Flying by night, couchsurfing, long bus rides…I had one chance to make sure I squeezed in as much I could on as tight a budget as possible in Hawai’i.
Six months earlier, I had submitted an abstract for the International Coral Reef Symposium, to take place June 20th-June 25th in Honolulu, HI. To a fresh-graduated, hopeful coral reef scientist like myself, the conference couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
That being said, being a fresh college graduate meant that making a trip to Hawai’i was somewhat not in the college budget. Scraping together some graduation funds and utilizing a small grant from the UNC Office of Undergraduate Research, I managed to get a week off from work, and do what 5 year-old-me has always dreamed of: Spend a week in Hawai’i surrounded by coral reef scientists!
The Week: The International Coral Reef Symposium
The third conference I had ever attended, and it had to be the most important one. I had spent two years working in the Castillo Lab learning about coral research, and I hoped that I would be able to use those lessons to make some connections in the coral reef community. Going to a couple conferences before had given me some experience, but I certainly am far from a “master networker” (I’m good at faces, but still pretty bad at names…)
Here’s 10 quick lessons of what I learned:
- Do your homework.
Before getting to the conference, I knew that one of my biggest goals would be to introduce myself to potential graduate school mentors. With that in mind, I already had some ideas of professors that I wanted to talk to, and groups of presentations related to my research interests. Having a plan made all the difference between feeling lost and feeling driven.
- Go to presentations on subjects you know nothing about, but have an interest in
Having an interest in marine biology from childhood combined with only two years of experience studying corals meant that the vast majority of presentations at this conference fell into this category for me. As a result I found myself jumping between rooms, seeing a presentation on reef fish dynamics and leaving to cross the convention center to catch a talk on net reef calcification. Besides giving me plenty of exercise, I learned a lot about a huge range of research fields in coral reef science, even if I didn’t quite get the subtle nuances of the research or study. That’s just all the more reason it’s so important to…
- Take notes
It all seems so clear when it’s right in front of you, but after ten presentations in a day (especially presentations as diverse as the ones I attended) I had no chance of remembering the key points and questions I had in each presentation. The notes I hastily wrote down during presentations were the same notes I used talking to people at the conference, emailing mentors about applications, and even just pointing out the crazy facts that I learned that day to labmates.
- Talk to strangers
Here it is, the biggest point you hear about conferences: networking! Which, in the presence of research giants and established scholars, can be a touch intimidating. How do you introduce yourself to big name people? Simply put: I introduced myself to everyone. Since this was a conference, it was relatively infrequent that people would turn down a handshake and introduction about my research. It was some of the people I met this way that I had the most interesting conversations with, which lead to more connections and introductions, and allowed me to have the courage to approach people that I did know the names of and introduce myself.
- Talk to non-strangers
While the previous tip has to be the most frequent “networking tip”, this one has to be the one I hear the least, though it is almost as important as tip 4. At ICRS, I was one of 8 people representing the Castillo Lab, and one of the youngest and newest to the coral community. As a result, I had a lot of people helping me out during all of those crowded coffee breaks that I was feeling very lost. My labmates helped me prepare for meetings, introduced me to fellow colleagues, and always were a smiling face that I could talk to. I also had the chance to reconnect with some people I had met at previous conferences. Seeing and catching up with these familiar faces is what connected me with some fantastic new faces.
- Have specific meeting times (and locations!)
So after working up the courage to talk to some of the greats in the coral community, there was usually the question asked “Can we sit down and talk more about your research sometime?” This is an easy question since the answer is almost always yes, they can sit down some time. The difference between this meeting actually happening instead of an empty endeavor was giving a couple of specific times and options ready to go for the person to work with, rather than placing all the pressure of organizing on the other person. It can also be tempting to fall for the trap of “I’ll email you about it”, but even setting a tentative meeting time can prevent that email from being lost or forgotten, especially during an action packed week where so many people are trying to meet and connect with each other. And also let me say it is pretty difficult to meet with someone at a specific time you don’t set a meeting location…
- Use what the conference has provided (lunch with mentors, coffee hours, etc)
This was my divine gift to help me with point #6 and getting specific meeting times. With the conference building in designated breaks and networking events, this meant that I was only competing with other meetings to meet with someone during these times. It also gave me immediate specific options for arranging meetings if were to talk to someone in passing. I was also grateful to mentor-networking programs the conference ran, since mentors in this program were looking to help and work with people like me.
- Have snacks
Better to have too much food than not enough. Spending entire days at the convention center meant I took care of about 3 apples a day, in addition to the occasional granola bar, not counting a good breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Water was also essential in keeping me moving and alert for a whole day.
- Have breaks
That being said, five days of nonstop presentations, meetings, and networking meant that by halfway through day 3 I was starting to hear without listening. My easy solution? Missing one presentation, giving me an instant 15 minute break. I walked for a bit, processed some of my presentation notes from that day, and sent some emails. Taking the occasional break during presentations allowed for me pay better attention in presentations but also use the designated breaks for networking and meeting, maximizing the times when I knew people were free.
A convention center full of coral reef scientists wanting to talk about science? It certainly wasn’t difficult to discern my excitement, and I found that enthusiasm was certainly contagious. Once I got to talking to people and hearing about their research, they were most likely to invest and hear about my work if I was invested in hearing about theirs. Exchanging smiles, conversations, and research. Isn’t that what conferences are all about?
Many of these lessons you will see all over the internet, and probably have heard from people far more qualified than me. I personally thank the Castillo Lab family for making sure I learned as much as I did. I didn’t spend all of my time in Hawai’i within the Honolulu Convention Center (see the part two of this post), but these lessons helped me make the most of every minute that I was.