Field Guide to Scientific Conferences: an Ecological View



It's not all about the science.


When, as a graduate student, you pop down the rabbit hole under the hedge and find yourself in the world of scientific conferences, you may at first be confused. Social interactions don't always come easily to those of a scientific bent. This field guide will help you navigate your way by looking at conferences through the lens of ecological principles. Think of it as a troop of baboons getting together: social chatter, exchange of news, dominant ones leading the conversations, quiet, shy ones hanging at the fringes. If you understand that scientists at conferences and troops of baboons basically follow the same rules of species interactions and animal behavior, you'll do fine. (This in no way implies that baboons are somehow the inferior species.)

It's worth trying to improve your conference-going skills, because conferences provide many ecosystem goods and services, things you want and need for your scientific well-being: stimulating ideas, learning new methods and techniques, making yourself known, getting burning questions answered, seeing old friends, meeting new people, finding your next job, going on field trips, eating at interesting restaurants, and scoring swag like nifty insulated beer can holders. The confusion comes from the subtexts: pursuit of power, status, food, comfort, shelter, and reproduction (of ideas, of course).

As you look at the people around you, ask yourself: what drives their behavior? The first thing to know is that curiosity about how things work is a hallmark of scientists. They get a rush from fitting a new piece into the puzzle. The second thing is that many scientists score in the Myers-Briggs personality type as “intuitive, thinking introvert,” which translates as “probably not high social IQ.” The third thing is that conferences are about talking. And talking and talking. Talking at a presentation you are giving. And talking in the hallways while skipping talks others are giving.

Trophic levels: working your way up the food chain

At scientific conferences, there are three classes of attendees: Eminents, Lowlies, and Everyone Else. Grad students, of course, fall into the Lowlies group. An ecotone, or edge effect, where all three classes come into contact can yield higher biodiversity and productivity than in any one group by itself. Talking with someone of a higher status can yield many benefits. Talking to someone below your status gives you a chance to show off. Talking to someone at your own level is relaxing. At conferences, you'll do some of each.

Scientists don't openly display the insignia of their dominance–subdominance hierarchy. Often, the silverbacks are just as likely to wear the same clothes as the lowly ones. But if someone tries to tread on their research, they immediately throw up a fierce defense. Just like baboons—one tries to intimidate another one; that one either makes the challenger back off, or he drops to a subdominant position. Sure, there are some conferences where nametags are adorned with colored ribbons—Speaker, Session Chair, Program Committee, and so on. But grad students who've tried to capitalize on the authority of a badge have not fared well (“Ha! Your ribbon says you are merely Speaker, while I've been anointed Session Chair. You must bow down before me.”).

You have to look for other signals. Dominant personalities emerge that drive the discussion, conference, and conclusions. Alpha males and females can often be spotted during the question and answer session following a plenary session when they can't resist the chance to stand up and make some insightful point cleverly disguised as a question.

If you are currently in the Lowly class, don't be intimidated by the Eminents. Be like Alice in the presence of the Queen of Hearts: “Why, they're only a pack of cards, after all. I needn't be afraid of them!” (Carroll 1865). Or, as one grad student put it: “My greatest moment at the conference came when the keynote speaker took the stall next to me in the men's room.” Science may not be a classless society, but class mobility is one of the most fluid in human endeavors. If you have good ideas, do good research, and can talk and write coherently, you will rise.

Biogeography: location, location, location, and timing, timing, timing

The factors affecting the distribution of species in space and time constitute an important facet of ecology. Conferences are a warren of meeting rooms, poster halls, coffee shops, vendor displays, hotel rooms, and restaurants, with interconnecting hallways tunneling among them all. Learn how the various groups of attendees arrange themselves in space and time.

Observe the daily migration patterns of the subspecies you want to prey upon: how they move between feeding grounds and watering holes. It's like bird watching—knowing where to be at what time of day to spot your target species. Even so, you have to be lucky to get a sighting of the must-haves on your life list, the Eminents, as they only randomly and occasionally emerge from the deep forest. Maybe you spot one of them, perhaps the keynote speaker. Chances are she would be delighted to talk to a bright young grad student, but you need to pick your time carefully. When she's heading into the restroom after a long session is not a good time.

