Why I Go To Scientific Meetings

obesity-week-logoFor the rest of this week, I will be attending Obesity Week in Los Angeles.

This joint meeting of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery and The Obesity Society, will certainly provide a wealth of new studies and review lectures on virtually every topic relevant to obesity science and practice. Many of these presentations will be given by some of the best researchers and clinicians in the field as well as bright young emerging researchers.

Yet, in today’s age of online webinars and publications – going to hear lectures is no longer a key reason for me to go to these meetings. Long gone are the days, where you actually had to be present at a meeting to keep up with what goes on in your field. Indeed, I could probably get all the information I need about what is happening in obesity research sitting comfortably at my computer.

It is thus fair to say that the only reason I physically go to a meeting these days is for the sake of actually meeting colleagues – in other words “networking”. Thus, it is not what is presented in lectures that matters to me – it is what happens before, between and after lectures that I find most important.

Over the course of my career I have attended 1000s of scientific meetings – not once has a talk (no matter how good or how cutting edge) had enough of an impact on my research or thinking to have made any of this worthwhile.

While I cannot recall even one memorable talk that would have changed the trajectory of my own research career, I can think of 100s of personal encounters with colleagues – at all levels of expertise – that have framed my thinking and stimulated my own research over the years.

These are conversations that happen standing in coffee lines, chance encounters in elevators, serendipitous meetings wandering around at convention centres, and of course at the many social events that accompany these meetings.

And of course there are the planned encounters with colleagues that I know will be attending and I look forward to meeting – catching up we call it.

It is therefore not surprising that my personal itinerary for this week is already speckled with meetings and promises to meet for breakfasts, coffees, lunches, dinners and beers, leaving very little time to actually attend any of the talks.

These meetings are for me the only reason to physically travel to a conference – the science I can get online – the personal and social encounters I cannot.

Thus, I always wonder about colleagues, who travel to these meetings rushing from one talk to the next only to hurry back to their hotel rooms as soon as the talks are done to work on their grants or papers. I, refuse to take any ‘work’ with me when I am attending conferences – deadlines be damned.

I also wonder about the colleagues, who travel to these meetings only to hang out during spare moments with colleagues from their own labs or institutions – it seems to me that they are perhaps missing the whole point of travelling in person to a national or international meeting.

I for one know that the week will be all about catching up with old friends and making new ones – I am sure that some of the heated discussions we will have over a beer or two will leave me more inspired and brimming with ideas than any lecture that I may happen to attend.

My advice to program organizers – there can never be enough time at such meetings for socializing.

My advice to younger colleagues – don’t ever feel bad about missing out on a talk or two – do feel bad about missing out on the opportunity of hanging out and socializing with colleagues.

If you want to truly make an impact on your field, who you know is as important as what you know.

Edmonton, AB

Join the discussion on facebook