Taking Undergrads to a National Scientific Meeting

28 Feb

Recently, Travis blogged about his experiences while attending a scientific meeting through the eyes of a “professor from a small, undergraduate-only university.” I thought it would be informative to expand upon one of the topics that he wrote about in his post: taking undergraduate students to [national] scientific meetings.

My Experience as an Undergraduate

I first went to a regional scientific meeting that was sponsored by BBB, an undergraduate biological honors society, during my senior year at Gannon University. I presented some independent research I did w/ my faculty advisor on fish reproductive behavior [which eventually was my first publication]. It was my first public research talk and it went well; I got invited to their national conference. Last year at World Congress of Herpetology, I actually recently reunited w/ an undergraduate that I first met at that national BBB meeting some 10 years after we met. We’re both still in academia and at the time were both postdocs. The meeting had an obvious positive influence on my academic trajectory and prepared me [I think] for some early success at national scientific meetings that I attended early in my graduate career, all of which were sponsored by larger organizations.

The regional, and national, BBB meeting were satisfying at the time and certainly have their benefits [in fact, I plan on taking my undergrads to an upcoming regional BBB meeting in Erie this summer]. They, however, do not represent the typical scientific meeting in any way. The research at larger national meetings (e.g., ESA, JMIH, SICB) feature the research of prominent researchers of all career stages and are not geared for undergraduates. They are large, intense, and are socially vibrant… most of which target graduate students, postdocs, and professors. With that said, undergraduate institutions often fall short of providing their students with opportunities to experience the academic culture, which includes attending large national scientific meetings.

My Experience as a Professor

I have none. But I want to take my students to a scientific meeting. We have some great early data from our first lab project and I’m lucky enough to have ample funds to travel w/ my students to a meeting this summer. What are some of your experiences with your undergrads? How did you go about prepping them for a different world? How did you, as a [untenured] professor, interact with your colleagues? Many questions here and I’m hoping to have some type of conversation on this topic.


10 Responses to “Taking Undergrads to a National Scientific Meeting”

  1. Terry McGlynn February 28, 2014 at 2:44 PM #

    I now am taking undergrads to national or international meetings about once per year.

    I think if the students didn’t personally know anybody there other than myself, that is a big challenge as a mentor. When that’s happened, the students plan their schedules and sit in on a lot of talks, and sometimes they make buddies with other people at the meetings. We navigate the meeting as a lab, going separate ways on occasion, but I try to arrange for us to have meals with a variety of colleagues and I introduce them to potential grad advisors.

    More often, because my undergrads do their fieldwork in an active field station, they have a built-in group of friends (usually a mix of undergrads, grad students, and postdocs) at the meeting. I introduce them around as much as I can, to colleagues that they didn’t meet at the field station, but just as often they are under the wings of grad students in other labs. Since most of my students are shopping around for grad school in other subfields (not the ecology of ants), we often see different talks and they often ‘network’ on their own with people who I don’t know too well.

    • Terry McGlynn February 28, 2014 at 2:44 PM #

      (by the way, the first link in the post is broken)

      • Matthew Venesky February 28, 2014 at 3:48 PM #

        Fixed. Thanks.

    • Matthew Venesky February 28, 2014 at 3:48 PM #


      Thanks for the thoughts. You hit the nail on the head w/ your thought on challenges when students don’t know many/anybody else other than the PI. I’m at an institution that only offers undergraduate degrees, so this was my main concern. I’m hoping that this new collaboration w/ a regional university w/ a MS program will provide me w/ opportunities for my undergrads to meet other undergrads/MS students that will likely attend the same summer meeting. Just curious, how do you handle after meeting social events, which often take place at bars? Two of my undergrads are sophomores and are under 21.

      • Terry McGlynn February 28, 2014 at 5:36 PM #

        Ah, the under 21 thing is rough. It’s been a while for me, because the median age of my undergrads is probably mid-20s. But as best as I can recall:

        I’d talk with my students in the morning about the plan for the day, including the evening. Usually there’s nothing that firm, but make sure the students know that some of the science and socializing happens in bars.

        Usually there’s one night that’s a student mixer. On that night, I part ways with my students, and they go to the student mixer and I head out with whatever friends/colleagues/people I wish to. One of the other evenings, I arrange for the lab to go out to a nice dinner with another lab, and that ends up being the whole evening. So those are two nights.

        I’ve noticed that sometimes my students (seem to, or report to) get quite exhausted during the meetings, and since they’re ‘on’ the whole day, they actually are exhausted and are looking forward to getting back to rest early to get ready for the next day. I always make sure that my students are welcome with me for every meal, if I go out to eat somewhere.

        Of course, one of the biggest parts of the meeting is spending time with people who I enjoy, and usually only see at meetings. So I have to somehow balance the needs of the students with my own, the student needs taking precedence. But, it often turns out that they’re just sick of me anyway, and it’s been just fine when I go out in some evenings to a bar, and they’re doing something else.

        I guess if you knew other people who had underage students going to meetings, a social network could start to be constructed before the meeting even began. That might make things easier, I guess, but I’ve never planned in advance like that.

      • Matthew Venesky February 28, 2014 at 6:09 PM #

        Thanks again, Terry. Very great advice on this.

  2. attheslac March 1, 2014 at 2:43 PM #

    I try to take students to a national conference each year. It helps to bring 2 students so they can room together if appropriate. it’s also important to pick a conference where there is good UG programming. Experimental Biology is very good in this respect: they have UG student travel grants, research awards, a designated UG poster session, a grad school fair, etc.

    I agree that it makes a lot more sense to take students who are 21 or older for reasons stated above.

    Meeting in the morning and again in the evening for a debrief is a good idea.

    I prefer taking my students to a big conference. Whatever you do, make sure you go to the first poster session with them. Their faces when they see hundreds of posters in the hall and the associated activity is a really fun experience. They do begin understanding how incremental gains in science advance our knowledge of a topic right then and there.

    • Matthew Venesky March 1, 2014 at 6:55 PM #

      I like the idea of the roommate comment. I currently have 2 males and 1 female… but I don’t which would be able to attend. I’ll probably only take them if at least 2 could go. It would be challenging to take a single sophomore (under 21) student and have it also be worthwhile for me also. Thanks for the thoughts.

      • attheslac March 1, 2014 at 7:08 PM #

        my SLAC has co-ed housing options, so you really don’t know until you ask.

        One more thing: For Experimental Biology, the Am Physiol Society has a housing clearing board for students. A couple years ago, my student shared a room with an UG student from Texas… cultural exchange guaranteed.

      • Matthew Venesky March 1, 2014 at 7:10 PM #

        Never even thought of that. Even more of a reason to bring them! Thanks.

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