SFN: The Salmon Come Home to Spawn

Sci got a big project out the door today and is feeling pretty skippy! She wanted to have a few beers to celebrate and write something hilarious about erectile dysfunction, but duty calls! To the SFN blogging! And who says you can’t multitask? Beer and SFN happen to go particularly well together.
We’re skipping Friday Weird Science this week, in order to begin Sci’s graceful swan dive into the morass that is SFN. Sci’s been getting lots of email from awesome scientists, and she hopes to show up at their posters! And she’s also been getting tweets and emails from people wanting some advice, and she can see why.
SFN is big. Ok, Not as big as Experimental Biology. Or that one Microbiology meeting. But for many neuroscientists, it’s easily the biggest meeting we’ve ever been to, and often, it’s also the first. And so, Sci’s little heart aches in sympathy when she gets an email like this:

Hi Sci,
This is my first time to a meeting and to SFN.

I specifically would like to socialize with people who are working in my area of research…

I am generally a shy person and I am trying to break the ice this time. Advice on how to make connections and how to find and approach people in my area of research is what I am looking for.
Have you ever attended SFN sponsored socials? Are they useful? What should we expect at a social?
Any general advice to get the most out of the meeting.. It seems like there is a lot and very little time.

I’ve been there. Believe me. Her first time, Sci felt like a tiny speck in a sea of neuroscience. Or sometimes (depending on crowds) like a salmon swimming the wrong way in the current. But neuro-salmon, we aren’t just here to show our flashy pink tummies and research! No, we are here to SPAWN (not literally, well, some people are, I’ve heard rumors). We are here to network and spawn research ideas, and if we’re little grad salmon, we are here to spawn some possible collaborations and post-docs!
(One of last year’s SFN attendees)

So, SFN. How do you approach it? There’s a lot to see, and not a lot of time. There’s just no way you can see EVERYTHING that you want to see. So here’s some advice from someone who’s been a few times. Keep in mind though, that Sci is a mere grad salmon herself. She would welcome advice from those who have been going for longer and who really know what they’re doing. Chime in in the comments!

The itinerary:

