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How to Prepare for and Survive the International Conference

February 2008

The ATS International Conference remains the place to energize your professional life. A chance meeting in a line at the coffeecart, a poster that provides the key to an assay with which you’ve been struggling, or an exhilarating lecture can generate new ideas and collaborations that provide inspiration to last you far beyond the official 4 meeting days. The down side is that attending a meeting the size of ATS is also exhausting. I wrote about PMSD in the ATS Forum. Post Meeting Stress Disorder. It’s easy to come away with all circuits fried if you don’t take the time to get ready.

"Chance favors the prepared mind."--Louis Pasteur.

To get the most out of this multi-ring event, you must prepare. Focus on quality, not quantity. Success is not measured by the number of people you meet, the number of posters you attend or the number of presentations you make. A successful meeting depends on making meaningful connections that enrich your life and career. This column presents a few guiding principles to preparing for and surviving ATS.

  1. Register early. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Pre-registration is cheaper and will save you time since you don’t have to stand in a long registration line. Most importantly, book your hotel room early. The farther away you are from the meeting, the more miserable your experience will be. Staying at a hotel that is easily accessible to the meeting enables you to take quick breaks to drop off materials and have a few minutes of “quiet time.” Meeting friends for coffee or drinks is a lot easier when you don’t have to travel significant distances to find them. Safety is also an issue. Walking alone in a strange city is generally not a good idea, especially after dark and having to take cabs all the time is expensive.

  2. Plan ahead. The meeting is hectic. ATS committee meetings start at 6:30 AM, sunrise seminars at 7:00 AM while the minisymposia and symposia kick off at 8:15. Armed with a laptop and abstracts on disk, you can begin scheduling your days on your flight over; but to get the most out of the meeting, start reviewing the program at least a couple of weeks before it starts.  Focus on topics that are of interest to you and identify key presentations. Make a list of questions you want answered and people you want to meet at specific meetings, seminars, or workshops. If there is a group of you attending the meeting, think about dividing the meeting up. Considering that there are thousands of abstracts scheduled into sometimes competing sessions, a team approach can save everyone time and energy.

  3. Make a schedule. I keep one on my smartphone. You can also consider constructing a spreadsheet. The corollary to “plan ahead” is don’t plan too much! Sessions on similar topics are often scheduled simultaneously on opposite sides of the convention center. You must pick and choose. Given the size of some convention centers and the crowds, it can take as much as 10-15 minutes to get from one presentation to another.

    A general rule of thumb is to target 5-10 posters in any given session. Go to those first. When viewing posters, build some discussion time in. The worst thing is to miss meeting a key individual or viewing an important poster because you got hung up somewhere else. Have a list of back-up posters to view if you find yourself with extra time and energy. If you will be attending oral presentations, remember, it is perfectly acceptable to only stay for those talks that interest you. Just plan on sitting near the back or at the end of a row so you can exit easily without disturbing others.

  4. Hardcopies are good. I also put together a binder that contains hardcopies of my tickets, registration/hotel information and proposed itinerary. Printing out the abstracts ahead of time means you won’t have to carry around the heavy abstract book at the meeting and also provides another way to take notes.

     Take notes.  Have a small notebook in which you can take notes during presentations and while you are viewing posters. Taking notes helps you to remember key points and provides a reference for later use (for instance, vendor information for a critical reagent). It is also helpful to write down spur-of-the-moment ideas that may come to you and help you to formulate questions. Blank pages may also be useful to jot down quick messages or pass on phone numbers and other contact information for people who are PDA-challenged.

  5. Be prepared to network. The ATS International Conference is superb venue for formal and informal networking. This is your chance to start building or add to your community. Consider that most job opportunities are obtained through word-of-mouth network connections rather than ads. If you do your homework, you can arrange to meet people with whom you might otherwise have a hard time getting a hold of. Do this early! In addition, ask your mentor to introduce you to people whom s/he thinks are important or useful for you to know. Now is your chance to spend time with people outside of your home institution!
  6. Have a soundbite—be prepared to describe your work in 1-2 sentences.

