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Why Every Science Student Should Attend a Conference

Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

This is a guest post by Dartmouth senior Yoo Jung Kim. 

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS)–the world’s largest general scientific society–held its annual meeting in Chicago. Among other globally recognized science conferences, the AAAS general meeting is unique in that it represents a broad spectrum of the sciences:  the conference hosts over 150 scientific symposia with topics ranging from science to technology to education to policy. AAAS also offers a wide range of opportunities that it offers to undergraduate students.

“At the Annual Meeting Student Poster Competition, undergraduate and graduate students present their research to other attendees, and scientists from many different fields provide feedback and advice,” said Tiffany Lohwater, the Director of Meetings and Public Engagement at the AAAS.

On top of the deeply discounted trainee registration rate, student attendees can take advantage of career development workshops and networking opportunities. The Student Poster Competition, featuring around 160 to 180 students presenting their research.

According to Michelle Oberoi, a junior at Univerity of California Irvine who won the best poster for “Brain and Behavior” category last year, “Competing in the 2013 AAAS poster competition against both graduate and undergraduate students as an undergraduate sophomore was intimidating and challenging, but overall rewarding. I was asked interesting questions regarding my research, which have ultimately benefited my current findings in the lab.”

AAAS is by no means unique in providing educational opportunities to college students. Many other scientific societies and associations–particularly those in the basic sciences–feature a number of programs to get student involved in their disciplines. For instance, the combined undergraduate/graduate poster session during the American Society of Cell Biology Annual Meeting drew in nearly student 200 presenters during its December 2013 meeting in New Orleans, many of whom were also registered to present in the general poster session. Over 1,200 students are expected to present at the special undergraduate poster session for the upcoming American Chemical Society National Meeting & Expo in Dallas, Texas, and thousands more will be participating in the 2.5 days of programming designed specifically for college students. Given these student-oriented learning opportunities that many scientific societies provide, every student researcher should consider attending a professional science symposium during their undergraduate career.

Despite the popular media depiction of scientists as antisocial individuals, academia is an inherently collaborative profession. At the undergraduate level, it may be hard to see the exchanges across laboratories, but the accretion of knowledge requires the communication of complex ideas from one scientist to another. Although the advent of the e-mail has largely supplanted the necessity of face-to-face conversations, this cross-fertilization of ideas still takes place during academic conferences, where researchers present their projects, discuss their findings, network with potential collaborators, and socialize with their peers. Other sort of interactions occur during meetings as well; graduate students look for post-doc positions, post-docs look for post-post-doc opportunities, principal investigators look for ideas to take back to their lab, science reporters look for interesting scoops, and vendors look for attendees to hawk their services and convention tchotchkes. Seeing these exchanges first-hand will help students to get a feel for a component of scientific research that is not readily observable in the laboratory.

By presenting at a conference, students can gain soft-skills that will be valuable at every level of their academic careers. Students participating in a poster presentation must prepare a visual representation of their work and present the summary of their findings clearly and concisely to other attendees. The poster-making process requires students organize their data and to delve into science writing at a deeper level than allowed by class lab reports. Many undergraduate poster symposiums pair presenters with scientist judges who have some degree of expertise on the topic at hand. This requires the student to be well versed on the paradigms and the methods used in his or her field. The entire process of preparing and presenting a poster necessitate a significant amount of sustained effort and helps student researchers to internalize their research and to build skills that will come handy in the future.

Students also have the opportunity to explore the leading edge of the discipline, and making connections in the scientific community can be of huge benefit for an undergraduate interested in embarking on a scientific career. Walking around the general poster session and attending oral presentations will allow students to get acquainted with the most important recent discoveries circulating in the field. This can help students to identify potential projects, laboratories, and institutions that they would like to work with in the future.

“The AAAS conference reminded me that I’m not alone and that there were lots of other people who were interested in science. I’ve kept pursuing research opportunities and I’ll be participating in the Princeton REU [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] in the summer,” said Christopher Luna, an Arizona State University junior and winner of the “Math/Technology/Engineering” category in 2013.

Any undergraduate who is interested in academia should identify a conference or a meeting of interest–especially those that offer programming for college students–by asking their research advisers. Science is a cooperative endeavor, and conferences allow undergraduate researchers a chance to explore their field outside of their laboratories and to gain skills early in their scientific training.


Yoo Jung (Y.J.) Kim is a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. She is a former editor-in-chief of the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science and is currently working on a book to be published by the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2015. You can find Y.J. on her website at http://www.yoojkim.com/

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