Tag: conferences

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

An important post went up yesterday over at the Tenure, She Wrote blog on the topic of microaggressions towards female scientists at conferences. If you’ve never heard of microaggressions before, a quick overview is available at Wikipedia. These behaviours create a toxic atmosphere, a chilly climate, and drive women and other minorities away in droves. It’s often a long pattern of experiences caused by many different individuals and that is what makes it so hard to call out. The examples provided in the above blog post were very blatant, but no one stepped forward to stop it; not the organizers and not the moderators. In fact, the two women who were the targets of the behaviours banded together in an attempt to support each other through the ordeal. We shouldn’t expect the victims of the behaviours to change them.

Below are a few thoughts that I’ve had over the years of both organizing and attending many conferences over a span of 20 years.

1) Organizing a conference is a lot of work. Be appreciative of the efforts of your hosts. Not everything will be perfect, but most things will not make or break a conference. If you have organizational or safety concerns, bring those to the attention of your hosts in a firm and polite way. Don’t wait until the end of the conference, because at that point the problem often can’t be effectively addressed.

2) Encourage the conferences that you attend to have an official policy on civil, professional, and non-harassing behaviour. The past several years have seen massive exposé stories on a large number of conferences that had systemic problems involving harassing behaviour that might have been avoided had such policies been in place. If you are a big-wig in the community, an effective way to encourage conferences to implement a policy is described by John Scalzi. A recent survey of conferences in the area of Artificial Life done informally in June is interesting in that it shows how few conferences have a policy. Do the conferences that you attend have such a policy? Can you advocate for one?

3) One of the great things about conferences is catching up with friends and seeing what’s new in their professional and personal lives. Thanks for asking about my partner and my kids and how they are doing, I’m happy to share updates and news about my life. I do not however appreciate inquiries about who is looking after my kids so that I can attend the conference (I guess I’m a bad mother and/or a crappy scientist who doesn’t take her work seriously), implied judgements about my spouse’s ability to care for our children (he does not babysit his own children by the way, he PARENTS them!). These lines of questioning make me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong. When four people ask me this in quick succession it’s demoralizing.

4) Be aware of personal space boundaries. Unless we are besties don’t hug me, don’t greet me with the kisses on both cheeks, don’t rub my back, arms, or shoulders, and sure as hell don’t pull or tweak my hair.

5) Be aware of power dynamics. Use your powers for good, not evil. To believe that the undergraduate who is new to the field has the same influence or power as a senior PI is absurd. Advocate and speak up for those who need it. Be an ally. Actions speak louder than words.

6) You are a professional. Act like one! I have a long memory; what you said or did reflects poorly on you, your department, your colleagues, your institution, and our professional society, especially if you’ve been getting away with it for a while. Don’t use a professional setting as your dating and/or hook-up pool. Hitting on or flirting with students at the poster session is inappropriate. Propositioning post-docs for sex at the conference banquet is harassment. These are not misunderstandings; they are predatory behaviour.

7) Help others network. Remember what it was like to attend your first conference? Introduce people to each other and be kind to everyone. You never know when collaborations and great ideas could spring to life!

8) Take the opportunity to educate others about some of the above issues. Most people will be receptive and invested in making the conference better for all attendees.

Funding graduate student travel to conferences

This blog post was prompted by a disturbing post over at Tenure, She Wrote by a graduate student talking about the lack of funding for conferences. I am happy to say that my experiences of conferences as a graduate student were not like the experience that this student is describing, but I was horrified by the situation detailed in the blog post.

I’m now a PI and my goals with regards to graduate student travel funds are to be as transparent and fair with my graduate students as I can be. It is what I would like a supervisor to do for me if I was still a graduate student. Since starting my position 5 years ago, I have had an unwritten policy on this topic, but this student’s post made me realize that I should be more explicit in my policy and perhaps write it down so that there is less chance of a miscommunication with one of my students.

