Monday, June 16, 2014

Conference Successes (eco-friendly and otherwise)

I was at a conference this last week; I can confidently say I accomplished more and enjoyed the experience more than any other conference I've been to.  I've been to a couple other smallish conferences like this before, but this time I went in knowing more people and confident enough in my science to reach out and network more than I have before.  I also did a lot of prep work and managed my energy levels well, which helped a lot. 

I spent the week prior to the conference preparing to meet people, in much more depth than I'd done previously.  I read through the list of conference attendees and presentations, and planned out who I definitely wanted to hunt down.  I also tried to note what I wanted to talk to them about.  It didn't work out exactly right, but it gave me a plan so I didn't freeze up every time I was confronted with a person whose work I admired.  My advisors also helped me organize a few meetings, which took a bit more of the pressure off.

Part of my prep work also involved pre-planning my energy management.  I'm an introvert, and at past conferences I've tried to push myself to be at every talk and go out with people all the time.  This results in me burning out by mid-week, and generally being scientifically and inter-personally useless for the last day or two of the conference. 

This time around, I sat down with the conference schedule and mapped out which talks I would definitely skip, and which I thought I could skip if necessary.  I focused on culling talks on the days when I knew I was meeting people, or early morning talks when I had plans to go out the night before.  There was no point in me going to a talk if I'm going to be too tired and/or distracted to pay attention, if I could get a bit of rest instead.  I also told friends and advisors honestly, before and during the conference, that I would be taking care of myself like this; they generally respected my decisions.  I was still exhausted by week's end, but overall I had a much easier time focusing on the talks I did attend and still having some conversational skills left by the end of the week.

I also tried to mitigate some of the environmental impact.  What I ended up doing was baby steps, if anything, but still something.  I took a few cloth napkins and a good quality plastic fork I already owned, and used those in lieu of paper napkins or plastic utensils at the hotel or end-of-conference picnic.  I did not take my own plate, which I kinda regret, but that would also have been hard to carry, especially when dirty. So room for improvement there.

I was also helped a lot in my environmental endeavours by the conference itself, though they weren't perfect.  The organizers provided lunch for us every day at the conference center, with nothing disposable involved.  They also had real cups and saucers for coffee breaks, although I started carrying my conference mug because they sometimes resorted to paper cups when the real ones ran out.  They did have a few plastic giveaways that I didn't resist (water bottle and sunscreen), but overall I was pleased with how they ran it. 


  1. An early mistake I made attending conferences was to attempt to save money by staying at my sister's house instead of a nearby hotel. The problem was, she was a half-hour drive away, and *she* had the car. So I was stuck at the conference all day, 8 hours, while she was at work. That conference totally exhausted me.

    Now I make sure I have a nearby hotel ("nearby" means within walking or biking distance; even a mile or more is fine, because the commute under my own power counts as "alone" time). And I make sure that I can get back-and-forth between the hotel and them main conference for mid-day naps and just general regrouping.

    1. I made that mistake at a conference in Europe last summer - it was much cheaper to stay at a hostel outside of town, but it meant I had to take a bus to get to the conference and it was hard to go back for a break. Plus I was staying with someone I didn't know almost every night.

      This time, thankfully, the cheapest place to stay was right next to the conference center, and I stayed with another introvert whom I knew.

      I've heard other introverts (post-docs or beyond) say it's important for them to have their own hotel room; I'm looking forward to having the funding for that, at least sometimes.

  2. Learning to manage conferences is a real challenge for intraverts! Sounds like you're doing a much better job than I managed until quite recently...

    I spend my own money if necessary to stay pretty close to the venue, but that's partly because conferences tend to be in warm places and the combination of unfamiliar beds, lecture room seating and lots of standing around at breaks means that my back muscles tend to spasm, so walking any distance in the heat of the day (or after dark in a strange place - getting stuck at evening events wanting to go 'home' is the worst for me) is painful and becomes stressful in its own right. So a short walk and room access matter. For me, that trumps the room-of-my-own - I like that, but if I can't manage that I try to share with an extravert - because they'll be out schmoosing and having a whale of a time most of the conference, and the times when I need a 'time out' (e.g. lunch time, sleeping in a little after a night event) they'll likely be desperate to be With People so as not to miss a minute. Once you TRAIN your extravert so they don't worry about you (or use a little white excuse such as "I'm going to be a real bore this meeting because I've got this report that has to be written/paper deadline the week I get back, so I'll be using odd bits of time to come back here and work" - coming back ostensibly to work seems to be FAR more socially acceptable and less bother to room mates, and getting bored/procrastinating and taking a nap whilst working is apparently quite normal)- let them feel superior about their better time management skills, they'll enjoy it and you'll enjoy your naps!

    Stuck at a conference all day - happens. What you need to do is find a quiet hidey-hole. My PhD supervisor, an anti-social intravert with lots of physical energy (quote from first conference we attended together: "I already know enough people, why would I need to meet more?"), used to prioritise finding a quiet caffeine source for coffee breaks (this was quite often a basement vending machine), then used to walk/run up and down the back stairs of the venue or hotel for ten minutes then acquire caffeine from this private source and sit in the stairwell for breaks to work off nervous energy and get alone time. I prefer to find a corner where I can sit quietly and daydream, practice my mindfulness or go over my plans in peace - for example, at the last big venue I conferenced at there was a corner in the exhibition hall where there were stacks of spare chairs, and no-one minded if I borrowed one and sat there behind the main poster display for ten minutes. On cooler days, there was a patch of grass with a bench and a tree which was a five minute walk from the exhibit hall and not near enough to a building to be colonised by smokers... I've also seen people napping on all sorts of sectional seating around venues, especially as the week goes on - mobile phones have alarms - but I get too anxious around people to be able to do that in public.

    1. And nice to hear from someone else who packs cutlery! I always pack a couple of sturdy plastic forks and spoons, or even buy them on arrival (still better than the disposable stuff over a week), and a travel mug (mine is aluminium with a plastic casing, so sturdy and easy to wash. I choose hot drinks without milk when I can - I find herbal tea better for me at conferences anyway, don't need caffeine jitters - so a quick rinse is enough to keep the cup clean. I also always have a 'rubbish bag' in my conference bag, sturdy tight-woven cotton or a sturdy plastic one which I reuse multiple times, into which I can put dirty forks, cloth napkins and handkerchiefs (I'm great at getting conference colds, or hayfever type things, or both, and try to avoid paper tissues) etc. and then wash them in my room in the evening if necessary - the bonus of using a heavy plastic bag (e.g. a supermarket bag for life) is that I can wash it too each evening and have it dry for reuse the next day.

      The last conference I went to had really tried to be sustainable. They had a composting waste bin in the 'lunch detritus' area for all the apple cores and leftovers alongside the usual recycling bins, which I thought was excellent. They actually didn't collect much recycling waste, since they used a mix of china and palm-leaf plates, which they said came from a renewable source, were fair-traded and compostable (and had a notice up explaining this and their localvore food policies), and actually included a conference travel mug in the conference pack for use at coffee breaks and provided mug-washing facilities in the break area! They did have bottled water (as well as jugs of iced tap water, but sometimes that's not a great drinking choice for intestinal health!) and cans of soda, and some packaged snacks (e.g. small packets of crisps/chips) in addition to fruit and platters of baked goods, so there was stuff to recycle - but they made it easy to make better choices. Definitely something to think about next time I organise an event!