Science Communication

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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Time management for social mediaists

Doctor PMS, a mysterious neuroscientist, published a post about time and social media. This post really rings true as she describes a struggle of dealing with work load and finding time to check out social media. Indeed, how do all these people do this? It’s not like academia is a non-demanding job where you need something like Facebook to kill time while waiting until you can finally go home.

For me as junior post-doc, my experiments and planning thereof have highest priority. Next come admin duties and teaching. Although I don’t like it, it really seems to be publish or perish. So yes, experiments to publish first, admin second so that everyone can read back what I did and can trust the results. Hopefully leading to some nice publications. It doesn’t feel right to me to be using social media a lot during the day, especially since nobody knows about this blog – yet – and I’m not quite ready yet to reveal this to my colleagues. Which means that I’m limited to some spare moments in between work when the office is empty and my evenings.

But boy, how I’m growing fond of Twitter and the blogosphere. Right now, it’s 8:30pm and I wanted to proof-read the introduction of a grad students thesis. But instead, Tweets about all kinds of interesting topics keep me distracted. Or the urge to write a blog post. There are so many things I’d like to share with you. Partially, the reason for that is that at work everyone currently present considers it as just that. Work. And doesn’t want to discuss matters like open access, women in science, the tenure games, outreach and so forth. All of my colleagues are looking for options outside of academia, so there’s nobody really interested in discussing the hot topics of academia. This blog is a good outlet for that 🙂

And then there’s also the thrill of seeing over a thousand people hitting this blog last month, that’s more than my last review – or research paper – got in the last 3 months! The idea that I could really make something of this blog, that people actually want to read what I have to say, it’s extremely energizing. And then reality kicks in again – didn’t I want to work right now instead of socializing?? But on the other hand, should I decide to lift the veil and continue blogging using my own name, I could probably generate quite some additional traffic for my research papers and maybe thus find new opportunities. Gain visibility. Maybe it’s not as time-wasting as it appears, but actually quite worthwhile.

Still, I wonder how these Twitterati that I much admire do it. Do you set yourself Twitter-time limits? Give yourselves little breaks during writing of things? Are you all insomniacs? Or how are you all coping?

Dr. Klara the scientist

tl;dr: I investigate little modifications of proteins that happen in cells to regulate lots of things.

In honor of what I’ve written in the about me section, I thought I should spend a post explaining to you what I am working on. I said I’d want to practice my science communication skills a bit on here, so I’m going to explain what I do when I’m not wasting time on social media…

In a very simplified way, cells of our bodies can be imagined like little balloons filled with fluid. The balloon itself consists mainly of lipids, the fluid contains lots of things, such as proteins and nucleic acids. During my PhD, I worked on a special class of proteins. I investigated proteins that attach a specific sort of sugar onto other proteins. Because they catalyze such a reaction, they are known as enzymes. The proteins that receive such a sugar, may get an altered function because of it. I investigated some of these target proteins and found out that they become inactive once this sugar is attached to them. Which means that they have a specific function to fulfill in the cell, which they cannot do anymore when they carry this sugar.

Most important maybe for our everyday lives, is that these enzymes can be manipulated with certain drugs. Which means that once we know when and why they are important, we could start considering for which patient treatments they could be used.

Glucose

During my upcoming work as post-doc, I’ll be doing quite the opposite. I will be investigating enzymes that can remove these sugars again. We have no idea yet when these removing enzymes are active or in which cells they are most important. This could be in the brain, or in muscles, or something else. It would be good to collect more knowledge about them though, because there are certain, some lethal, illnesses caused by a lack of these enzymes. It would be possible to target them with drugs, but before one can safely do so to treat a patient, it is vital to know more about how they function. Which is what I am going to find out 🙂

What I’d like to know from you now… Is this an understandable explanation? Too easy? Or too complicated? Like to read more about the possible clinical relevance? Would love to hear from you, so that I can work on my communication skills. Cheers!