Competition: winning isn't everything but it's something

If curiosity is the most powerful driver for scientists, competition is second. Being the first to make a discovery, to prove a theory, to publish a new idea, keeps people pushing. That's good, but sometimes it can get out of hand. Competition comes into play in quests for power, status, and reproduction. This latter one does not concern replicating yourself physically, as in finding a mate and producing offspring (although preliminary moves in this direction, with the attendant courtship and mating displays, have been observed at conferences); rather, this concerns replicating your ideas. A good way to do this is through your oral presentation or poster.

You have to compete for attention. Say you're standing by your poster, hardly anyone has stopped by yet, and you're trying not to look too anxious. How to get people to stop and talk to you rather than all those other poster people? You see someone come into your group of posters; she's darting her eyes quickly over the various titles. You strain to read her name tag. If she edges closer, set the hook by smiling and asking “May I talk you through this?” Pretend you're a male bowerbird; you've built this elaborate structure and you want to get a female to join you inside. The principle of sexual selection says that reproduction (of ideas, in this case) only occurs if the person you're trying to attract chooses your structure over the many competing ones. So you've got to make your poster bold, colorful, and interesting.

In other displays of competition, it may seem odd that some people get jealous when another scientist discovered something new before they did. Shouldn't we all be excited to learn something new about the natural world? But it's not odd at all; the idea of competitive exclusion says two species competing for the same resources cannot coexist. However, they can do so with resource partitioning; for example, grad students eat pizza and beer in the evening, while professors order dinner and wine. Grad students can survive in the same environment as the professors because they feed on different items.

Competitive release occurs when you are in a session expounding upon your pet theory and your arch-rival is not there to once again throw cold water on it. Be careful not to get carried away.

Predator–prey relationships: being on the right side

O Oysters, come and walk with us! /The Walrus did beseech. /A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, /Along the briny beach.

—Carroll 1871

Let's say you're a bit nervous before giving your talk. Whatever you do, don't look like a prey item. There may be predators in the audience who would love to show off their own knowledge and cleverness by attacking you. You invite attack by being pretentious, bragging, or making assertions without evidence. So don't do those things. It wouldn't hurt if you were able to show some passion for your topic. No one will attack you for that. Unless you go bubbly.

You may have given a great presentation and get sharply questioned by people who feel what you said is contradictory to their ideas and research. Rejoice. This is science at its self-correcting best. Old ideas are cast out in the face of new evidence and new ideas get tested. Sometimes, however, even if you don't look like an easy prey item, there may be a predator lurking in the audience who wants to make you look bad. Maybe your advisor did something to them years ago. Fight them. Once, at a presentation given by a soft-spoken Australian, someone in the back yelled out “Mumble louder!” The predator gains status with a witty remark; the prey loses status unless he can counter with a quick riposte (“The marbles are in your ears, mate.”).

Seize opportunities to be a predator yourself. You spot someone you want to meet at a coffee break, or in between sessions; you are lurking on the edges, stalking them like a lioness after a zebra, waiting for a good opportunity to pounce. If the person is surrounded by a herd, that provides them a certain level of protection from you.

No explanation is needed for grad students on how to prey on snacks during breaks. Knowledge of how to turn a table of hors-d'oeuvres into a full meal is innate. Just one suggestion: before diving in, quickly scan the full table to selectively target the items that will maximize the ratio of your energy gained from the food vs. the energy lost in capturing it. Fighting other grad students for a handful of potato chips will result in an energy deficit.

In rare cases, you may want to be viewed as prey. For example, you're walking by a vendor's booth and your eyes glaze over with desire for the free USB flash drive she's baiting you with, like a deep-sea angler fish dangling her lure in front of her enormous mouth.

Parasitism: parasites suck

It's good to seek out people to talk to, ask questions, arrange research collaborations, and so on, but don't be needy. Don't attach yourself to someone like a remora for the rest of the conference. Likewise, beware of parasites trying to cling to you. You've got to make the best use of the chance to meet people and a parasite can be a drag. Often, a quick glance with a fading Cheshire Cat smile can fend off the impending attack. Similarly, if after your oral presentation or at your poster, you are engaged by a robotalking invasive species, you must learn how to get rid of him gracefully (see Troop social behavior).

