The Attendee's Guide to Scientific Meetings
by Julian Davies
There are many aspects to the business of going to a scientific meeting. Different protocols are required for meetings of different sizes and classifications. A general meeting, such as the massive ASM or ASBC gatherings, attract many people with many justifications for attending; it is difficult to provide guidelines for meetings of this type unless you are an invited speaker or a poster presenter. In these latter cases, being as you are there as an invitee, you must make the effort to justify your invitation. You are there to perform, to present your scientific efforts to a larger audience for evaluation. As a privileged attendee, it is your responsibility to showcase your work in the best possible manner. If giving a talk, rehashing old PowerPoint slides simply will not do; your audience is expecting something new, interesting and stimulating (more on this to come later).
Attending one of the mammoth meetings, such as the ASM general meeting, year after year is common practice for many people—perhaps for you. This may be due to the fact that when you are a member of a committee or an Editorial Board, the annual meeting is a convenient place to meet and discuss why the impact factor of your journal is going down, when everyone else’s is going up. However, there is another, perhaps more compelling reason to attend these large congregations, and that is to see old friends and to make new ones.
Going to see old friends—especially for the over 60s— is an exercise that is fraught with danger. You would be wise to plan your tactics accordingly. Why? At each year's meeting, you are one year older and your memory is one year more capricious. Will “old X” look the same? Has W got a new partner? Or an additional partner/friend? Has P retired or moved? (Insert names as appropriate.) For these and similar situations it is best to attend the opening reception cautiously.
For maximum satisfaction and poise, the following strategies are recommended. Wearing dark glasses can be a good ploy (if you can still see in a dimly-lit room). It is also essential that you pin your name tag in a place where your full name is not readily visible—partly behind your lapel, for example. When you arrive at the reception, circle the outside of the room and pick out a few people that you do recognize and whose name you can recall. Stride boldly up and greet each of them in turn using their name. If you are of the same approaching-senior age group, there is a 50% chance that they will recognize you but not remember your name. Since they cannot see your whole name card, you will likely witness their desperate efforts to decipher your name. You will then begin to feel good! Once contact has been established, you can ask them if they remember the name of a person nearby.
However, sooner or later you will encounter someone you recognize but whose name escapes you. This requires a different tactical approach on your part, since they may know your name, despite your partially hidden name card. Try to approach this person surreptitiously, perhaps joining a group that is walking by and sneaking glances in the direction of your target's name card (dark glasses can help here). If you are unfortunate enough to actually come into chance contact with someone who addresses you by name, and you do not know their name, other gambits are needed. Assuming that they are wearing a name badge, it is bad form to glare at it before responding. There are two good tactics to apply here. Give a show of recognition but then grab your handkerchief and explode with a fake sneeze ("Good to see…atishoo"); as you turn away politely this gives you the opportunity to read their name badge. Another ploy is to start to greet them and then quickly point over their shoulder and say something like “look! isn’t that Elio Schaechter with a beard over there?” They will turn, giving you plenty of time to read their name.
Other variations can be tested and you will soon become skilled and practiced in the art. You will then enjoy opening receptions in ways you had never expected!