopilot. I’m not usually afraid of public speaking, so hopefully now that this first talk is out of the way, I’ll be able to enjoy (and remember) my next conference talk!

The Tiny Conference

As I’ve mentioned in past blog entries, my research on biological machines is funded by an NSF Science and Technology Center calledEBICS: Emergent Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems. Every year, our annual “site visit” at MIT is an opportunity to share our research progress with all the other EBICS research groups at Illinois, Georgia Tech, MIT, and other partner institutions. The site visit is also attended and critiqued by NSF reviewers who regulate funding for the center. This “conference” is thus a much smaller intimate setting in which to share and discuss research – everyone in EBICS is familiar with the background, leaving more time to hash out the nitty-gritty details. This is the true advantage and luxury of tiny conferences – it’s a combination of a personalized workshop and research therapy/ranting session that is truly comforting and inspiring!

The Medium-Sized But Just Plain Exotic Conference

My advisor chaired the biennial IEEE EMBS MNM 2014 Research Conference in Oahu, Hawaii, which meant… lucky me, I got to go to Hawaii! If you can’t manage to decipher that rather formidable array of acronyms (and I don’t blame you), the theme of this conference was Micro and Nanotechnology in Medicine. It was hosted as a “Gordon-style” conference, so it felt more like an informal consortium of scientific minds than a place to take notes on formal presentations. Being in Hawaii with some of the most inspiring researchers in the field of bio-nanotechnology was one of the most surreal academic experiences of my life! I was absolutely blown away by every single one of the research talks and was excited to share my work with people I really admire.

All in all, I think this medium-sized conference was my favorite of the three I attended this past year—and this was not because it was hosted in Hawaii (or because I won the “best tweeter award” – yes, that’s a real thing)! Rather, the EMBS conference gave me a chance to broaden my knowledge of the state-of-the-art in micro and nanotechnology in medicine while still keeping me within the comfortable confines of a research “family.” I had read papers by many of the researchers who attended the conference and had formal and informal “academic family” research ties with many of them. I met my peers and I met my heroes. (Seriously, my heroes… I totally “fan-girled” over all the speakers, just ask my lab-mates.) I spent five days with people who cared about the same things I care about, and we were able to talk about those things to our heart’s content! It was absolutely brilliant…. and now it’s time for me to quell this poetic fervor before I get too carried away.

Nature’s rainbow generator!

Before my time in graduate school, I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to travel so extensively to attend conferences. I’m not even sure I really understood the point of a conference. Now, however, I feel like a budding expert (I wonder how professors feel!) and I definitely see the advantages of attending these types of events. Research in graduate school can be a little isolating at times. You get so focused on solving day-to-day lab problems and generating data for papers that you forget why you wanted to go to graduate school in the first place! You forget why your research is important within the larger context of your field. You forget to be inspired.

Valley of Temples - the most peaceful place on Earth.
Valley of Temples – the most peaceful place on earth!

Graduate school, like many full-time occupations, is what you make of it. You can choose to tackle it by putting in a certain number of hours a day and making adequate progress towards your goal… but where’s the fun in that?! Personally, I feel more motivated to tackle a problem that seems to really matter, something that will help advance the world of science, something that I can get excited about and get other people excited about. On a day-to-day basis, it’s easy for me to go into the lab and say, “How am I going to get these muscle cell-powered soft robots to walk today?”… but that’s not really the BIG problem I’m targeting. It’s just a minor step in the journey to understanding how we can build machines and systems with living materials.

So, lesson learned: Conferences help you take a step back, understand the role you play in the scientific world, and rekindle your enthusiasm for research and graduate school. If you have the opportunity to attend a conference, whether it’s tiny, medium, or huge… do it! You certainly won’t regret it. Happy New Year!