Moselio Schaechter

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December 03, 2009

The Attendee's Guide to Scientific Meetings

by Julian Davies


A balcony is the ideal place from which to scope out a
group before joining the melee.

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!

Julian and wine glass

Julian Davies is Professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a Fellow of the Royal Society. His previous contributions to this blog include A Letter to the Blog and The Parvome.


As usual, a great piece of advice by Professor Hopwood. Thanks, Keith!


- Julius

(Cesar adds):
OK, I guess nobody has understood a single word, so I'm giving now the embarrassing explanation. First, you should know that I'm very bad at remembering names. During a recent SGM meeting at Harrogate, UK, I saw Professor David Hopwood, approached him, and said something stupid like: "Excuse me, are you Keith Chater?" He, very kindly, confirmed he wasn't, he was David Hopwood, and Keith was not coming to the meeting. The earth didn't swallow me up, so he (not making apparent notice of my embarrassment) then gave me some good advice about the talks he thought would be more interesting during the meeting.

Why did I mixed up the names of D. Hopwood and K. Chater?Because, having worked on natural product biosynthesis and genetics of actinomycetes for long years, those two names were closely connected in my brain as the biggest names in the field.

I told this anecdote to Julian Davies during the last ASM general
meeting at Philadelphia. I greatly enjoyed talking to him, he showed
interest for my present work and my career, and made some clever
recommendations. At the end of the conversation, he said something
like "It's been nice talking to you, Julius!" -- of course, making a joke out of my poor memory for names (and note that my name is Cesar, even though I'm not Roman).

Really funny! Good strategies for the name challenged...

Dr. Davies, I had the privilege of attending your lecture at my very first ASM in 2008 and it was really exciting and inspirational-- thanks!

It's really true, Stanley. I met Julian once at an ASM, I said "hello" once, and exchanged e-mails twice with him. He walks right up with a big smile at those giant meetings and shares his enthusiasm over microbiology---and remembers me quite well. Amazing.

Along with Welkin, I will certainly bow respectfully to Dr. Davies' wisdom and experience in this critical area, and not only to get a better look at his name tag. As a long time veteran of name tag wars, I would like to take this opportunity to note 2 really annoying issues that organizers of meetings should be aware of:

1. Size of print. No amount of bowing, scraping, sneezing or Elio sighting will allow me to read a name in 10-point Edwardian Script. If you are organizing a meeting, please, please, have someone at least 60 years old design the tags. Do not give this task to a 25-year old assistant.

2. Orientation. If you insist on putting name tags on neck straps, please, please, print the name on both sides. This is not hard, but almost no one seems to have figured it out. Otherwise, no matter what stratagem I use (short of the completely uncouth reach and flip) I have only a 50% chance of identifying the person who remembers me like a brother, but whose name I have long forgotten. In the worst case, the color-coded banquet meal ticket is stuck in the "back" of the tag, and I learn either the person's name or what he is having for dinner! Never both.

Btw, the more senior and important to the field you think you are, the more important it is to wear a nametag that is clearly legible to all at all times, both to avoid the crushing disappointment of not being recognized on sight by one and all, and to give your more junior colleagues every opportunity to at least pretend they know who you are.

Very funny post from a genuinely gregarious guy who seems to instantly remember the name of everyone he meets, young or old!

Perhaps a deep bow of respect, lingering just long enough to get a close look?

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