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Travel, science, and making friends: why you should go to a small conference

Last week, 200 myelin biologists met at a hotel in Ventura, California for five full days of hard-core science. If you’ve been to a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) before, you know what I mean by hard-core – the schedule is unforgiving, but also super exciting. Upon first glance, morning talks followed by late afternoon poster sessions and post-dinner evening talks didn’t seem so bad (“Wow, a three hour break to soak up the California sun!”). But when every single talk on the program is both interesting and relevant, giving your full attention at every session can be a little overwhelming for ECRs. This is especially true when that three hour afternoon break is full of networking opportunities and exciting activities (very different from of all the napping in the sun I had planned). Exhausting as it was, it was by far the best conference I have ever attended.

From my experience, as well as what I have gathered from talking to other attendees, there are three main reasons this conference was outstanding. First of all, the Gordon Research Seminar (GRS), a two-day event held just before the GRC began, was a trainee-only series of talks and poster sessions that allowed the junior members of the myelin research community to meet and interact in a relatively stress-free environment (i.e., no supervisors). I didn’t do a head count, but I would guess there were less than 50 people in attendance. This, together with the fact that no one lab was over-represented and many of us had never been to a myelin GRS/GRC before, resulted in an optimal environment to meet new ECRs in the field.

On that note, the GRC itself is not a large event – the organizers typically restrict registration to only 200 attendees. This small conference size was ideal for promoting casual interactions, not only with other trainees, but also with established academics. Overall, the atmosphere was relaxed: people were clearly engaged by the talks and posters, and not only was this reflected in the number of attendees at every session (up until the very last evening session), but also in the types of questions being asked. With very few exceptions, peers did not slip the typical thinly-veiled boasting of their own work into long-winded questions more akin to offhand statements. The questions were polite, interesting, and promoted general discussion of important unanswered questions in the field. It felt more like a community of scientists working together and supporting each other to discover the unknowns about myelin biology, rather than the oft-cited spirit of cutthroat academic competition.

Credit: Jorge Cham – PhD Comics

Finally, the organizers planned break time activities that were so irresistible they overrode my desire to rest. On the first day, we had a Power Hour, which was an informal meeting dedicated to addressing issues women face in science. The session focused on why to say yes and when to say no, as well as strategies for negotiation. It was great to see that both men and women turned up to this discussion, and to hear thoughts from both ECRs and established scientists on these and other challenges women and minorities face in academia. The following day included an industry meeting, which was an exciting opportunity to meet scientists working in pharma. There was a lot of discussion on the differences between working in academia and industry, as well as tips on applying to industry positions. Just as in the academic sessions, the discussion leaders for this session were friendly and approachable, which enabled everyone to confidently ask their burning questions and have an honest dialogue. The final afternoon activity planned was a trail run in the nearby hills. I was super excited about this, but sadly, it was cancelled at the last minute as a torrential downpour is not the most inviting weather for outdoor running.

Last week’s conference was long, tiring, and amazing. I learned a lot about myelin biology, shared my own work with a collaborative and interested crowd, and made a whole bunch of new myelin friends and contacts over delicious single malts and local beers. I have to thank this year’s GRC organizers, David Rowitch and Patrizia Casaccia, as well as the GRS organizers Andrew Caprariello and Jenn Orthmann-Murphy, for putting on such an excellent program. If I’ve made you envious of the awesome myelin community, don’t change your research interests just yet – there is likely a GRC/GRS in your field! I can’t promise it will be as fun (this myelin crowd is special), but all the components for the makings of a great conference will be there. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: This might seem like an advertisement, but I promise I do not work for the GRC.

Credit: GRC
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