Science

'Science-adjacent' conferences and why they matter

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CAREER COLUMN

The multidisciplinary conferences that use ‘science’ as an adjective can be a fantastic source of new collaborations and ideas.
Matt McTaggart is a captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force and PhD student in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. You can reach him on Twitter @mattmctaggart.

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People attend a blockchain conference in Moscow.Credit: Anton Gvozdikov/Shutterstock

As a scientist and military logistician, I often find myself working at the interface between science and other fields. In practice, this means that I attend conferences that use ‘science’ as a modifier: science policy, science communications and science diplomacy.

These meetings tend to be overlooked in favour of those aimed squarely at the speciality and sub-speciality, especially for junior researchers and graduate students. But general science and ‘science-adjacent’ conferences are rich grounds for building competencies and collaborations in and out of the laboratory, and students are especially well placed to benefit.

Presenting your paper to peers at a specialized conference might be important, but will it be impactful? It can be deflating to talk at a room of people too absorbed in their own work to pay close attention, or who are so closely matched in skills and interests to your own that there is no space left open for ideas or collaborations to grow.

At last June’s Commonwealth Science Conference in Singapore, a typical conversation might have included a marine biologist studying whale culture, an epidemiologist tracking the spread of disease by invasive species, an automotive engineer overcoming challenges in rural India, a radio astronomer gazing at the early Universe, and a chemist like myself probing the thermodynamics of nanosystems.

We came from different continents and had wildly different training, yet I gained more insight and had more impact in those conversations than I had in the entirety of some other conferences. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise given recent reports that show greater diversity leads to better science and more citations. I developed a scientific collaboration with an Australian lab, gained a UK funding source and made the connections necessary to successfully develop a science-policy training programme here in Canada.

Fewer and fewer PhD recipients are gaining tenure-track research positions within five years of graduating. With that in mind, it is ethical and important to prepare students for roles outside the lab. There is a substantial difference between how science is discussed between experts and how it is interpreted by policymakers or the public. Science-adjacent events provide a training ground to develop the flexibility necessary to move between those communities.

Science-policy conferences attract an especially rich variety of stakeholders in the research and innovation sectors, including public officials, educators, publishers, industry, military and law enforcement. At last November’s Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) I was able to talk with senators, reporters, company research and development representatives and a museum director. The museum director was especially keen to learn about our latest research on water confined within polymer nanostructures. With her planetary science background, she immediately saw applications for our work that I would not have considered alone. That chance meeting inspired us to start an undergraduate-led project to develop a device that may one day be used in space exploration.

Of course, attending these conferences only has value if you are willing and able to introduce yourself to and interact with new people. For some, this can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

But I’ve discovered an unintuitive truth: the fewer the connections between attendees before the conference, the more connections will form during the conference. The long-term stability of research programmes means that speciality conferences are unlikely to garner much annual turnover. Attendees quickly cluster themselves according to existing networks and may forgo the effort of forging relationships. But the high diversity at science-adjacent conferences means that each attendee may be the only representative of their organization, research field or country. With few or no existing links, social pressure encourages spontaneous introductions and bonding.

I’ve presented at large and small speciality conferences, but the contacts and conversations at general science-as-an-adjective conferences have had the greatest impact on my research, career path and influence on the field.

The following are some concrete steps I’d suggest to PhD students and postdoctoral researchers to make the most of the conference experience:

Preparations

Visit the website and download the conference app. Conferences of this kind will often encourage attendees to create a profile including a photo, job title and brief biography. By completing yours early, it will be among the first published and will accrue more views. If you are searching for career advice or connections in an unfamiliar field, say so clearly and in the first line of the bio — it’s something all potential contacts might read.

Although online profiles allow you to promote yourself and target possible contacts in advance, physical business cards are still the surest way to cement a connection.

Dress codes can range extensively depending on the field and format. Science-adjacent conferences are better than most at self-promotion, so look back on last year’s photos to get a feel for the right level of formality.

Outside the sessions

What happens outside the session room is as important as what happens within. Extended breaks provide the time necessary for attendees to find common ground.

Take full advantage by introducing yourself to someone new at the beginning of the break. If the other person is attending as part of a larger group, they may offer to introduce you into their existing network.

Lunches and dinners may come at extra expense and can seem like luxuries for students and postdocs on a budget. However, seated meals allow for more in-depth conversation and relationship building. Organizers who assign seating often plan each table to include a mix of speakers, panelists and junior attendees.

Inside the sessions

First, plan to attend sessions labelled as ‘101’ or similar. These are designed as introductions to the major themes and characteristics of the field, often by way of interactive training elements. In my experience, these mini-workshops are attended by both neophytes and experts. The activities often begin with an ice-breaker and are a structured way to shake off your nerves.

Panel discussions feature speakers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, so introductions typically include a brief bio to provide additional context for their views. Take note of panelists whose career path or current job interest you. Afterwards, if you feel that they made an especially salient point or used a poignant turn of phrase, letting them know is an effective way to open follow-up discussions.

The times allotted for questions and discussion are often longer in science-adjacent conferences. It can be intimidating to speak up in an unfamiliar space, but doing so increases your visibility and provides an opening for others to introduce themselves to you during the next break.

Getting involved

Unfortunately, sources of funding from departments, institutions and scientific societies for out-of-speciality conferences are rare and competitive. Volunteering is a great method to gain free entry to a conference, although you will not be able to attend every session and networking event.

Once you are better acquainted with the field, you may wish to share your ideas or perspective in a talk or as a member of a panel discussion. Student sessions and poster competitions are also a common and well-attended feature of science-adjacent conferences. Selection as a speaker may come with a free or subsidized conference pass. Watch for the call for proposals to be announced, normally around eight months before the conference date.

If there are no opportunities near you and travel costs are too high, consider organizing your own meeting. Some meetings and workshops such as ComSciCon provide help for groups seeking to start a local expansion.

The key to a productive science-adjacent conference is active engagement. Be open to the experience: provoke questions, seek common interests and invite the meaningful relationships that lead to unexpected concepts, collaborations and careers.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05793-8

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturejobseditor@nature.com.

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