Commensalism: you're not trying hard enough

Say you somehow you wind up at a lunch table with two or three of the most prominent people in your field. The conversation is dazzling. You manage to express one or two semi-coherent thoughts. That's commensalism—you benefited, the others were not affected positively or negatively by the interaction with you. Next time, think of something smart to say at the table, not later that afternoon.

Altruism: is it really worth it?

Altruistic behavior, helping others with no expectations of anything in return, is displayed by the people who render a service to their community by organizing and running the conference. Also by the people judging posters, running workshops, and chairing sessions. These are the “engineer species,” ones like beavers or oysters who alter the habitat, providing benefits for other species. Likewise, professors exhibit altruism by giving their grad students a base from which to spring to new heights (standing on the shoulders of giants and all that, where the giants expect nothing in return but sore shoulders). Exhibit altruism by volunteering to help run the conference or by organizing a workshop.

Neutralism: avoid it

Neutralism is where neither population benefits from the presence of the other. For example, you fall asleep during a talk because last night you chose to stay out late with some new friends and ingest a high weight-to-body-mass ratio of margaritas. You've denied the speaker a chance to influence you, and yourself a chance to learn about something you presumably were interested in. Avoid neutralism when possible.

Mutualism: getting into the zone

Although you, as an analytical introvert, may be tempted to spend the week in your hotel room, analyzing the data in the program, wrestling with conflicting sessions, it's better to actually go to something. Anyway, no matter what session you go to, you won't be able to shake the feeling something better is going on somewhere else.

Happily, most interactions at conferences follow mutualism, the cases where both parties benefit from the interaction. Like baboons discovering a new termite mound, a palpable buzz arises when a truly new idea is floated and discussed. There will be curious people at your talk or poster who pose good questions or give you helpful feedback. This is mutalism; they're helping you and you're helping them— answering other's questions, steering them to a promising paper, introducing them to good contacts. Engage in this mutual grooming. Picking bugs out of each other's fur helps bond the population.

Troop social behavior: Help!

At a conference, you are outside your natural habitat—your lab, computer, or the field—and must make your way with social behavior, which is about seeking and enjoying interactions with others of your species. It's also about gracefully disengaging from such interactions when the situation warrants. Help! How can a curious analytical introvert work the crowd and jockey for status?

One trick is to exude the appearance of a busy-and-dynamic-with-important-things-to-get-to scientist. This keeps each interaction short.

Cultivate relationships and make an effort to meet new people. Don't start a conversation with someone you've just met by asking where he's from—that's only done on commercial cruise ships. Ask him about his research. Even the droopiest of flowers on the wall will perk right up and may have done some brilliant work (remember, analytical introverts need more personal space than the general population, so don't get right in his face).

Develop the art of making small talk, the grease that eases friction between the cogs of science talk. By definition, small talk is not about ideas. Get used to the fact that sometimes it's about feelings. At home, practice on your house plants (“Nice to meet you, Dr. Geranium. How do you feel about the air quality in our meeting room today?”)

Choosing a desirable person or group to talk with at breaks, lunch, or dinner is like the planktonic larvae of a marine benthic organism selecting a bottom substrate—you use visual, physical, and chemical clues to settle into the most desirable area. If you misjudge, the substrate rejects you, and while you won't perish like a barnacle spat, you've wasted valuable time.

Let's say you're at a reception and have been snared into a conversation with another Lowly. You can use him as a platform from which to spring to others more interesting. Don't try to maintain eye contact. Instead, subtly roll your eyes around, searching for someone more important to talk to. This is resource optimization—a strategic allocation of effort to maximize growth and reproduction. Being able to pull this off without offending the person you're with is an essential conference survival skill. Conversely, maybe you're talking with someone and you see his eyes drifting and then he spots someone else. Quickly say, “So nice talking with you.” Leave him before he leaves you.

Flying through the social flak with a wingman can help. But probably your best chance for social success is to use the power of the introvert: preparing thoughtfully, observing, listening well, forging one-on-one alliances, thinking things through, speaking only when you have something worthwhile to say. You have to find a dynamic homeostasis in this Brownian motion of humans.


[Alice] “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

—Carroll 1865


Thanks, R. Bell, L. Hale, T. Hale, I. Heilke.