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I’m a lucky graduate student. It’s difficult for me to count the number of conferences that I’ve had the privilege of attending, but I think it is on the order of about 10-15 in the last four years.  It has been a mix of international and local science conferences, some small local grad student conferences and Let’s Talk Science coordinator conferences. 

Having attended all of these conferences, and just having returned from my most favourite one, got me to thinking. What are the purposes of conferences in general? How much do the purposes of science conferences and outreach/education conferences overlap and how are they different?

Let’s start with science conferences. My first thought is that these exist as a forum for scientists to share information. To prepare for a conference, scientists will think about some complete (or near complete) piece of research they’ve been working on, and then develop either an oral presentation with visuals (a pretty standard PowerPoint presentation), or a visual presentation in the form of a poster. Usually, these presentations are packed with as much information as possible. I think it is in the nature of scientists to want to be complete and detailed, even if this is, at times, at the sacrifice of effective communication. As a beginning graduate student I found conferences overwhelming because of the amount of information I felt barraged with.  Now, after a bit of experience, I can take in information much in the same way I read papers. Skim the abstract, go for the talks that look interesting and relevant, and when listening to a talk, watch for the main points. It is important for me not to get exhausted so that I can make the most of what I am hearing. So what do I walk away with in the end? Sometimes, I get ideas for new research directions, or a few small details provided someone studying a related topic are very useful in understanding my own work. 

How about outreach conferences? Exchanging information is still high on the list here, but there is something that happens at these conferences that is much different than science conferences — an emphasis on experience, feeling and collaboration. In many presentations, the audience is asked to participate: get out of their chairs, move around, talk to other participants, and most importantly, contribute to the content of the presentation. When I am asked to contribute to content, I not only get a sense of ownership and belonging with the presentation, but I am more likely to retain the information provided by others, because I can see how my ideas fit into a larger context. Furthermore, being part of a group working together and being creative motivates me more than anything else. Invariably, I come away from science outreach conferences with renewed enthusiasm for the work I do.

A common thread of all conferences is that I come home feeling like I have a fresh perspective on the work that I do, new contacts for people who I can work with in the future, and an overall feeling of motivation.