Next week is the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. If you’ve ever been to ESA, then you know it’s….big, often between 3000-5000 ecologists (which I thought was big until I heard about some of the biomedical conferences which have the attendance of a small city). It seems like most of those people are giving talks or posters. Obviously it’s impossible to see everything, and frankly with talks spread out across 20-odd different rooms which are usually spread out across the far corners of the convention center plus various hotels, it’s probably not possible to see even a fraction of the things you’re interested in. If you try to do the ESA blitzkrieg (and most young graduate students will try at least once), you are guaranteeing an overwhelming, lonely, and futile experience. So, how do you navigate this beast and keep your sanity? I have two recommendations:
1) Pick a strategy. Some years I choose to focus on a specific concept or research area to learn a lot about a breaking area of ecology in a short period of time (like the year a majority of what I saw had the word ‘metacommunity’ in the title). Some years I choose breadth because I want to have a better feeling for where the field in general is going or to look for interesting new ideas (one year I saw talks that spanned from theory to empirical and from physiology to ecosystems – ah that was a fun year). The point is, decide what you want to get out of ESA before you go because once you get there, there’s a lot going on.
2) Find a conference buddy (or buddies). You can’t see everything, but if you coordinate with a friend then you can hear about twice as much as you can see. It helps with processing talks and keeping them from just blending together. It also has the added benefit of giving you someone to talk to regularly and keeping you from feeling like just another faceless cog in the giant ESA machine. Ethan and I often use this strategy, especially when there is more than one really interesting talk at the same time. Then we get together afterwards and swap stories. Just a piece of advice: make sure your conference buddy either has a good memory or takes good notes. I’m not pointing fingers or anything, but there’s nothing more frustrating than giving a detailed rendition of the talk you saw, asking about the talk they saw that you really want to know about, and getting, “It was really good. Uh, my notes here say they did something with a neutral model and the results were really compelling. The paper’s coming out soon. “