My goal for each of my graduate students is to send them to 1 conference per year of their program. Most of my students complete their program in 2 years, so this usually means two conferences. Usually the first conference is local and therefore lower cost and they usually present on work in progress at this meeting. These are smaller meetings where I am able to help them network and the attendees are friendly. The second meeting involves the presentation of the full story of their thesis work and I try to ensure that this is either a national meeting or an international one. This is my philosophy on meetings. I allow my students to present work in progress or partial stories at the first meeting and I know many PIs who don’t do this; I feel that the experience is worth it for the students even if the work doesn’t yet represent a full story. I tell my graduate students several times during the year that my goal is to send them to one conference per year. If students wish to attend more conferences, then we discuss their reasons for attendance and negotiate my financial contributions based on grant funds available.

I also have a very explicit conversation with my graduate students near the beginning of their program about how the costs of the conference will be handled. I pay for all travel, accommodation, meals, posters, and registration costs. If I can charge the cost directly to my grant (usually using an institutional credit card) I do so. If the cost gets charged upon arrival at the conference I either charge it in person upon arrival, issue the student a travel advance, or if the student is comfortable with it they charge it on their own credit card and get reimbursed. Fortunately our institution is fairly speedy with reimbursements, so students do not have to pay interest on the amount or carry the balance for more than two weeks after our return from the conference. I let the students tell me what they are comfortable with and I don’t judge. I let them know that if funds are tight, we will come up with a solution that works for both of us and that they should not place themselves in financial hardship to attend a conference. If the student wishes to pair travel to a particular location with a vacation and stay for a bit before or after the conference, then I still pay for the return trip, but during those extra days they are responsible for their accommodations and food and I explain that clearly before we make any travel bookings. I also ask my students to apply for all available travel grants that they qualify for to help support their attendance, but these funds do not make or break the trip.

As a graduate student I often had to share rooms with other students. At times this was fine and I expected it and at other times it was awkward (e.g. when I was pumping milk while still breast feeding). I initially ask students if they are comfortable sharing a room or a suite of rooms with other students. Residence and hotel options differ quite a bit and I ask my students to explore all options and let me know their preferences. I have had students who preferred their own room with a washroom, students who share a room and washroom with one other student, students who share a suite with other students (they have their own room, but share 1-2 washrooms with others), students who have their own room and share a communal washroom on the floor, etc. I respect the requests of my students and I assume that they have logical reasons for any limitations that they place on housing arrangements. I do not share accommodations with my students as I am not comfortable with that arrangement.

Affording all graduate students with the opportunity to participate in conferences is one of the commitments that I make to each student that I accept into my laboratory. Whether or not they can financially afford it should not dictate whether they can attend. I consider this philosophy one of the privileges and responsibilities of mentoring graduate students.

How do other people handle conference costs for their graduate students? Any horror stories that you’d like to share?

Western Conference on Science Education 2015

Last week I attended the Western Conference in Science Education in London, Ontario. My goal in attending was to pick up some ideas for new things to try in my classroom and get some tips on possible assignments to try in the future. I also presented on my experiment in my graduate course last fall on using blogging as an assessment tool for learning .

Below is a list in random order of ideas that I’ll be ruminating on in the next few weeks before teaching again in fall term:

1) Have your 1st assignment early. It gives students a chance to see how you write questions and to prepare for future assignments.

2) If you use in-class quizzes, let the students teach each other for a few minutes before you evaluate them. This allows peer learning to take place in the classroom.

3) Lists of learning tasks and learning outcomes are important. This is definitely an area where I can improve.

4) Start a teaching mentoring community for faculty so that we can discuss strategies, successes, and challenges and learn from each other.

5) Get over the need to feel that every minute of every lecture has to be perfect.

6) I usually have students evaluate my teaching using a paper survey that I hand out in class. Other teachers found that allowing the students to use 15 or 20 second audio or video clips to deliver feedback led to more authentic responses.

7) Investigate the PeerWise platform.

8) It’s important to teach our science students how to communicate science to non-specialists and to tailor their communications to their audience.

9) I attended a great workshop that discussed strategies for teachers to maintain their well-being during our busy teaching semesters. Lots of valuable tips that I hope to implement!

10) Think hard about my classroom policy on electronic devices and their use. Tanya Noel and Tamara Kelly gave a neat presentation on “Does the digital have to divide us?”

The Positives and Negatives of Conferences

I’ve been going to conferences for >17 years and many things have become much easier compared to my terrifying first conference experience, but some things will always stay the same. Below I talk about some of the positives and negatives of attending conferences.

