Stuff wat I lurn at conferences

As I covered a couple of weeks ago i recently attended a very different seminar/conference/symposium which was objectively awesome. The morning after was a bit hangover-y but such is the price you pay for ‘socilaising’. And because I was worried I hadn’t traveled (and drunk) quite enough yet, last week I was off in Brazil at another conference presenting a poster.

I try to attend 1-2 conferences a year. It’s important to keep knowledge relevant and there is no way of absorbing information better than having the very best of it (sort of) presented over a few short days.

Reading papers is great and all but sometimes I find it hard to catch all the interesting ones and inevitably I find myself reading papers in my own area. Partly this because finding good new papers is always tricky and searching in your own stomping grounds is easier, but also new areas are more time-consuming to pick through to find the nugget of information your hoping for.

But for me conferences don’t seem to just be about listening to presentations and coming away a little wiser about what ever transition effect laden content they just showed. There are actually a few different reasons I come back from conferences buzzing with new ideas;

The actual content

Okay I guess this isn’t surprising. Sometimes the whole talk is fascinating and the  presented technique perfectly solves a problem that I’m having. Considering that at the last conference I attended had around 60 talks and I can only say this about one of these, gives you some idea of how rare that actually is.

The throw away

Sometimes it’s not the content that grabs you it’s just a tiny sliver hidden within the presentation. Not every presentation can be something either of interest or relevance and it’s easy to tune out and start listening your own personal equivalent of on hold music. But every once in a while there will be something that sparks.

For example, a presentation I attended earlier this year, which was actually a really interesting talk on lab automation (lots of which i am thinking about trying) the presenter made a single comment about an odd little side project. The entire comment was just an aside at midway through a slide, can’t have been more than about 6 words. However this was enough to trigger a lightning like cascade of whirling thoughts about my own research.

This whirling cascade has now led to a tentative collaboration and I hope that will turn into a grant and hopefully soon a whole new line of research!

The challenge

Presentations come in all shapes and sizes. Some are impressive, some are mortifying (the ones where they present what ever you were about to do), but some show off data and declare that they have reached a wall and found some fundamental limit and they have made it as “good as possible”.

I’m a sucker for phrases like that. If you ever say anything along those lines in a presentation I can promise that for the next 5 minutes I’ll only be paying about 50% attention as my mind cycles through all the ways I’d solve the problem. There is nothing I like more than a problem that I can solve first, it’s basically my version of crack.

More often than not this comes from people asking questions and picking holes in people’s work at the end of the presentation. Basically if I hear someone say “well obviously you couldn’t do X with this technique” that is the cue for my brain to kick in.

Coffee breaks

While at some conference a bit of caffeine can be pretty necessary to make it though the long days, but it’s actually the chat that comes with it which can be the most productive part of any conference. Oddly enough if you put 400 researchers into a room with coffee one or two conversations might start up about work problems. And rather unsurprisingly they tend to produce ideas that on their own they might have never considered.

I talked about this a little in my infographic on discovery but I don’t think it’s exactly ground breaking to say that more points of view on a problem will make the solution easier to see. And there may be solutions that require components or specialities you otherwise would have never heard of.

Similar to the throw away comments in presentations, conversations can spark solutions from the smallest little discussion that can then grow into some late night beer fuelled debate about the best method for measuring the chirality of single molecules.

The end result

But regardless of which of these gets my brain fizzing I can guarantee they all end at the same point; tutting that I can’t go try out the idea right away. It’s strange way of thinking about it but at some point in any conference/seminar/symposium I want to immediately run away and go try stuff in the lab. And given I’ve attended two in quick succession I’m very keen to get back to the lab and actually try out all these insane ideas. I may need to build a travelling lab kit to take with me next time.

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