Making the Most of the Annual Meeting: Tips for First-Timers

MSheaHeading to the Annual Meeting for the first time?  Want to make the most of it, and still be standing by the end?  Here are some tips from Madeline A. Shea who will receive the Emily M. Gray Award at the 62nd Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Before you go …

Get in touch with friends who may be attending, ask whether they are coming and presenting, and let them know when your poster or talk will be presented.  Even if they are not coming this year, someone else from their lab might be there and you will make a new connection.  Scout out the program online with tools provided by the Biophysical Society, search for topics and authors of interest to you, make an itinerary and prioritize.

You may want to be in more than two places at once.  Even when talks are sequential, but in different rooms, it may be an insurmountable challenge to get to all the ones you want to see.  Some rooms are crowded, making it hard to zip in and out.  If you know someone else attending the meeting, you might plan to visit different talks and report back to each other later.  Some labs present closely related talks and posters, so visit their poster if you cannot hear their talk.

Saturday On-Ramp

If you can go to a subgroup meeting, do it.  Subgroups are like mini-societies, and their meetings are usually focused – much like a mini-course.   Most subgroups take care of business during their meeting – electing officers, and selecting organizers for the next year.   Some welcome students and postdoc volunteers, so consider getting involved.  On a practical level, attending a subgroup meeting helps you learn your way around the conference center before you start rushing around on Sunday morning.

Biophysical Society conference


If you are presenting data, you probably finished collecting and analyzing it by now.  If not, pause now and make a really clear presentation out of the experiments that you are certain are ready for prime-time.  Consult your mentor about confidentiality, patents, and competition.  Although attendees are not supposed to photograph posters or talks, it may happen to you.  So, be thoughtful about what you present.

On their big day, many presenters dress a bit more formally. Be sure to let your presentation, not your outfit, be the center of attention, and wear comfortable shoes. The floors are very hard, and you will be standing for a long time to give a poster.  Bring a water bottle and/or lozenges – you may end up hoarse by the end of the session.

Prep and Practice

The advice to network at big meetings with thousands of people amidst sensory overload may be overwhelming.  But, your poster or talk does more than communicate your new results – it is also an audition for future professional opportunities and may attract some insightful advice or questions that will change the course of your research or your career.  So, you want to put your best foot forward.

For excellent advice on making a readable poster, consult Steve Block’s classic article in BJ (1996) 71: 3527-3529.  Arrange your content in vertical panels from left to right so you can walk people across it without pointing to the beginning where a new visitor may be reading your abstract and intro, while you are presenting the conclusions to someone else.  Acknowledge funding on the poster, and encourage feedback by including your email address.   Practice presenting the poster to people outside your own lab.  They represent a typical (non-expert) visitor who does not know all your acronyms and jargon.  You may present for longer than the prescribed time period if people are interested in visiting (many go early to scout them).  If you see a big crowd around a neighboring poster, join the group.  There are often fascinating and heated conversations about a controversial finding that will be educational.

Happily, people who come to your talk or poster are literally voting with their feet to learn from you.  Introduce yourself, and face your namebadge forward so attendees can read it easily.  At posters, ask visitors their names, and whether they are already very familiar with the topic, and/or would like a full introduction. An expert may want a haiku version of your findings – asking you to start in the middle, explain a new method, or only ask about the bottom line.  Their seeming impatience is not an affront – there are too many posters to see in too little time.

Biophysical Society conference

If you are presenting in an oral session, practice your talk in advance in an environment that mimics the real one as closely as possible:  use an auditorium or classroom, practice with the laser pointer, and ask a few people to listen.  Practicing for your laptop rarely gets your adrenaline pumping in quite the same way as having a breathing audience.

Aim to tell a focused story in the allowed time-slot.  Trying to squeeze it in by talking faster will leave your audience dazed. Remember that you get one chance to make a great first impression!  After your talk, someone may ask a question that seems tangential or even self-serving, sounding a lot like a plug for their own work or one of your competitors.  Always be polite.  The audience is focused on you.  Offer to follow-up on the matter after the session, especially if there are others lined up to ask questions.  Be a good participant in your session, too.  Try asking some questions of the other speakers.

Snacks, Shirts and City Life

Most first-time attendees are surprised at the cost of refreshments sold in a convention center.  Many people bring their own snacks and water bottle (or keep the first one you buy, and refill it).  The Biophysical Society always has a cool T-shirt and some free pens.  Visit the booth early in the meeting!

San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  See some of the sights while you are in town.  Travel with others, and tuck your badge away when you are out in public.


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