  1. Travel

This can be both a positive and a negative. Getting to your destination is usually not a particularly pleasant experience. The first few times on an airplane, bus, train, etc. can be exciting, but after a while it gets pretty boring. I am constantly amazed by the bad behaviour of other people while travelling. Recent changes by air carriers in Canada has made this even worse by charging for checked luggage. This has led to a massive uptick in the number of passengers bringing carry-on luggage that has to be stowed in the overhead bins. If you can fit a small adult in your carry-on bag you need to check yourself…and your bags.

Once you get to your destination the fun can begin! Many locales that you travel to as a scientist are international and interesting; I consider this one of the perks of the job! I’ve been to Australia, England, Portugal, Spain, Austria, and various North American cities. After you’ve been doing science for a while, you may end up visiting the same locations which is not as stimulating. When the Icelandic volcano erupted in 2010, I got stuck in London, England for an extra 5 days. In that case the delay was somewhat positive as I got to visit Kew Gardens and the Victoria and Albert Museum , but the uncertainty of when I’d be able to fly home was pretty stressful.

  1. Meeting new people

The vast majority of the scientists that I’ve met at conferences have been awesome and amazing. I’ve started new collaborations, shared knowledge, developed new research ideas, and learned a great deal. These interactions are what make a conference worthwhile for most of us. I could certainly do without the creepers and the gigantic egos however.

  1. Oral presentations

Watching other people present is always an education. A great talk can be inspiring and offer tips on how to improve your own presentations. A bad talk provides you with a list of what not to do and can put you to sleep. I often come up with ideas for material to use in my courses, or slide layouts that are more visually appealing.

  1. Poster presentations

It’s really hard to put together a strong and effective poster, so I’m always on the look-out for great posters and what they have in common. I’m not a huge fan of poster sessions because I’ve often had the experience of having only a few people stop by my poster. I think that oral presentations offer better exposure and opportunities and therefore encourage my students to do talks if possible.

  1. Social events and field trips

These events are usually lots of fun. I look forward to them as a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, recognize professional achievements, experience the culture and traditions of the host institution and country, and if I’m lucky- dance. I don’t enjoy being around scientists who drink to excess and make idiots out of themselves. I will remember that time in 2005 when you hit on that graduate student and refused to accept that she didn’t want to dance. It’s unfortunate that her first experience of being at a conference hosted by our society involved me tactfully removing her from the situation, making sure that she was o.k., and telling her that you were in the wrong. In retrospect I should have done more, but power differentials suck.

  1. Participating on the executive of your professional society

This is a great way to become involved and to meet new people. I’ve served on the executives of two different professional societies and I’ve gained a lot of transferrable skills and knowledge. Many societies have positions available for students and post-docs, so even if you are just starting out in science there are great opportunities available.

Overall, conferences are very positive, useful and fun experiences! I’d appreciate hearing your conference triumphs, tribulations, or disaster stories in the comments!

The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk

Last week the undergraduate and graduate students in our department delivered 15-20 minute research talks at our departmental colloquium. The person who administers our departmental Twitter account @LaurierBiology asked if I would live tweet the talks occurring on the second morning of the colloquium. I agreed and wasn’t sure how this experiment would turn out.

I was a relatively late adopter of Twitter. I’ve only had an account since December 2013 and while I post to Twitter @AEMcDonaldWLU regularly to advertise my blog posts I am certainly not using it to the full extent of the platform’s capabilities. I am slowly mastering the art of the hashtag. I went into the experience of live Tweeting fully expecting that I would be distracted and therefore wouldn’t take in most of the content of the talks.

You can therefore imagine my surprise at how helpful it was to live Tweet a research talk. It forced me to pay attention to the speaker and their content, but it also required me to synthesize and report the major points of their talk in a succinct manner. There is nothing like being limited to 140 characters to force you to be brief and to the point.

I can’t say that I will always live Tweet talks from now on, but I will certainly consider the idea moving forward. I used to assume that people who were using Twitter during research talks at conferences were being rude and not paying attention. Now I know that a fraction of those people are very actively engaged with the speaker, but in a non-traditional way.

Anyone else want to share their experiences with live Tweeting a research talk? Any other benefits or drawbacks that I’ve missed here?

