This weekend, I had an Experience. For the second half of Saturday, I went down to San Diego to crash the Society for Neuroscience conference. I visited with and learned from the #MeTooSTEM folks, and I got to meet so many wonderful people in person who I’ve only known from twitterbloglandia. I’d heard about SfN before, of course, but never had the occasion to go because, well, the stuff at this meeting is way out of my wheelhouse.
Anyhoo, let me tell you about SfN. As soon as I walked into the poster hall, I was like ZOMG. HOLY MOLY. WHAT THE WHAT.
Ginormous cannnot do justice to explain the scale of this endeavor. Here’s an attempt: Imagine that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but instead of wooden crates, it’s an endless morass of posters upon posters, in which one of those slots is where you have the honor to have your work visible for a few hours. The posters are given locations with a letter/number combination, for example, A7 or M19. (For each letter, the number will max out at 30, or 12, or something else, I didn’t sort this out.) There are so many posters, that they run out at Z, so they go to AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, and so on. Then, they ran out at ZZ, so they had to go to AAA, BBB, CCC, DDD, and so on. (Apparently, this is the first year they’ve actually had the wisdom to avoid the tripleK.) They do peter out before hitting ZZZ.
Here’s another way to put the size of this poster hall in context: When I got home, I noticed that my fitbit recorded an exercise activity for the day: a “walking” session. The timestamp shows this was when I crossed the poster hall to find the poster of a colleague of mine from CSUDH. Yes, fitbit says that crossing the poster hall is, itself, exercise.
So, that’s a lot of posters, am I right? Check this out: You know how long the posters go up? About 4 hours. Half of a day. I downloaded the poster abstracts file for the Saturday afternoon poster session. The pdf was 1422 pages. Of poster abstracts, from one half-day of the meeting. There are seven poster sessions in this conference, each a half-day long, using all those poster slots.
I’m an experienced academic conference-goer at national and international meetings. (I’m a semi regular at ESA, the other ESA, and IUSSI, and have been to multiple ATBC, ICE, SACNAS, I once crashed the NABT, and once I presented at the Geochemistry meeting.) Apparently, all of the meetings I’ve gone to are not that large. The biggest they would get is several thousand. It turns out, I’ve never been to a legitimately huge scientific conference. I’ve known that the meetings for ecologists and entomologists are just cherry tomatoes, but there’s a difference between imagining what a bigger meeting is like, and actually being present at one of those huge beefsteak meetings.
I have not been to AGU. Which is well over 20,000. The SfN meeting is well over 30,000.
I didn’t feel out of sorts when I was at this meeting, but that was because I wasn’t expecting to be in sorts. I wasn’t expecting to find any home for my research there, and wasn’t expecting to bump into anybody who I would typically see at a conference. I have research communities where I feel at home, and this just isn’t one of them, and I was in the role of a visitor.
As soon as I entered this hall, I imagined what it would be like to arrive at one of these conferences if I was a graduate student, and this was my research community. This would be the conference where I would be expected to present on a regular basis. I could imagine it would readily feel alienating, terrifying, or empty. With so many people going about their business in their own ways.
How do people cope with a meeting like this, when they first come as a student. When I was a student, my advisor made a point of introducing me to lots of people during my first meeting. Nowadays, I work to do this for my students (and any other new-ish students in my vicinity) when I have the chance. Not all students have attentive mentors showing them the ropes, but even if they do, isn’t the whole experience just entirely overwhelming?
I’ve read and heard a lot from and about grad students, about how the grad school experience is often miserable, which is often a comic trope. Even though I’d like to think I’m open-eyed to the challenges, I still have trouble connecting with the concept that grad school is inherently miserable. I know plenty of folks feel that way, though I’ve had trouble seeing it through that lens. Having hung out at SfN for a few hours, I think I’m getting a little closer to being able to see grad school from that perspective. Because if your goal in grad school is to toil on a research project for years, and one of the culminating experiences is to share this work to the world as a tiny cog in such a huge conference, that has to feel rather deflating.
In the past, I’ve had a distaste at some of the Ecology meetings because of its size, which can feel large, especially when there is someone at the meeting for days but you never bump into one another. In this high-density environment, some folks feel like they need to glom onto a Famous Scientist who they know, or limit their networking to people to people who belong in a particular echelon to which they’ve been assigned, or might not create time for junior scientists because they’re still working their own way up the ladder. I think the bigger the scale of the meeting, the less cognizant people tend to be of the needs of other people, and what it takes to build a community. And when it doesn’t feel like a community, then people might not follow community norms. Which is how toxic behavior emerges and doesn’t get policed.
When you ask people about their favorite meetings, they’re usually the intimate ones, like a Gordon conference (or for me, it’s the every-four-years meeting of North American Social Insect crowd, which gets about a hundred people). So is the converse true, that the biggest meetings are the least favorite? Clearly, there are some advantages to having such a large gathering. You can see everybody in the field who might want to. The vendors and exhibits are off the hook. Big-name celebrities and policymakers will be at the meeting. And of course, the electricity and dynamism of such a huge event can be thrilling for some. But, anyway, now I see a little bit better how people might feel like they have a hard time fitting in. If they don’t have a supportive lab, then finding your supportive community at one of these conferences wouldn’t be an easy thing to do.