Why conferences matter

After a drive from Guelph and then a long flight from Toronto into very foggy Vancouver and then not-quite-as-foggy Prince George, I arrived home last night from the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of Canada and Ontario (#ESCJAM2013). I have been away from my family and from UNBC for close to a week now, and though somewhat fatigued (and slightly jet lagged), meetings like these are valuable.

I have come to particularly enjoy ESC meetings over the past few years as I think that they really hit the sweet spot in terms of having just the right number of attendees and topics. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with huge meetings or small niche meetings. I enjoy those too. But if I were Goldilocks, this one would be “just right.”

So, why should a scientist bother to use up part of a research grant to pick up and travel to some far-flung location and spend several days eating and sleeping relatively poorly in a generic conference facility? Here are the reasons that I came up with, and perhaps you can think of more:

Learning and connecting – Nothing beats being fully immersed in a topic that you love, with a ton of likeminded people all around. Conferences provide this type of environment, ranging from excellent student talks (and wow! there were so many of these at the ESC JAM this year!!), to detailed symposium talks, to workshops, to simply chatting with colleagues at coffee breaks. After a conference I generally return reinvigorated and excited about what is going on in my own personal research and the research of the folks in my program. I’ve had a chance to hear cool things and to ask in-person questions and receive in-person answers. I’ve been reminded that there are a lot of other people out there working on interesting problems too – I’m not toiling alone. I’ve been able to troubleshoot some of my scientific and red tape issues with people who have had more experience than I in certain areas. I’ve found out about new theories, new technologies, and new frontiers of study. I’ve re-met old friends and colleagues, and I’ve made contacts with new people as well.

You can read all of the literature all of the time in complete solitude, and you will be very well educated on a topic. But nothing beats the human element in terms of deeply understanding the state-of-the-art in a particular field. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the best learning is done in community with other humans. And the best way to encounter other humans is… to actually spend time with them.

Being challenged – Not everyone does this –and I’m not suggesting that it is the only way of doing things – but I try to go to sessions that do not necessarily major on my own research topic. The reality is that I hear a lot about the type of things that I do on a regular basis from my closest colleagues who also do that type work. I read their papers, talk to them on the phone, collaborate on projects, etc. So I already have a pretty good idea of what is going on in their programs and what they are thinking about. What I don’t necessarily know is what is going on in other entomological fields because my interactions are not as frequent nor is my network so solid. Conferences allow me to sit in on sessions as a fly-on-the-wall (pun intended!) to see what others are up to. Sometimes this gives me new ideas for research or for potential collaborations. If nothing else, it reminds me of how cool entomology is. Like others during this conference, I tried to send out a tweet from each talk that I attended, so if you’re interested, you can get a quick idea of the diversity of topics that I was able to enjoy, here.

Tours – Most conferences that I’ve been to feature one or two of these. Admittedly I don’t always get to go due to conflicts with other events. But when I do, I generally really learn. This year a few of us were treated to a tour of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario facility at the University of Guelph. Besides the fact that what is going on there is highly impressive, it was great to be able to talk to some of the facility experts and to ask specific questions. At other conferences I’ve been able to head out on field trips to see some of the local insect pest problems. Nothing beats seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling a topic first hand for later understanding. I find that after such field trips, reading the literature is a much more living experience than it can be when I just approach a paper “cold” with no actual life connection with the subject.

History – This year was the 150th anniversary of the Entomological Society of Ontario and (in conjunction with the ESO… I won’t explain it here) the Entomological Society of Canada. As Dr. Laura Timms pointed out in her excellent Heritage Lecture, we’re the oldest entomological society on the continent. With 150 years of history comes a lot of deep tradition as well. Laura’s talk was excellent and reminded all of us of the fact that the ups and downs that we see in our profession today are nothing particularly new. We have a solid foundation built by others before us on which to grow. It is up to us to carry on that legacy. This hit home during the banquet when Dr. Thelma Finlayson was honored for her contributions over her 98 years (!!!) to students, to entomology, and to our Society. The reality is that, barring incredible medical advances, most of us will not be very active in the profession – if we are around at all – at the 200th anniversary. Our history should remind us of our ongoing responsibility to those coming after us over the next 50 years and beyond.

Cookies at coffee breaks – need I say more?

For a great summary of the meeting, please head over to Sean McCann‘s photograph-filled post (featuring my Ph.D. supervisor in the first photograph).

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Aside: During the conference there was a bit of a Twitter squall that is summarized/linked with this tweet:

 

I won’t add much more to the conversation here, others have already responded nicely. Suffice it to say that, for me, Twitter is the next best thing to an ongoing conference. It allows realtime and authentic interaction with others on various topics that interest me.

Twitter is, by no means, as substitute for a good conference or a good blog post. But neither is a blog post or a conference a substitute for Twitter or any other medium. It is what you make of it.

And much was made of Twitter at this conference. For instance, a bit of intense web wizardry by David Shorthouse gave those in attendance using Twitter this fantastic tool that added value to the already useful stream of #ESCJAM2013 tweets.

During this discussion there have been quotes of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” mantra.

To this I’ll add a quote from Neil Postman:

One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of “crap.”

Any medium will end in a fecal morass if the only contributions to it are scat.

I have experienced just the opposite of that with Twitter on a variety of subjects because the people who I follow contribute useful content and ideas. Twitter at the 2013 ESC JAM was a prime example of that.