Dressing for Success in Science as a Woman

When I was a little girl I apparently wore dresses; there are pictures in the photo album to prove it. As I got older I ditched the dresses and it was mostly about comfort. I hate nylon pantyhose and tights passionately and in the late 70’s/early 80’s the fashion rules of the day dictated that bare legs with dresses or skirts were a fashion faux pas. Maybe it’s because I’ve only worn cheap versions of these monstrosities, but the itching and pulling is enough to drive me insane. Once in the lab I cut up a pair of pantyhose to serve as a makeshift filtration device; it was immensely satisfying! From that point on I was firmly in the pants camp. Pants are also considerably warmer and you don’t need to worry about accidently flashing people when you wear them (take note Britney Spears ). You can easily run wild throughout the neighbourhood catching crayfish, tadpoles, and avoiding snapping turtles while wearing pants. The only time that I wear a dress or a skirt these days are at weddings or fancy dinners. From this perspective wearing pants was a personal choice. Since starting my scientific career it’s also been a practical and necessary one.

When I first started working in a lab, it didn’t make sense to wear skirts or dresses (or shorts for that matter) from a health and safety perspective. All of the labs that I’ve worked in have required the use of personal protective gear including a lab coat. That lab coat is there to protect you, but it can only do so much. If you have bare legs exposed underneath your lab coat due to wearing a dress, skirt, or shorts you are placing yourself at risk. Don’t think that it can happen to you? I have a co-worker who used to think that way until she accidentally spilled phenol on herself in the lab. Many of the experiments that I do are messy and it doesn’t make financial sense to destroy “nice” clothes if it can be avoided. The same goes for shoes. We aren’t allowed to wear open toed shoes or sandals in the lab for the same reason. When running around doing experiments I’ll go with a pair of sneakers or loafers every time. This is also a keen survival strategy for when the zombie apocalypse occurs and making a speedy get-away will be important. That being said, I’m sure that Dr. Isis will hold her own regardless of what fabulous shoes she happens to be wearing that day!

In addition to the practical reasons that inform my clothing choices, there are larger societal and cultural factors that influence my professional wardrobe. I was reminded about this topic by today’s post on Tenure, She Wrote. And here we get to the sticky point; the double standard when it comes to how female and male scientists dress for work and how they are perceived based on what they are wearing. It’s a tricky tight rope to walk and for me personally takes up way too much of my mental energy most mornings as I decide what to wear to work. Judging by previous blog posts on the topic, I’m not alone. A quick Google search on the topic turned up a pretty amusing article from 1998 on the ScienceCareers website about a graduate student looking for a professional outfit. More recently the topic has been covered by a super post by My Laser Boyfriend  which outlines some great fashion options that are realistic and tasteful. Neurotic Physiology also had a good post about the double standards of dress for men and women and how to deal with long hair in the lab. The Singular Scientist discusses how female scientists are portrayed on TV and in film  and on difficult conversations that she’s had to have with trainees about inappropriate clothing choices. A more academic analysis of this double standard can be found in this Tenure, She Wrote post.

It would be great to live in a world where your fashion choices didn’t influence what people think about your competence or abilities as a scientist, but as some of the posts above can attest, we do not live in that world. At each stage of my career I have made a conscious effort to dress more professionally based on the adage to “dress for the job you want” and I feel that so far it has served me well. I’m at the point in my career where I’m feeling comfortable and secure enough in my position that I can start to make some bolder fashion choices. Up until now my professional clothing choices have been very conservative. This past year I made the revolutionary decision to add scarves into my outfit rotations! With that in mind, here are some links to websites that I’ve found useful for getting some ideas about what components are useful to have in a professional wardrobe:

1) Corporette

2) Capitol Hill Style

3) Franish

4) Does my bum look 40 in this?

