No such thing as a free lunch?

One of the things I’ve been looking at this week is working out some travel details for a conference I’ll be going to in Wanaka in August. Kiwis will immediately be suspicious – the word that forms a natural triplet with ‘Wanaka’ and ‘August’ is ‘skiing’.  And furthermore the sessions are early morning and late afternoon and evening, leaving the middle of the day conveniently free for ‘other’ activities.  In my case it’s more likely to be hiring a bicycle and heading up along Lake Hawea, than skiing (I had a go once, and I think I got away with it – apologies to John Cleese), but it will still be a little bit of a holiday.

And my employer pays for this trip?  Well, as much as conferences might seem to be holidays, they do actually serve a really useful (and some might say necessary) purpose for the scientist. First, you get to hear some really interesting talks that broaden your knowledge of a particular area – or open up completely new ones to you. You also get the opportunity to ask questions directly to the speakers.

But, probably the greatest use is that you get to develop useful contacts.  Much of science research is collaborative – it involves two or more teams of individuals at different organizations. By bringing different skill sets and experience to the same problem, a collaboration can often achieve more that just an individual can. Conferences are a great way to develop collaborations – be it formal or informal – you can see where other people have skills and spot areas where they can help you, or where you can help them. And this bit isn’t done during the talks – it’s done during the coffee breaks and poster sessions and that conference dinner which is beginning to look a bargain at just 90 dollars a ticket…


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