Through developing a new type of conference, we built a new scientific community – a place to openly share ideas, enjoy the support of our peers through both professional and personal bonds, and promote our trainees. Here’s how.
By Gabriel Leprivier, Thomas G. P. Grünewald, Maya Bar, Oded Rechavi, Barak Rotblat
Becoming a new PI is an exciting experience with its own set of challenges. To maximize our scientific and social impact, we asked how we could make conferences better for attendees. Could we come up with a conference format which would form a community, with an emphasis on mutual respect, trust and a spirit of collaboration?
We teamed up with filmmaker Ori Barokas who documented the conference process. The result is a short documentary entitled “The Civita Project”.
We started on the fundamentals behind our conference, asking ourselves “What is most important to us in building a scientific community?”
We wanted scientists to feel comfortable in sharing unpublished data and new ideas.
We love to brain storm over new ideas and results. This rarely happens in conventional conferences, in our experience, as attendees are mindful of being scooped.
We wanted the speakers and audiences to directly interact, with discussions during and after each talk.
Often speakers go through their PowerPoint slides and get very little feedback during and after their talk. Feedback is essential to developing good science, in our view
We wanted to give students and postdocs the opportunity to present in an international conference and receive immediate, professional feedback.
As PIs, it is important for us to provide our students with diverse, high-level training. We also wanted our students to feel a part of the community we were creating.
We wanted the overall cost to be affordable.
Keeping costs low ensures our independence and enables us to bring our students and post docs.
We wanted scientists to be free to discuss their work without worrying about their family at home.
Some of us have young families at home and are often torn between our professional and personal lives. We reasoned that allowing attendees to bring their families, by keeping costs down and choosing a family friendly venue, would make for more engaged, focused scientists, improving the quality of our conference and broadening our community to include spouses and children which are part of our support system.
In the past three years, we have successfully held three conferences in this alternative format, growing from a meeting of only six of us to a forty-scientist conference. Our meetings led to several collaborations, and contributed to several recent publications (here, here and here). An anonymous survey following our most recent meeting shows that most attendees are pleased with the format and social aspects of our conference.
Here are five things we did to make our conference enjoyable.
We started as a core group of six scientists, including friends, committed to attend every year. Each of us committed to organize the conference once every 2-3 years.
A conference of friends.
We invited early career scientists, like ourselves, which at least one of us knew and liked. The advantage of this scheme is that we established trust and could freely discuss new ideas. Further, we designed our meeting to be a non-specialized conference, bringing together scientists with different backgrounds. Over the years, we stuck to this rule of thumb, allowing vetted attendees to invite their trust-worthy likeable colleagues.
Set the scene for enjoyment.
We chose a venue that was easy to get to, beautiful, affordable, and family friendly, ensuring that the social aspects of our conference were as enjoyable as possible, setting the scene for people to get to know each other, fostering future collaborations.
We aspired to keep costs down, allowing PIs to bring their students and families. To this end, we eliminated administrative and infrastructure fees, opting for a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. The most recent conference was held at an all-inclusive beach resort in Crete, which simplified taking care of registration fees, meals and the conference room. Other than the cost of accommodation (less than 250 euros per person for the entire 2.5 day conference), there was no charge to attend our conference, and organizers volunteered their time.
Keep the format fresh and engaging.
To make sure the scientific aspects of our conference were as beneficial and impactful as possible, we chose several “outside the box” formats. Each conference session began with a short talk by the PI, introducing the subject matter and scientific questions the lab focuses on, followed by the students and postdocs from the lab, each presenting their project in short-talk format. We used a whiteboard-and-chalk-talk format for all talks, placing speakers outside the comfort zone of their “usual” talk, encouraging them to invest effort into making presentations as engaging and understandable by scientists outside their field as possible.There was no poster session. Instead we conducted ‘rapid fire’ sessions where PIs sat one-on-one with students and postdocs who presented that day and asked questions regarding their work, in a “musical chairs” format. Each student experienced one hour of questions from established scientists working in different fields.
We hope that our format will be used by others to democratize scientific conferences and to create their very own scientific community.
Gabriel Leprivier is a PI at the Medical Faculty of the Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf. His lab is interested in stress signaling pathways in cancer. You can find Gabriel on Google Scholar.
Thomas Grünewald is a PI at the Institute of Pathology of the LMU Munich, Germany. His research focuses on translational pediatric sarcoma biology and genomics. You can find Thomas on Google Scholar and Twitter.
Maya Bar is a PI at the Department of Plant Pathology and Weed Research, ARO, Volcani Center, Rishon LeZion, Israel. Her lab studies the roles of cellular processes and structure-function relationships in plant-pathogen interactions. You can find Maya on Twitter and Google Scholar.
Oded Rechavi is a PI at the Faculty of Life Sciences and at the Sagol School of Neuroscience, in Tel Aviv University, Israel. His lab is mainly studying epigenetic inheritance, but also memory, decision making, and other topics. You can follow Oded on Twitter.
Barak Rotblat is a PI at the Department of Life Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel. His lab is studying how tumor cells exploit normal pathways to their advantage. You can follow Barak on Twitter and LinkedIn.