Oasis (the meeting planner thingy) is a good resource. You can even apparently access it on your smartphone. Sci’s phone, however, is not smart, and she cannot opine on that option. For first time attendees, it may seem impossible to fit everything in. Sci has not so fond memories of getting the 10 thick booklets of the program, and sitting there for a good three hours trying desperately to figure out what she was going to do. And when you’re a young grad student, EVERYTHING seems interesting! What to see?
1) The people you should know: Ask your advisor if you can, or if you can’t, look at the lit closely related to the lab you’re in and the work you’re doing. Who are the authors? Are they presenting posters closely related to your work? If this is the field you want to pursue, you need to get out there and meet others in it. Look for names to recognize, and see if people from their lab are giving posters that interest you.
2) The stuff you should know: What are your main research topics? Search by keyword for the main things you want to learn about, and go after the titles that interest you. If you’re diligent and have time, by all means read the abstracts, but we all know you probably won’t have time.
3) The stuff that interests you: this should just be stuff you’re interested in, like “hey, that hippocampus stuff looks cool, not related to my work, but…”. However, if you’re a grad student trying to get introduced around YOUR field, you want to save these posters for last in a day. Spend your time at the posters you know you NEED to see.
4) The people you need to get to know: If you’re a student looking for a post-doc, find the PIs you’re interested in listed in the planner (this is especially important if you’re already in contact with them). Drop by their posters when you KNOW the presenter will be there (the hour listed in the planner). Introduce yourself. Ask questions.
Aim for no more than about 25 posters in a session to look at in detail. If you’re going to stick around and ask questions, you won’t get through that many, even. Go after the most important first and save the rest for later. Organization and prioritizing are your friends.
Oh, and if possible, try and group your posters, see a few at one end, and then hike off, but make sure you’re not bouncing back and forth across the poster floor. And wear good shoes. You’re going to need them.
Oh, shy new student, Sci’s been there. She’s not the most outgoing person herself, and when I first started, I was very easily intimated by people who I was SURE must know more than me. Keep in mind, most people are weirded out approaching someone they don’t know. You are NOT alone. And Sci is not the expert on this topic, and would REALLY welcome some further advice in the comments for her own use.
Official socials: sometimes, they’re pretty good things. The snacks, though, suck. They might be free, but I can only take so much of that nasty pretzel mix.
First of all, if you’re a student and your advisor is there, ask them to introduce you around a bit. It is in their best interest to help you with this, to get you in contact with good people, and to talk up your work. Go with them to the socials for your field, and they will introduce you to their buds. Even if you don’t start talking with the big wigs, you can talk with post-docs or other grad students in the field, making connections and getting ideas. Don’t be afraid to talk about your work. Ask about the work that other people are doing. Most of them are glad to talk about it.
If your advisor ISN’T there, go with someone you know, someone from your lab, preferably someone more experienced. See if you can find people you know or recognize from earlier in the meeting. Say hi, introduce yourself (you often have to do this many times, it’s HARD to remember the numerous people you meet at SFN), and chat. Ask more questions if you’re interested in their work. Avoid the snack mix, and grab a bottle of water if someone is handing those out. Might want to get there kind of early, socials easily become PACKED.
A lot of the real socializing, though, takes place over lunches and dinners, when your PI gets together with old labmates or collaborators. If they invite you along, GO!
Networking at posters
The first opening at any poster, if the presenter is unoccupied is “hey, can you run me through it?” If the presenter is already talking, go ahead and listen in, and pick up what you can.
And even though you’re new, do NOT be afraid to ask questions. Shy people have points that are just as important as those from people who are outgoing. Shy salmon have nice pink bellies just like loud salmon. We’re just less flashy about it. Just walk up and ask a question. Even if you’re shy, say it good and loud, it’s noisy on the poster floor, and loud sounds confident. And most people will be nice, after all, we LIKE having people ask questions! We like poster traffic, particularly if the person is interested! And even if you may not think you’re question is important, it can raise ideas for the presenter that they had never even thought of. It’s what we come to the meetings for.
Do not be afraid to introduce yourself. Mention something your work has in common with theirs. Invite them to your poster. If you’re a student, state your name and who you work for. For most people in the field, stating your university doesn’t help much (some PIs move around a bit), but stating your PIs name can spark instant recognition. If you need to speak with them about experiments or collaboration, get their email. Don’t be afraid to contact. Worst case scenario, they won’t email back, in which case, their loss.
And the big thing: don’t stress any more than you have to. Seriously, hyperventilating about your poster will only take years off your life. You know your own work better than anyone else, usually because you did each experiment lovingly with your own little hands. Have confidence in that. If people ask you questions you can’t answer, be honest! Ask for their input. Speculate.
The things you need to worry about: getting there, getting back, getting to your poster on time, and doing the best you can at it. Meet who you can. Get enough coffee. Everything else is bonus.
For the meeting in general: it’s huge. You will NOT see everything. It’s going to look really overwhelming. See what you can, focus on what you can, and when you’re brain dead, take a break, get a coffee, and stop by the Jackson lab booth to see if they’re handing out the cute stuffed mice this year. And breathe. It’s just a meeting. 🙂
And for those more experienced than I: Am I right? Can you add anything? Am I completely out of my tree? Give some grad students some advice, and let’s hear how you weather your SFN.

4 Responses

  1. All really good advice, Sci (esp. re: snack mix at the socials)!
    I would reiterate that really nothing should be stressful about the meeting. Unless you’re in a super-competitive field, people will be surprisingly nice and supportive at your poster, and you will probably surprise yourself with how much you know and how well you’re able to answer everyone’s questions. And DEFINITELY don’t stress about getting to see everything on your itinerary. You can always email the first author after the conference and ask for a poster reprint (not everyone will comply, but it’s becoming more common).
    As far as meeting people in your field goes, I’m not sure that the socials are the best way–like you say, they’re often packed, and it can be hard to strike up new conversations. It’s much easier at posters, where you may get a person one-on-one, and there’s no need for an ice-breaker. Plus, if you’re studying similar things, you’ll likely run into each other again at subsequent poster sessions, and since you’ve already met, it will be easy to say hi, and even compare notes on what you’ve seen.
    Have fun!!!

  2. Unfortunately, I have no advice to impart. I’m just commenting here because all the talk of neuro-salmon made me chuckle. But congrats on your project! And I look forward to your SfN posts. 🙂

  3. Very good advice. It’s rare you’re going to head out to dinner with 5 completely random people, but hanging out with slightly more senior people in your group means you can probably go out with them and others (Just make sure not to latch onto the same labmate so often that you become annoying!)
    One other bit of advise is you probably won’t be making many new close contacts at your first conference, but that’s not a bad thing. There are people who I’ve spoken to at posters for years and, at some point, they recognized me and I recognized them and we started socializing more too. Some of those people were even in the lab I’m in as a postdoc and that’s one reason I joined.

  4. Heh. Neuro-salmon. Don’t take that analogy too far though. Salmon perish shortly after spawning. We don’t want these neuro-salmon doing anything of the sort.

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