PhD life: conversing at a conference

I did not spend April 24th and 25th listening to a colleague’s presentation at lab meeting, doing lab work, meeting with my student or analyzing data in my office. Instead, I was in Gif-sur-Yvette, in France, attending a two-day symposium on interactions between beneficial microbes and plants.

Conferences: one of the perks of being a researcher
Attending conferences definitely ranks high on the list of ‘awesome things you get to do as a researcher’. With a little luck, they take place outside of your home country, allowing you to see some more of the world while ‘working’. While my first international conference was in Maastricht, the Netherlands – also fun, by the way, I gave my American collaborator a ride on the back of my bike, a first for her -, I attended a conference in Portland, Oregon, USA last year. This year, my boyfriend and I got to combine my conference attendance with a weekend in Paris. Not at all bad, right? And that is not even the best part of attending a conference. The best part is the enormous enthusiasm boost that comes with it.

A rather small, specific conference
Conferences can vary widely in the number of people attending, the broadness of the topic, the location and the budget. In comparison with the 500+ people attending at the previous two conference I attended, this conference with its 120 attendees felt relatively small. It still had the same international vibe to it, though, with people from quite a few different countries attending, including France, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Germany, England, China and the US. Also, the mix of ‘levels’ was good: there were PhD students and postdocs, but also a lot of principal investigators. The 18 presentations spread out over 1.5 days were all given by principal investigators. Apart from these talks, there were 40 PhDs and postdocs presenting posters during the coffee and tea breaks. A busy schedule, but interesting because the topic – beneficial microbes and plants – is quite specific and close to my own project.

New data during presentations
Listening to presentations at conferences can be exciting. First, you are among the first to see new data – although most 30 minute talks are not only about new data: they generally cover results gathered over many years that together form a nice coherent story. Second, apart from the results, talks regularly also go into new methods used to get those results, thus giving new ideas for own research projects. Together this makes for a head spinning with new ideas after a couple of talks. (There are of course also talks that are not that interesting or presenters that do not present all too well and yes, whiling away the time of those presentations on my phone is very attractive…)

Talking science next to posters
Apart from presentations almost all conferences also have sessions for poster presentations. Before I started my PhD I saw posters as a high school thing: cutting and pasting stuff on a big sheet of paper and putting that paper up somewhere for no one to ever really read. In science, posters turned out to be much more than that. In fact, poster presentations are actually very nice. For one, it is the easiest way to talk science with people you do not know since there is a clear topic and excuse for a talk on hand: the poster. Second, people interested in your topic will actually read, or ask about, everything on your poster: they are genuinely interested in the whole thing. Third, it gives easy, quick glimpses of the research performed by other people and you can cherry pick which you want to know more about. Fourth, a discussion about someone’s work in front of a poster is often much more spontaneous and fun than a presentation from a stage. All together this makes poster sessions a lot of fun. In fact, twice I and someone else were still in the middle of an entertaining discussion about science in front of a poster when we were pretty much forced to break up because the next presentation session was about to start.

Getting to know fellow scientists during dinner
Apart from the talks and the posters there was one more component to the program: the dinner. To keep the attendance costs as low as possible, the food and location were not at all fancy. We did have a good time though: being surrounded by people from Belgium, France, Hungary and China made for enough conversation topics. All together the talks, poster sessions and dinner ensured the typical conference-induced enthusiasm boost about science in general and my own project by the end of it.

Now I need to get back to work and ensure that I have new things to tell when I visit the next conference next year…

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