Thursday 26th July saw the launch of SciLogs.com, a new English language science blog network. SciLogs.com, the brand-new home for Nature Network bloggers, forms part of the SciLogs international collection of blogs which already exist in German, Spanish and Dutch. To celebrate this addition to the NPG science blogging family, some of the NPG blogs are publishing posts focusing on “Beginnings”.
Participating in this cross-network blogging festival is nature.com’s Soapbox Science blog, Scitable’s Student Voices blog and bloggers from SciLogs.com, SciLogs.de, Scitable and Scientific American’s Blog Network. Join us as we explore the diverse interpretations of beginnings – from scientific examples such as stem cells to first time experiences such as publishing your first paper. You can also follow and contribute to the conversations on social media by using the #BeginScights hashtag.
Jonathan Lawson is a first year Wellcome PhD student at the University of Cambridge, working on cytoskeletal organisation in the Carazo Salas lab. He is also an enthusiastic science communicator working with the Cambridge science magazine, BlueSci, getting involved in volunteer outreach programmes and sporadically writing on his own blog. Over the last year he has organised academic events for the other graduate students of Jesus College, Cambridge with the goal of encouraging others to talk about their academic interests. Find Jonathan on twitter as @clearsci.
In the beginning there was the word. But the word is no good unless you can talk about it, and so we invented conferences. Conferences lead to debate and research, which lead to more conferences. And this is good.
But, conferences don’t just happen, they must be carefully organised, speakers need to be invited and schedules laid out, you need programmes and resources, funding and advertising. This is one of the exciting tasks I chose to take on during the first year of my PhD at Cambridge: organising my first conference.
Every year, Jesus College hosts the Graduate Conference for its students and this year it was my job to make it happen. Traditionally academic conferences focus on very specific areas of research, you go to them because you want to hear about the latest advances in your field. The Jesus Graduate Conference is a bit different, its focus is on talking about research in an accessible way, no matter what subject.
This ethos is something that has become increasingly important in recent years. All of the speakers were selected for their potential to exemplify this ideal. Over the day of the conference, fellows, alumni and students of the college heard from eight student speakers on subjects as diverse as secret societies, steel and singing. The day also featured a debate session, an extensive range of posters composed by current graduate students and an outstanding keynote speech given by Dr Carenza Lewis about communication of archaeological research.
The day itself was thrilling for me to be involved in and I am proud of what we were able to achieve. I also think that getting young researchers talking to each other about their work should be more widely encouraged, and so I decided I’d share some of the things I learned that might help you in the future. I present these as six easily memorable points:-
Preparation – The most important thing for any successful academic event is proper planning and preparation. I started work on the Jesus Conference almost nine months before it actually happened. This is especially key when you also have a PhD to work for. You always need to start off by arranging the venue and inviting high profile guest speakers, both of these will be booked up months in advance, so get in early. Importantly, aim high, have the confidence to invite someone with a big reputation, they may just surprise you by agreeing to join in.
Programme – Conferences have many forms, it helps to go to a few before putting on your own. You can have a lot of talks or posters, you can have parallel sessions or just one. Talks are great but they take time, if you want to get more people involved then having a lot of posters is a better choice. You can also try to include debates or panel discussions which are a fun way to bring together ideas and involve the audience. The Jesus Graduate Conference used a lot of posters, but the programme should always be arranged to suit the preferences of your target audience.
People – One person does not a conference make. Having a good team of people supporting you helps you stay ahead of the game and to research your suppliers thoroughly so you can get a good deal on everything for the conference. Discussion with others will also help you to develop and clarify your ideas. Most importantly, you need plenty of help on the day. I spent much of the conference chairing sessions so I needed help to ensure that everything stayed on track behind the scenes.
Payments – Always keep one eye on the budget. Know all your big expenditures from the start and allow some space for unexpected costs. If you have posters you need display boards, your delegates will need catered refreshments and venues usually aren’t free. You also need a rough idea of how many people will come to your conference. Thankfully I already had some idea of the main expenses and the kind of budget we were working to. If you need to find funding you need to allow plenty of time to get it. Also, be prepared to be temporarily out of pocket, as you may have to claim transactions back as expenses.
Participation – The biggest challenge is getting people involved. The Jesus Graduate Conference is completely dependent on students kindly giving up time to present their work. For many of them it is their first time talking to a non-specialist audience. Ask for abstracts early and give participants plenty of time to prepare. You should always allow space in your plans to extend the abstract submission deadline, as this is almost always unavoidable to ensure a comfortable number of participants. Try and collect posters and presentations before the event, it’s a comfort to know in advance that your conference will have some content.
Pleasure – Above all, although I’ve already given you a lot to remember, have fun. You’ve made this event to share your dream and your ideas, make sure you take the time to enjoy living it. Remember that you are the face of the conference and people want to see you participating and taking pleasure in the finished product.
I have composed a more detailed overview of every aspect of organising this conference, which I am happy to make available to other conference organisers. If you’d like to know more about the Jesus Graduate Conference 2012 you can find an overview on the college graduate website. This conference was also my first attempt at using storify to compile all the tweets about the day.