I just got back from a tour of North America, including a stop to visit my family in Nova Scotia and a conference in California. It was a great trip and a reminder of how lucky I am these days. Not only did my daughter and I get spoiled by my parents but I also had the opportunity to meet and interact with many of the leaders and new up and coming researchers of my field*. As we recover from jet lag and get back to the routine, I have a chance to reflect on my travels.
One of the benefits of traveling for conferences is, of course, the chance to meet people. Seeing talks on the forefront of everyone’s research is definitely good for learning and stimulating new ideas, but I often find the most valuable parts of any conference are the causal conversations you end up having. It can also be pretty interesting to put faces (and characters) to the names you know from the literature.
Although not unique to academia, you often ‘know’ people before meeting them through their work. I find that I don’t often have a particular preconceived picture of authors I read, but meeting someone in person or seeing them talk does change the way I interact with the literature to some extent. For one thing, the more people I meet, the more human the literature feels. I can put faces to author names and pictures to their study systems (if I’ve seen a talk). As a student, in some ways the primary literature felt so, well, scientific and perhaps a bit cold. These days, that is less of an issue and science feels much more like an endeavour that I belong to. However, as you become more apart of the community doing science, there is the potential for things to swing the other way. I’m probably more likely to notice a publication on a list if I’ve met the author. It is always nice to see people I went to grad school with pop up in journal alerts, for example. And although I try not to be biased by my impressions of a person when I read a paper, I’m only human after all. I wouldn’t say it stops me from appreciating good work (I hope!) but personal interactions do colour whether I would want to invite a person for a talk, for example. And interactions at conferences, etc. definitely influences who I want to work with. Of course, I’m more likely to collaborate with people I hit it off with then those I don’t. I wonder if that is also true for citations and the like. Are we more likely to read and cite people we’ve met? How about those we like? I’m not sure I want to know the answers to those questions and I certainly try not to let biases like that enter my work, but science is a human activity after all.
I think it is always interesting to meet/see people in person who you know from other means. In academics, that used to be meeting or seeing someone give a talk at a conference whose papers you’ve read. Maybe their papers are seminal to yours, and especially as a grad student, seeing people behind the work can be very eye opening. I once was at a famous ecologist’s talk at a big conference. The room was packed but it was one of the poorer talks I’d ever seen. The slides were directly transferred from papers and impossible to read. Pointing from the lectern to a screen meters away also did not help (‘as you can clearly see…’ was a memorable quote). A friend and I sat at the back trying to figure out the main tenets of the classic theory from this person because it was the keystone of the talk but never directly described (we were of course all expected to be familiar with it, I suppose). The experience taught me that great thinkers don’t necessarily make great presenters. But I’ve also seen wonderful talks by some big names too.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten to see old friends and put faces to more names I’m familiar with. I also got a chance to hear from and meet people I might have never have known otherwise. And seeing what the grad students are up to is always interesting. Communicating science and hearing about people’s studies is part of what I find fun in this job.
Interestingly, this blog and twitter has also opened up my scientific community beyond the boarders of my research. So whereas before putting faces to names was all about meeting people I had read in the literature, this time it included a chance to meet up with Small Pond’s very only leader, Terry. We were lucky to overlap in the LA area for a day and were able to see each other face to face. I have to admit, it felt a bit like an academic version of on-line dating or something. I was nervous to meet. What if it was awkward? What if we didn’t like each other? I’d been having fun posting on this blog but if our in person interaction didn’t work I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I’m happy to report that we had a good time and a fruitful discussion about blogging, twitter and this new-to-me on-line community. I hope it is only the first of many meetings with those that I am getting to know through their blogs and tweets. I’m sure it will mean that I will also pop in on talks far removed from my research if we happen to be at the same conference in the future. I think that is a good thing.
*being a bit of a generalist, the conference was in one of my fields of interest, plant volatiles.