What happens at a scientific meeting?

It is currently mid-February and while many have been making plans for Valentine’s day, I’ve been making plans for the Annual Biophysical Society Meeting.

It might be called a “meeting,” but this is not a dozen colleagues around a table or on a Zoom call. This meeting has thousands of attendees from all over the world. It takes place in a huge convention center over the course of five days. It requires booking hotels and flights and pre-registration and this year, it has a program two-hundred and twenty-eight pages long. So, yeah, it takes a lot of planning to attend this “meeting.”

So… what happens at this “meeting” then?

 Your mind’s picture of a “scientist” may describe a lonely guy tinkering in his lab, but doing science alone is actually the worst way to do it. If science is ever going to significantly advance, scientists must come together. And this is what a scientific meeting is for!

The Biophysical Society is an organization of biophysicists including full-on Principal Investigators (the ones in charge of research labs) down to undergraduate students. At the Annual Meeting, researchers share what they are working on by giving talks and chatting over posters. Researchers also share their work by publishing it in academic journals, but scientific meetings are special because they keep us up-to-date with the latest work, most of which has not made it to publication yet. Exposure to new information and current hypotheses can inspire the next steps of our own work. Plus, many scientific meetings (like this one) also offer workshops on new methods and technologies that could empower new lines of research.

In addition to inspiring the next generation of research projects, scientific meetings place the work of a few scientists within the context of all the knowledge of the field. Maybe my research only “discovers” one new thing every other year, but alongside thousands of other scientists’ one thing, the whole begins to have a deeper meaning and broader impact. Putting the pieces all together also helps us identify gaps in our knowledge so we can, you know, start to try and fill them!

Of course, there is no such thing as a professional conference without networking, scientific meetings included. Whether you dread networking or enjoy it, meeting new people in the field is also a critical part of a scientific meeting. Scientists tend to work in small teams (sometimes very small teams) because, well, there are just not that many of us in the same field in the same place most times. In my lab, I work with my Principal Investigator, another Ph.D. candidate, and a couple of teenagers in an early college program. We are the only biophysics lab at our university. Locally, I can only find four other biophysicists–perhaps another dozen if I am willing to drive an hour, but not many others that study the same thing I do. Scientific meetings can connect me to other scientists studying the same things who I can look to for suggestions, insights, and even collaborations.

There you have it: that’s what happens at a scientific meeting, and that’s why universities, STEM companies, and funding agencies pay to send scientists to some cool places. It’s not a vacation–it’s scientific advancement.

Want to get more of an inside look at a scientific meeting? I will be guest blogging for this year’s Annual Biophysical Society Meeting at https://www.biophysics.org/blog and will be sharing my experience via Instagram @magnify.science!

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