Why Meetings Matter
President, Society for Developmental Biology
Several weeks on, I am still enjoying a feeling of post-meeting energization generated by participating in the Joint SDB-PASEDB Meeting in Vancouver. This was an outstanding meeting where a great deal of excellent science was presented, but it was largely the reconvening with like-minded colleagues that made me such a happy scientist. Here I want to share a few thoughts on why that is: why (in my opinion) meetings matter.
There are very few positive things to be said about global pandemics, but an obvious one is that we can now conduct long-distance collaborations and other interactions much more effectively because we have been forced to learn the secrets of Zoom and similar platforms, with the added bonus of conserving precious research funds and lowering our carbon footprints by limiting travel. But the flip side is that we have also developed a sharper appreciation of the fact that scientists (indeed all people) are social animals. That means we benefit on a whole deeper level from interactions conducted ‘in real life’, and I would argue that this is one of the primary reasons in-person meetings matter. An ‘in-person’ conversation may cover similar ground to a remote one yet may bring a deeper connection. The conversations themselves also tend to come in different flavors when conducted in the real world. There is a stochastic component to who you line up with for coffee, which poster catches your eye, or who says ‘hi’ as you peruse the vendor tables. It is often these completely unplanned interactions, sometimes seeded by a colleague who mentions ‘you should check out poster 79’ or ‘have you met so and so yet’ that can make meetings so meaningful. Even dedicated introverts seem to enjoy these interactions in small doses (or at least see the benefits), and our more extrovert meeting goers feed on them.
As researchers, we rarely do our best work in a vacuum. Connecting with others who bring a different background or perspective to our research topic can enhance our science by preventing us from getting trapped in an echo chamber of our own ideas. A thoughtful question after a talk, or a follow up discussion at the coffee break, can be incredibly valuable. It can also be deeply reassuring to find you are not the only person intrigued by a particular research topic. To share a personal example, I was thrilled to speak with a poster author who is combining two of my longstanding interests, Hox genes and neural crest, and who has not only carefully read one of my lab’s recent papers but is also making use of our published findings in his own research. Our animated discussion at the poster session has already led to his group generously sharing a fish line with us as part of a new collaboration. For me, that feels like a successful poster session. As we hole up in our own labs, dealing with the day-to-day struggles of life and research, we might well miss new developments in our field. The literature is ever expanding, and while there are some good ways to help keep electronic tabs on it, such as TOCs, Twitter, and automatic PubMed searches, it is still too easy to miss something important. Meetings are great opportunities to not only catch up with important new science, but also to be inspired. There is always the possibility of a ‘eureka moment’, such as realizing a new approach you just heard about could be fruitfully applied to your own system or question. My own habit is to write these ideas down in the back of my meeting notebook, and I know it was a good meeting when I come home with multiple pages filled at the back, as well as the front, of my notebook.
Another special joy of in-person meetings is the shared experience in the room. Much like the entirely different experience of going to see a movie at the cinema versus watching it on your home TV, if the whole audience gasps at stunning images in a talk, then we know that we are with “our” people. These moments help restore our sense of wonder and remind us why we got into biology in the first place.
For trainees, presenting at meetings provides a wonderful opportunity to network and get feedback on their work. Those same benefits still come to more senior meeting attendees, who additionally have opportunities to ‘pay it forward’, by sharing their knowledge with trainees.
Finally, meetings help us to connect. It may be with those who share professional interests beyond research, for example in education, administration, or communication; it might also be with colleagues who share other aspects of our identity, which can help build a sense of community that may be lacking—or at least feels hard to access—at our home institutions. For me, attending an SDB meeting in person again definitely felt like ‘coming home’, and while I plan to be thoughtful about limiting my overall long-distance travel and meeting attendance going forward, my overall strategy will continue to include some in-person meetings for all the reasons I have just laid out. It is certainly my hope that SDB meetings—whether regional or national—can give all our attendees that important sense of belonging.
I look forward to interacting with many of you in my home town of Chicago at the SDB 82nd Annual Meeting in July, 2023.
Last Updated 08/17/2022