The first was the meeting of the International Union of Geophysics and Geodesy, which was held over two weeks (including all through the weekend!) in Prague. This was a fairly large conference, of about 4000-5000 people, many of whom were geologists or hydrologists as well as meteorologists and climatologists.
A week after I came back, we had the annual conference of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, up in Brisbane. This conference has a totally different feel – there are usually around 300 people, making it a much more casual and friendly experience (at big conferences I can feel a bit overwhelmed). It's my favourite conference, because you get to chat with all your colleagues from around the country you may not have seen for a year, and you always have someone to talk to. It's also a lot busier – as well as presentations all day, there were events each lunch and each night, and even a 7am breakfast workshop on the final morning!
The conference was particularly exciting this year because of the focus on science communication, with several plenaries and other events from either great scientist communicators or actual journalists, all of which were very interesting. And while my presentation was predominantly to people I already knew, it makes it a lot more comfortable. I was quite proud that, even though the session ran overtime so I started my talk during the tea break, people were not only interested enough to stay and listen, they continued to ask about half a dozen questions instead of running out to get caffeine!
These conferences are a great social experience, but they do take up a great deal of time in travel, preparation and attendance, meaning we get much less research done at this time of year. And, of course, they can also be expensive and a source of greenhouse emissions, particularly when going overseas. So I was thinking about what it is we get out of them, and why they're so valuable.
1. The science. This is probably the key thing – at conferences you hear from people who are doing work on a whole range of science, in most cases work that hasn't yet been written up for publication. This allows you to find people who are working on similar things (so you can collaborate), and get great ideas of how to apply their research to your own work. It also forces you to broaden your perspective – while in your day-to-day life you focus on a small sub-field, at a conference you hear from a broad range of subdisciplines, and can be surprised what will be relevant. Finally, you also communicate your own science, allowing people to hear and question and give feedback, which strengthens your work.
2. Networking. As a scientist these days, it's so important to collaborate with people working on similar problems or where your expertise may align. As an early career researcher, it's also incredibly important to meet people who might give you your next job, and let them see your science. Generally, the more people you know, the more opportunities appear – I really need to meet/interact more with overseas scientists in my field if I'm ever going to have an overseas postdoc.
3. Learning how to communicate. One thing I get a lot from conferences is actually assessing the presentations and posters that I don't enjoy, and how to do better. My notebook is dotted with remarks like “Introductions are boring” or “Don't use green in figures!”, and from watching other people who communicate poorly (or well, for that matter) you can learn a great deal more than you can from a guide of “How to communicate”. If you don't communicate well it can be very hard to be a successful scientist (unless you're old/successful enough that no one cares – the worst talks I've seen tend to be older scientists who make everything boring).
4. New ideas. Going to a conference is a mental break, forcing you to step away from your desk and your work. And when your mind is given a break, it can make the connections that are harder to see from close up. After a conference, the margins of my notebook are littered with ideas of new things to try and how to make my research better, stronger, more relevant or more interesting. And that's not counting all the new ideas you get from other people's talks!
Well, those are my thoughts anyway. Now I need to take all of this and actually get some work done...