I survived giving my first large conference talk as a PhD student
When I was in the middle of designing my poster, an email from the organizers of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory‘s Asia Conference arrived informing me that my abstract was selected to present a platform speech on “Mitochondria.” I was both surprised and nervous – I had never done this before, so this was a true challenge.
The CSHL Asia conference lasted five days and was held in Suzhou, China, an ancient city known as the Venice of China, famous for its canals and private gardens, and home to scholars for more than two millennia. The conference was held close to Dushu Lake. Two years ago, approximately the same time period during the old city’s Autumn October, I was walking around the lake chatting with some professors. Just being a listener was far more relaxing. This time, I took a walk as usual with gentle wind passing by for a short while, and then walked straight back to prepare for the poster and the talk.
Before my lecture day
This was my third time attending the conference, and the atmosphere was the same as it was in the past. On the evening of my arrival at the merrily-lighted dinner hall, I found my old friends and started the first session of the Conference——a big feast with dishes from all over the world. Talking to my favorite scientists, newly-made friends, and even strangers about science during meals was fabulous. The whole week focused on mitochondrion’s dynamics, mito-DNA, apoptosis, mitophagy, structures of mito-proteins, respiratory chains and physiological functions. I enjoyed asking questions by reacting quickly to snatch the microphone.
The poster session was a pretty intense part. I stood by my poster and explained everything to the people who were interested. While explaining my poster, I developed my communication skills and interpretation abilities. Most importantly, I got feedback from my “admirers.” Their feedback was crucial, because people from different fields come with different perspectives, and their questions reflected this. Some peers gave me advice on how to make my results more convincing while others criticized and asked difficult questions. The interpreting process was challenging and extremely exciting. You could never imagine what questions would come to you next. Through explaining, I also made several friends.
My lecture day
On Friday, the last day of the conference, I was the fifth to be on stage right after the short coffee break. I was afraid that the atmosphere would be embarrassing, for my project is not universally considered a hot topic. I measure mitochondrial temperature to detect cellular metabolism; this has many fans in Japan, but not a lot in the western world or China. Initially, I was nervous for about 1 or 2 minutes, but later on I looked through the audience and saw these old and new friends down there expecting my presentation. I was gaining confidence by telling myself that I couldn’t let them down. For the next 9 minutes or so, I spoke with confidence and answered the critical questions from the audience and the host without nervousness. During lunch, which was the last meal of this conference, I had a few fans including Annu and Xiangdong Fu’s lab. They came to me and complained why I was arranged to speak on the last day instead of Tuesday. We talked about future collaborations. I was amazed that I, instead of my lab head, was discussing collaboration with other labs. This was an extraordinary experience for me, because I showcased my project to the “mitochondria people,” made new friends, met many principal investigators, found some job opportunities (postdocs), improved my English and proved myself capable of presenting at a large conference.
Most advisers at my institute seldom invite or allow a student to attend a conference, needless to say give a talk, until they have already published his or her paper. I sponsored myself to attend this conference, which surprised all the participants and CSHL staff. Graduate students are not often given the ability to be independent or practice their critical thinking and communication skills. Conference attendance would help students hone these skills, and I think mentors should let their students participate in at least one conference or symposium during a student’s PhD career. Xiaodong Wang recently proposed an idea during an interview from The-Intellectual, an official account on WeChat, that it may be better if China could provide scientists a comfortable environment to simply solve scientific issues instead of working on projects with specific aims. Increased conference attendance could be a good way to make a more comfortable academic environment within the current system of aim-based projects. I felt I was able to learn about both scientific principles and communication skills, and that I will return to lab a lot more confident in both areas after this conference.
Featured image: Photo of Suzhou, China by Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
1. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, https://meetings.cshl.edu/index.aspx
2. Cold Spring Harbor Asia 2017 Conference on Mitochondria, http://www.csh-asia.org/2017meetings/MITOCH.html
3. Cold Spring Harbor Asia, http://www.csh-asia.org/
4.Dushu Lake, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dushu_Lake
5. Autumn October, google images: search “Autumn October”
6. Mitochondrial dynamics, NEJMvideo, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIXY-Ns5vks
7. Mitochondrial DNA, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_DNA
9. Mitophagy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitophagy
10. Electron transport chain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electron_transport_chain
11. Annu Suomalainen-Wartiovaara’s Lab, https://www.helsinki.fi/en/researchgroups/mitochondrial-medicine
12. Xiangdong Fu’s lab, http://cmm.ucsd.edu/fu/
13. Xiaodong Wang’s lab, http://www.nibs.ac.cn/en/yjsjyimgshow.php?cid=5&sid=6&id=779
14. No room for great leap forward in basic scientific research, Interview to Xiaodong Wang from the Intellectual, http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/C1Tq_n2NNhqcIlom96HFsQ
15. WeChat, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WeChat
16. Education: The PhD factory, Nature News Feature, 2011, doi: 10.1038/472276a