Networking at conferences

I got back from a conference late on Thursday. And I’m still positively glowing. It was an amazing experience. The scientific program was excellent and my brain is still trying to place it all into context.

Skip this part if you’re not a biochemist/molecular biologist…
[Did you for example know that phosphorylations can occur not only on serine, threonine or tyrosine but also on for example histidine, lysine or glutamine? Or that when generating high throughput mass spec data sets, ambiguous masses frequently get assigned to multiple proteins, thus generating lists of identified proteins that may not be accurate? And so on.]

Besides some scientific gems, the social program was amazing as well. The hotel was some 4km from the venue, both in the middle of nowhere, which meant we had to catch the bus to the venue early in the morning and couldn’t leave until late evening. For the dinners, participants received random numbers which corresponded with tables. Just imagine the shock on my face when I realised the person seated next to me the first night was the author of at least 10 papers I cited in my PhD thesis?!

I quickly realised that some serious networking could be done here. Now how to make the most of it?!

Starting with the poster session: I’ve stayed around at all the times I was supposed to be. Which paid off: several profs sought me out. One because he was interested in the technique, one because he was interested in a molecule I worked on and a third for another reason. All three of them would be happy to set up some collaborative project. Additionally, I lured some passers-by into a chat about my work. It is still a rather obscure topic I work on, even at such a specialist meeting, so I’m hoping that I can improve awareness of it this way. Vice versa: read through the abstracts beforehand and make a list of posters to visit.

Giving a talk or chairing a session if also a great opportunity of course. One mistake many made, however, is not tell the audience who they are. If you’re a chairman, get up there and first introduce yourself! May seem awkward, or you may think people know you, but typically they don’t… I realised this when only one of the chairmen introduced himself and I realised later on I did remember his name, but none of the others. Likewise for the speakers. One of them had a drawing of Escher on the first slide. The person sitting next to me seriously wrote “Escher” above his notes on the talk instead of the speakers name…

It also helps to know who you’re talking to – look at the participants list before the meeting and think about who could be particularly interesting for you. Find out more about them. When talking to one of the invited speakers, it was obvious he wasn’t really interested at first. But then I told him I’d heard him speak 5 years ago (and yeah, I remember him! He must like hearing that) and told him how amazed I am at the progress between his talk today and 5 years ago. Which sparked some interest. Then I asked him where he sees the future (And of course he likes it when people think he’s so good he can predict where the field is going..) and told him a bit about my views on the topic. In the end, we talked for over an hour. Which I couldn’t have without some knowledge about him and his work.

One of the key things, in my opinion, is enthusiasm. Show them your passion for science. Why are you working on your projects? Try not to loose yourself in too much detail when talking to people outside your field, especially when talking to someone at 9 pm after an entire days worth of science… The people I remember now, are the ones who got me interested in their work, because they were so engaging.

I must admit I’m not a very outgoing person. I’m happiest when left alone. But this networking stuff can be learned. Just start at local get togethers, drinks, seminars, whatever really. Get yourself together and talk to people. It will get easier! For me, it definitely paid off. Three potential new collaborations, multiple LinkedIn connections that might become handy. I even got a job offer! Which is great – if I get frustrated in the lab again, I know it’s my own choice and have some backup options!


PS And be nice to yourself! After this brilliant, but exhausting conference, I’m giving myself the weekend off. Doing some small things and otherwise just relaxing. My brain is happy with the chance to think things over and relax again 🙂 I’m proud of my conference participation and am rewarding myself for that!


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