Some people may think that having an interest in fashion, dressing stylishly, and being a successful female scientist are mutually exclusive. They are not. I count as role models several strong women who are excellent scientists as well as very snazzy dressers. There may be hope for me yet…

A Modest Proposal to Conference Organizers

Most of the academic conferences that I attend take place during the summer months from May to August. This means that many people are hard at work during the upcoming months putting together conference programmes. Having organized a conference myself I know how much work this requires and I have the utmost respect for these volunteers who work tirelessly so that we can have a valuable experience. This task includes organizing events that are research related such as symposia, keynotes, plenary sessions, etc. It also involves organizing events that are more social in nature that allow for networking and the development of new acquaintances and the renewal of long-standing friendships. My overall experiences at conferences have been mostly positive, but over the years I have witnessed or been privy to inappropriate and unprofessional behaviours and when these occur they diminish my enjoyment of meetings. In the past I was often silent about these incidents as there were large power differentials at play and I felt I was at a vulnerable stage of my academic career. Now when I see these things happen I point them out. In some cases this involves challenging the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of colleagues and in other cases it involves speaking directly to organizing committee members or society representatives in order to effect changes that remove systemic bias. I have been attending academic conferences since 1998 and present my biggest pet-peeves below. Wherever possible I offer solutions to these challenges.

1) Our goal should be to have a professional conference. Knowing that people sometimes act unprofessionally despite this fact, a written, clear, code of conduct and repercussions for unprofessional conduct should be generated, made widely available, and enforced. This includes mechanisms for the safe reporting of unprofessional conduct and transparency of these processes and the outcomes. Conferences should have a zero tolerance policy for harassing, threatening, or disruptive behaviour. This provides a means of addressing overly aggressive questioners/hecklers to addressing incidents of sexual harassment and ensures that conferences are safe spaces for everyone.

 2) Child-care, elder-care, and accompanying persons should not be an afterthought or receive only lip service. People have complex lives; do the best that you can to recognize and accommodate this fact. At the very least, do not put up additional barriers that have to be overcome in order for scientists to attend and fully participate. For example, does your venue have a lactation room? If you have ever had to breastfeed your child or pump milk in a filthy toilet stall you will understand why this is important.

 3) When picking your venues for events, please think about safety and accessibility. Are you forcing people to choose between networking and personal safety? I especially dread the late night walks in unfamiliar surroundings from the pub back to the hotel that seem to be a staple of academic conferences. Can everyone fully participate in all of your events if they wanted to? Are you using older buildings that lack ramps or elevators? That networking session in the loud bar is a nightmare for anyone who has a hearing impairment. Does your venue have gender-neutral washrooms or washrooms that can accommodate those who require assistance from an attendant? Are your food and beverage options meeting the dietary needs of your participants?

 4) Ask yourself if the speakers/presenters at your conference are reflective of the diversity of your profession and professional society. If they aren’t then you need to try harder. You’re a scientist; use your creative problem solving abilities to fix it.

5) Are your registration and accommodation costs reasonable and varied? Can you offer discounts in exchange for volunteering? Please make an effort to remove financial barriers to attendance. This is especially important for student and post-doc participation.

6) Do you have any hazing rituals that are disguised as “hallowed traditions”? Perhaps it’s well past time to rethink those and end them.

 

Why You Should Join a Scientific Society

Depending on the scientific research that you do, there will be one or more regional, national, and international scientific societies dedicated to advancing research in that area. Many societies have very broad interests, while others will be focused on niche research areas. I have found it very useful and rewarding, both personally and professionally, to be a member of scientific societies.

I joined my first scientific society in 1998 when I was finishing up my fourth year undergraduate thesis project. I was encouraged by my supervisor to present my results as an oral presentation at the Eastern Regional Meeting of the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists. This was my first introduction to academic conferences and the first time presenting my research to a scientific audience. It was an absolutely terrifying, but exciting experience. My talk went great, I received an honourable mention for it, and I ended up being invited to join some people for lunch. One of those people ended up being my Ph.D. supervisor a few years later. This effectively illustrates that joining an academic society allows you to actively participate in conferences and can be a very effective way to network and advance your career. Since then I’ve organized the Eastern Regional meeting on my campus and am currently serving as the chair of a committee for a prestigious student award for this society.

I joined my second scientific society in 2005 during my Ph.D. program. While much of my work used plants as an experimental system, I had also started to move into animal models for my experiments. I joined the Canadian Society of Zoologists and attended their annual conference later that year. I gave a talk at that meeting that attracted a lot of positive attention and helped me to meet many colleagues and to develop strong friendships with a wide variety of scientists. As it turns out, the chair of the session that my oral presentation was slated in later become my post-doctoral advisor. This society has also supported my research through travel grants to conferences and a research grant to conduct some work at Stanford with international colleagues. I currently serve as a councillor for this society.

