On BrainTrain & Ocean Sciences: the conference student+ experience

I love scientific conferences. Going to meetings is like taking the pulse of research: you learn about cool, interesting (often still unpublished) science, and you get to meet new people and network. Unfortunately, all too often, students and postdocs are forced to take the back seats at these events. We are not involved in the organisation, and generally only have limited opportunity to actively participate. Luckily, this is slowly changing: there’s a growing recognition by senior scientists and funding agencies that students are a vital part of meetings, that our interests may extend beyond regular scientific talks, and that it’s useful for us to take part in the organization. Two recent meetings, the BrainTrain Conference in Japan and the Ocean Sciences Meeting (OSM) 2014 in Hawaii, highlight how students can get involved.

Take for example, the BrainTrain conference: BrainTrain_Conference_Flyerthis small neuroscience meeting (with about 50 participants) at the RIKEN Institute in Yokohama last September grew out of a Marie Curie-funded network that required organisation of a conference by the students. Thus, initially, organisation was delegated among all the PhD students from the network, but as is often the case, finally four (fellow blogger Dave Tang from RIKEN, and three more from the VU in Amsterdam) took the lead. Coordinating across continents mainly via e-mail, they invited speakers, designed the poster, contacted drug companies for sponsorship, created the website, advertised the event and arranged the administrative stuff and logistics – without much intervention from PIs. Basically, they did the full package – with all its ups and downs. As Dave put it “I thought it was a bit hard to organise something in Japan when all the other students are in Europe, and initially I really did not want to do it. Without the administrative support from the staff here in RIKEN Japan, it would have been impossible (especially when I don’t speak or read Japanese!). The cooperative nature of people in Japan was something I really enjoyed and savoured. […] In the end, getting some positive feedback from the attendees and PIs made it all worthwhile.” Also, as organizers, the students had much more opportunity to interact with the invited speakers. And, Dave states that having organised a meeting “makes me appreciate conferences much more now, and I learned that networking events are just as important as writing papers and doing research.”.

On the other end of the scale, is the OSM. It is one of the biggest meetings inosm2014_logoocean biology, hosted by three major oceanographic organizations every two years – this year, in Honolulu, 5600 people attended, and more than a quarter (!) of these were students. The meeting included an impressively vast array of student events: networking breakfasts and student mixers, workshops on ethics and science communication, a science symposium for high school students, a Nerd Nite… As Michelle Jungbluth, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii and one of the student organizers explained to me “there are always student and early career events at these conferences. This year, however, there were more workshops than I have ever seen, possibly more than they’ve ever had, which probably reflects the fact that many science grants now require outreach as a part of the broader impacts.” Additionally, it likely also helped that there is an anyway active student community at the University of Hawaii: students run their own ‘Real Science’ blog to practice writing and to share stories about their research with each other and the general public. Similarly, Nerd Nites, nerdy, casual science presentations in a fun atmosphere are regular events in Honolulu, since Emily Norton, now a Coastal Management Fellow at the Maine Costal Program, attended one on the mainland, and decided it would be a great idea to start such events in Hawaii, where she was completing her master’s degree at the time.

So, the student events at the OSM emerged from a nourishing environment: some of them were organized independently by students or members of the organization committee, others were put together by groups like COSEE who do outreach to enhance ocean science education, while the student workshops were arranged by students especially elected to the organizing committee. As Michelle put it: “We were chosen because each society (ASLO, AGU, and TOS) wanted a student member of each of their societies to participate in organizing and facilitate student event planning. For the student workshops, we brainstormed the 4 most important topics we thought our workshops should focus on, then found leaders for them, helped with planning them [… and] found volunteer-experts who were happy to help.” The student organizers placed a strong emphasis on science communication and outreach, because there has been “a huge push the past few years to get scientists to: 1) share their work with the public, so that they understand why what we do is important, and [so they] support the work we do, and 2) have an ‘online presence’, because a large portion of the U.S. population spends a lot of time online, and many in the younger generation get their news from sites like Facebook and Twitter.” Overall, Michelle states that “the conference organisers and also the attendees were quite happy with the student events. There was a great turnout, it seemed like everyone was having a great time.”

And so, while it’s not official yet, (the results of the OSM post-conference survey have not yet been tabulated ;)) what both the BrainTrain meeting and the OSM show, is that involving students in a meeting generally makes meetings more colourful, and also provides students organisers with valuable experience for the future – after all, won’t the students of today be the conference organisers of tomorrow?

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