    Carry cards. I used to poo-poo business cards, but I am always so sorry when I forget to carry any with me at ATS. They are small, light, quick, and easy to use.

    Move out of your comfort zone. Painful as it may be, try to take advantage of the meeting to meet and socialize with people outside of your home institution. Be open to opportunity! Networking can occur anywhere, anytime, from waiting in line at a shuttle stop to commiserating about the weather while buying a coffee at a local Starbucks. This is not about schmoozing, but about community-building.

  7. Be interactive. Poster presenters are usually very enthusiastic and willing to share information about their work. One good way to get started is to ask the presenter to “walk you through their poster.” This not only saves you time and eyestrain, but also provides an immediate opportunity for you to interact with that person. If you are the presenter, go up to people who seem to be eyeing your poster and ask if they have any questions or want a quick tour. Make sure you ask your PI to let you do most of the talking.
  8. Ask questions! Asking questions shows your interest, shows that you are thinking and demonstrates your ability to articulate your thoughts. Use your notebook to write down your questions. There will be microphones set up down the center and/or side aisles for audience members to use during specified question and answer periods. Typically, 5 minutes are allotted so you need to be brief. Introduce yourself (name, institution) and launch into your question. While, it can be intimidating to stand in front of an audience and ask questions in front of a microphone, it is a useful skill to develop. At the very least, think about going up to the presenter after their talk is done. Most people are delighted and flattered to be asked about their work.

  9. The meeting ends at home. Have a follow-up seminar when you return to work to review the key points of what you and your colleagues have learned. This can be invaluable to disseminate information and to really think through what you have learned. Make copies of handouts or other interesting materials.

  10. Miscellaneous:
    Take breaks. Large meetings can be emotionally and physically tiring. You must navigate large, crowded halls and at times will find yourself jostling about in groups of 10 or more people in front of a popular poster. It can also be disorienting to be alone, in a strange place, surrounded by thousands of strangers. Be sure to take breaks in your hotel room, arrange to meet up with friends at some point during the day. The Committee on Members in Training and Transition is sponsoring a Fellows’ Lounge. There will be food, drinks and casual talks on various topics of interest scheduled throughout the meeting.

    Dress comfortably but appropriately. Being at the ATS is somewhat like being on stage all the time. You never know whom you will meet. If you want to be viewed as a professional, dress professionally. That doesn’t mean suit jackets or ties but be neat. You will be on your feet for most of the day and into the evening, so wear comfortable shoes as well.

    Pack lightly! Minimize the hassles of traveling. Try to avoid checking luggage. If you will be giving a presentation, make sure you hand carry your essentials (presentation materials, poster, handouts, as well as clothing).

    Family/spouse: Having guests at the meeting can be a distraction. But often, there is no choice. Since my husband is a pulmonologist, we have always attended the meeting together and for the past 10 years, have brought our children as well. Most large hotels offer concierge services through which you can book childcare. The ATS also arranges to have daycare as well. The first year we tried to use them, our daughter was 9 months old, in the throes of stranger anxiety and screamed continually for 1 hour the first day (we thought she needed to “get used” to the place). We ended up taking turns carrying her around in the Baby Bjorn for the rest of the meeting. For the next few years, we took our nanny. This was expensive since we had to provide an extra hotel room and extra wages given the hours involved. But the freedom from distraction and ability to focus on the meeting was worth every penny. Now that our children are 8 and 10, they usually end up at the daycamp. It is very helpful for them to bring their own books or other activities since most of the other children tend to be quite a bit younger.

    Concerns for women: The two main issues that come up are 1) being taken seriously and 2) harassment. Oftentimes, the two are related. Being at a meeting surrounded by strangers, away from family and work constraints can have a strange effect on people and cause them to behave in ways that they would never dare to at home. Don’t be paranoid, but be aware. If your radar picks up worrisome signals, be pro-active. Don’t be naïve or be intimidated by someone’s reputation or position of authority. Avoid being alone with that person, pay your own way and make your own travel arrangements to and from restaurants. Meeting for dinner or drinks at night may be potentially more uncomfortable since these arrangements tend to be more undefined and open-ended. Consider making appointments for lunch or coffee instead.