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The Graduate Student Education Committee seeks to raise the level of awareness of graduate education at McGovern Medical School with the goal of contributing to the long range development of the student and ultimately, the early career researcher. In conjunction with the MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Committee fosters and encourages the creation of educational and networking opportunities.

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Tanya Baldwin

What I Learned From Chairing a Conference August 26, 2016

by Tanya Baldwin, Fourth Year Ph.D. Student, Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology

Over the summer I had the privilege of chairing the Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) in Phosphorylation and G-Protein Mediated Signaling Networks. This conference is a scaled down version of the well-known Gordon Research Conference (GRC) taking place right before the GRC.  I was given this opportunity because my mentor, Carmen Dessauer, Ph.D. was the chair of the GRC in Phosphorylation and G-Protein Mediated Signaling Networks. What makes the GRS unique is that it is organized and attended solely by students, post-doctoral fellows, and other scientists at a similar career level. The goal is to promote networking among scientists during the early stages of their careers in a relaxed environment.

Chairing a conference was never something I had imagined I would do, especially as a graduate student who had never attended this particular conference before. Chairing a conference was an abstract concept to me. I was unaware of the attention to detail required before and during the conference.  So, while this wasn’t on my ”to do” list for graduate school, I embraced the opportunity.   I learned plenty about the responsibilities of chairing a conference, everything from fundraising to selecting the food for the social gatherings.   You definitely don’t want to pick something unappetizing! I now have a better idea of what chairing a conference entails and I learned a few lessons along the way.

1)    The earlier you start planning the better.

This conference took place over two days and included a keynote session, two scientific sessions, two poster sessions, and a mentorship session.   While the GRS is a scaled down version of the larger GRC, the planning involved was extensive and started a year and a half before the conference was scheduled.

The GRC organization hosts a training session for all of the GRS and GRC chairs to help kick start the planning process. Planning a conference revolves around two important things:  1) the program and 2) fundraising.

Besides the keynote speaker, all of the speakers for the scientific sessions were chosen from submitted abstracts. This left much of the program planning for closer to the conference after the abstract deadline, but choosing a keynote speaker needs to be done early. Most notable scientists have schedules that book up months if not years in advance. What I learned here applies to any one attending a conference, if you are interested in speaking or presenting a poster at a conference, get your abstracts in early! I can guarantee it makes the chair’s job easier. Not only do we have to choose the speakers, we have to order the posters.

Fundraising was the focus of my efforts to start. Where do you even start when fundraising for a conference? The majority of the funds for this conference came from biotech companies, such as VWR, Bioteche, etc. These companies are willing to donate because this is a great way for them to advertise. It wasn’t too difficult to identify and contact most of the smaller companies, but some of the larger companies have different requirements for donating money. The larger companies have applications, funding cycles, specific areas of research they are funding, and deadlines. I’m sure you can see where this is headed now… If you don’t start early enough, you miss a lot of funding opportunities! Fundraising was probably the most frustrating part of the whole planning process. My co-chair, Randi Fitzgibbon (fellow GSBS Ph.D. student) and I sent out countless emails, and received very few responses (sometimes a no is appreciated instead of nothing!), and even fewer positive ones. Despite, missing one (or many deadlines) and only getting a few yes emails, the conference was fully funded. If I had to do it over though, I would have started much earlier.

2)    It is sometimes about who you know.

That is how I ended up chairing the conference in the first place! Whether asking someone to participate in the conference or donate, it was evident early on that a known point of contact greatly increases the chance of receiving a response. The GRS this year also included a mentorship component, meaning we had to find mentors to attend the conference (and pay for them to come, yay fundraising!). As a graduate student who is relatively new to the field, I have yet to meet many of the renowned scientists in the field and establish contacts within academia, industry, and government agencies. Thankfully, with a little bit of dedication, 75+ fundraising emails later, and  working closely with Dr. Dessauer, whose contact list greatly exceeds that of my own, we were able to bring in a VP from Pfizer, a young faculty member, and a department chair.

3)    Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

This is one of the most important things I learned while planning the GRS. The conference would not have been half as successful had we not enlisted the help of countless people. I was lucky enough to have a great co-chair, who worked closely with me to make the planning process easier. In addition, my mentor provided valuable insights into much of the planning. Another great resource for the planning of this conference was one of the previous chairs of this conference, Angeline Lyon, Ph.D. Dr. Lyon was the first chair of this conference, and now a professor at Purdue University. Having help from a group of people with broad research interests and backgrounds was essential for the success of the conference.

4)    Details.

It is all in the details, as the saying goes. This especially applied to choosing people to speak and serve as discussion leaders during scientific sessions. Despite there being a number of great abstracts from the same university, the post docs having the better abstracts (sometimes), and a lot of people using the same techniques, choosing only these people to present would have made for one boring conference. A lot of time and consideration goes into ensuring the program has a diverse line up of speakers and topics with some sort of general theme.   Again, asking others for their help and insights into who would make be a good speaker was vital. While there is a general topic (Phosphorylation and G-Protein Signaling), the topics of the speakers were not all in my wheelhouse of knowledge. The variety of research contained in the abstracts forced me to expand my knowledge of the field, but I also relied on others who are experts in these fields to help choose the final selections.

5)    In the end, let go of the little things.

At the end of the conference, you get the reviews and suggestions. The majority of these were positive, some made no sense, and others were constructive criticism that I greatly appreciated. While it is easy to focus on the negative comments, in the end it was better to focus on what we did right and relay the constructive criticisms to the next chair. We cannot go back and change the past, but helping the next chair allows the conference to evolve and get better with time.

How does any of this apply to grad school and all of the students not crazy enough to chair a conference?

1)    I’m sure it goes without saying, the earlier you start planning anything the easier it progresses, but it is always a good reminder. Graduate school can get hectic, but taking the time to plan things out ahead of time will smooth the process whether it is a presentation, an experiment, or preparing your first manuscript!

2)    As young scientists we are just beginning to build our reputation and career achievements. We are still developing our networks and we may not know the right people yet. Yes, sometimes it is about who you know, but at this point in our learning process it is also about who you go out and meet too.

3)    This is one of the biggest things I’m still learning, but I have found time and time again that asking for help makes things easier and takes you a lot further. I know from my own experience in research that finding someone to help is absolutely invaluable and has helped me expand my repertoire of techniques.

4)    It is often the smallest detail that causes an experiment to fail or succeed, pay attention.

5)    We all are working hard to answer important biological questions, and at the end of the day it is always important to remember that you’ve done your best. Don’t dwell on the negatives, but instead think of how you can improve on what you’ve learned.