pre-Plant Biology 2014 (#PlantBiology14) post.

As I prepare to head to a conference with my newer mindset (as in not as depressed, experimenting with life more), I’m thinking about conferences, what they are for, who they are for, and what it is I’m trying to get out of attending this one (#PlantBiology14).

Even though I’ve been going to a conference or two every year for my whole scientific career, I’ve almost always felt out of place, not like I belong (hello impostorism!). And like I haven’t really been present enough to take advantage of what is on offer there.

I largely thought that conferences were for PIs (‘real’ scientists; those could certainly be grad students and postdocs) to get together to swap stories of funding, writing, ideas for new or old collaborations, grants, and things like that. PIs always seemed to be writing furiously at their computers between sessions, presumably writing grants? Furiously emailing? Perhaps updating their talk? Getting the latest dispatch from their labs? Analyzing ALL the data? It did seem largely specific to PIs to my eye; not as many postdocs or grad students doing that. I guess that’s why PIs earn the big bucks. Paid to always be (look?) busy and exhausted constantly? I’m sure any PI reading this will laugh at just how wildly inaccurate my projection of what it is they’re up to is; even though I’m a postdoc, I don’t get that great a sense of what actually goes on in a PIs mind.

Poster sessions were the worst. I sometimes would wonder exactly what I was doing there, taking up space, that someone else could actually use to do something actually productive and contribute to the world. I’m strongly introverted. I was (& still can be) shy and anxious. My history of being depressed doesn’t help either; a combination of not wanting to spread my depressed thoughts to anyone else and feeling completely unworthy of existence. I tended to not think highly of myself– still don’t very often though I’ve gotten better at acknowledging that I too, can do decent work sometimes.

Other people do great things (I now count myself amongst the doers, creators and builders of the world; one reason I started blogging– of course that means I am always striving to do more than I have done); I will continue to try and find the good in what others are doing and help them improve their work if I can or help them learn a new thing about the world or point them to a place they may not have been aware of.

Of course, I can discount connecting people to ideas these days because we all have a fire hose worth of information coming at us constantly now and the key skill is to be a good filter for all that information– the conference environment can be overwhelming. Maybe the best I can do is try to ask good questions when people are talking about what they are doing, even though I imagine most things I would ask are probably naïve (but maybe those are valuable too).

That said, it’s hard to be a connector of people to ideas if you aren’t actively interacting with people; especially at a conference where interacting and building community is the main reason for the event (Introversion does not mean aversion to people, FYI). A place where grad students and postdocs can land jobs (or at least start that conversation) and maybe get out of their own narrow confines for awhile. Outside that one conference at the end of my Ph.D. where I found my postdoc position and on that same trip met a girl who I dated for 8 months, conferences have mostly been drab affairs where I become a zombie, not really actively engaged and kind of put off by the crowds of people at booths and feeling largely isolated and not just because of exhaustion; because I couldn’t push beyond my largely mental barriers.

I’m trying to re-frame the conference in my mind. More as a place where good things can happen to anyone (me included). Where you can meet new people and find your ‘scene’ as entertainers like to call it; your group of people you come up with, learn from and bounce ideas off the wall, get feedback, etc. (this happens in science too; clusters of scientists that grow and succeed together in their independent careers; I’m sure these are fascinating Venn diagrams). Where it’s not perfect, but in the chaos, interesting ideas come out, new people are well met. I started Tweeting a few years ago and last year, tweeted up a storm which was a lot of fun for me and I plan to do it again this year. There’s now a more formal social media framework for the conference: the iConnect with Plant Biology team. We’ll be extending the meeting beyond the meeting with The Internet coverage from attendees and interacting online with anyone who’s interested. I met people last year because of Twitter.

I posted a fill in the blank elevator pitch based on the opening of Star Trek the other day. I think it’s not a bad mantra to take into a conference either:

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.00.56 PM The full text, if you don’t know is (no worries if you’ve never seen this before):

“Space, The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”*

Conferences are a place to expand your mind, push your comfort zone, grow some new brain connections with new ideas, systems, scientists and thoughts and importantly, to build the community of like-minded people; plant scientists in this case. While my research contribution is small, I fully intend to connect people, find new places and avenues I haven’t really looked into before and to cover my experiences on Twitter. Of course, I’ll catch up with old friends too. One good thing about going to the same conference for years in a row is just this; you see the people from your ‘science scene’ again and again and catch up (and perhaps incorporate new people into that scene– if you see someone standing alone, invite them into your conversation or just say hello; sure, it may go nowhere, but you don’t find out by ignoring people; cultivate curiosity).

There’s a notion that I even joked about above, that PIs with their heads in their computers kind of takes them out of the conference. I don’t fully subscribe to that; I think that tools like Twitter and other digital media (even just note taking) really are game changers for conferences and scientific ideas to spread beyond the confines of the actual attendees. And even for attendees, digital coverage can help them have a richer conference experience, as one person cannot attend all things.

Mindfulness is kind of a buzzword these days with some good reason. I am going to try and not be blindly mindful, but really actually notice what’s there in front of me and then tweet and photograph (within the rules) the entire thing to help others have an enhanced experience. I am also going to try and manage a blog post or two during the conference, as Twitter is great for some things, but not for longer form thinking like this.

Conferences are for germinating ideas, a starting point for new growth, for interacting with the forest, and pollinating ideas. They’re a leaping off point to new places.

Here’s to a good Plant Biology 2014 (#PlantBiology14) and may we all boldly go where no one has gone before (just know my boldness more likely will show up on Twitter rather than in person).

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*Yes, I forgot the ‘strange new worlds’ clause in my version with blanks. I’m a horrible nerd, more impostorism.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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