Membership in these two societies has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s allowed me to see amazing places all over the world, to meet some incredible friends, and to develop a wide range of useful skills. I strongly encourage all of my students to join a scientific society so that they can experience the benefits first hand.

How to Network After a Conference

The step of networking that many scientists overlook is ensuring that you actively maintain the relationships that you have worked so hard to start. When you get home from a conference within a few days you should actively take steps to stay in touch with the contacts that you’ve made. This is as easy as sending a quick and professional email. It can be as simple as stating that you enjoyed meeting that person, that you found your conversations useful, or thanking them for sharing a technique. If you offered to send someone reagents, a journal article, or data you should do so promptly when you return home.  For more formal interactions (e.g. job interviews, invitations to give plenary talks, etc.) I think that the old-school idea of sending a hand-written thank-you note is appropriate and appreciated.

Once you return from a conference you should also go over any notes that you took during talks, discussions, and poster presentations. These insights might influence your own research directions, or perhaps you have a follow-up question that you need to contact someone about. Pass along any useful information that you picked up at the conference to others in your research group or offer to summarize the major ideas presented at the conference to your lab group or department.

These are ways to maintain both your external network with scientists outside your institution as well as strengthening your relationships with researchers you interact with every day. Now that you have more experience with networking, please “pay it forward” and mentor other scientists who could use your new found wisdom and advice.

Networking at a Scientific Conference

business card

When scientists hear the word networking they often think about situations that they might encounter at conferences. There are concrete steps that you can take while at a conference that can maximize your chances of networking success. Several built-in networking opportunities exist within the schedules of conferences that make it easier to network. The major activities that occur at conferences are talks/presentations/symposia and poster sessions and these provide great venues in which to meet fellow scientists. If you are participating in a talk session, you have a built in excuse to introduce yourself to your fellow presenters and the session chair. When attending talks, think about good, solid questions that you could ask the speaker and go for it! Now the speaker will recognize you and so will everyone else who was in the audience of that session. If you are presenting a poster, get to know your physical neighbours during your poster session. If you are interested in a particular poster, engage the presenter in a conversation. Write down important suggestions, comments, questions, and feedback on your own work and the work of others. These will spark new ideas and lead to interesting conversations. Offer to share articles, information, and resources with others when these things naturally come up in conversation. Be open to possibilities for collaboration and picking up research tips and tricks from others.

There are other “structured” events where you can network at conferences besides talk and poster sessions. Many conferences are organized by a scientific society. At annual meetings, the society will often hold business meetings. If you can see yourself becoming involved in the governance of the society in the future, then attending these meetings is a great start. Many graduate students that I know are not aware that they can attend business meetings, but if you are a member of the society your participation will be welcomed! Most conferences also offer an impressive array of workshops. These are excellent opportunities to network while getting involved in topics that interest you. I make it a point to attend professional skill development workshops and workshops targeted towards women in science and early career scientists when I attend conferences. Some conferences will offer social events for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and if you are new to networking these events are less intimidating and offer you an opportunity to network with your peers. If you are interested in a career in industry you will want to talk to people in the exhibition hall who are representing equipment and chemical suppliers, publishing companies, etc. in order to build relationships in those areas. Be selective in the events that you attend in order to avoid burn-out. If you decide to go to an event I find it easier to go early to the event as it is less intimidating to network when fewer people are present.

If you are attending a conference with people that you know, resist the urge to always huddle together. Try to circulate and mingle at events. Ask colleagues to introduce you to new people and return the favour by introducing them to people that you know. If you see someone standing alone, be inclusive and welcoming and ask them to join your discussion. Talk to people in the refreshment line during breaks. At meals you can be brave and sit with people you don’t know.

Networking is a long term process. You don’t have to do all of the above at every conference that you attend. Decide ahead of time what you want to accomplish in terms of networking and do your best. In my next post I’ll talk about the importance of maintaining the relationships that you have started to build. What can you do after the conference is over to continue to strengthen your network?