The Travelling Scientist: Conferences

by Nicola Corbett

I’m Nicola, a neuroscientist doing my second post doc at the University of Manchester. I love neuroscience, but I also love travelling. When I first started on my path to becoming a neuroscientist, I would never have thought that it would take me to so many places around the world. Over my 15 years of studying and working in science, I have lived in Switzerland for an industrial work placement, and the USA for my first post doc, and attended workshops and conferences in Israel, France, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Poland, and around the UK. Many people don’t realise that a career in science can open up many opportunities to travel and that it is an important part of the experience as it brings ideas and people from across the globe together - this is an essential part of great science!

Conferences are a highlight of my year. I love discussing the latest news from conferences when I get back or asking people about their conference experience - but how do you know if they have been to a conference? Well, I have listed a few key signs below:

1. Owns a poster tube

Conferences are the best way to find out about new research in your field and share your own research with others. The most common way of presenting your data is through a scientific poster. Making a poster takes time and effort, and the final thing is precious (at least before the conference) so a poster tube is an excellent investment, especially one that is adjustable and comes with a strap! If you hit a flight to San Diego around the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference time just right, at least 80% of the aircraft have one - which leads me on to the next sign…


2. Knows the airline baggage policy

Carrying a dodgy looking tube onto an aircraft isn’t exactly straightforward. A good travelling scientist will know which airlines will let you put it in the overhead bin or not (remember it’s precious cargo - most scientists won’t let it out of their sight).


3. ID card is on a random conference lanyard

Currently my ID is on a lanyard from the recent EuroScience Open Forum, and before that it was the Alzheimer’s research UK conference lanyard. I’m not sure how many SfN ones I have - I haven’t lost my ID badge yet though!


4. A pile of abstract books on their shelf

Along with a lanyard, abstract books were quite a common thing that the organisers liked to give out. However, this may be for a more seasoned travelling scientist as they are starting to make them more ebook-style. Having to carry around an abstract book, per day, for a 5- day, 30,000+ attendees conference is definitely my least favourite part of past conferences, but how can you throw them away? So much exciting science is inside them!


5. A bag full of receipts and free pens

Travel awards and different research funding means that the cost of the scientific conference is usually covered. This can include registration and poster submission (which can be quite substantial) to meals and travel expenses. It is essential to save all expenses receipts, and to keep track of what you’ve paid for at the conference, what better way to do it then by using one of the thousand pens you get given just by looking in the direction of a exhibitors product!


6. Has hilarious stories

What happens when you mix scientists from out of town and social events? Some of the funniest stories you can imagine! Everyone has one…about your boss/colleague/a well- respected scientist/you! Alzheimer’s society karaoke social after too much wine? Yep, there’s a story. The student social at the town hall in Vienna? Yep, another great one!


7. Their twitter account is #science

Social media is a huge part of conference-going now, which I think is great because even if you can’t get to that one you can go online and at least get the highlights. I was an official twitter blogger for a journal during one of the SfN conferences and whilst I found it quite tricky to express the latest cool data in 140 words it was a lot of fun and generated a lot of discussion and buzz about it.


8. They have a twinkle in their eye

When I get back from conferences I always feel so motivated and inspired. Seeing the latest research and listening to your science idols is exciting. I went to a talk by Prof Eric Kandel during a conference (FENS) and he was inspiring. He didn’t actually talk about science. He talked about his favourite artist, Gustav Klimt. It was really interesting and as he talked I looked around the giant auditorium and thought, “one day I want to captivate and inspire an audience with my research”. Networking with peers and future collaborators is also a fantastic aspect and can lead to lots of opportunities. I saw my previous boss talk at a conference. I loved his work so as soon as I got home I emailed him….I ended up spending 5 years in his lab in Chicago.


Now that you know the key signs go and ask those travelling scientists about their conference experiences….I’m sure they will love telling you their science (and funny) stories!



If you want to know more about Nicola, read her story, and follow her on Twitter.