A few months ago, with a little help from a graduate school travel grant, I attended the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. I was utterly astounded by what I found when I got there.
I had heard prior to my departure for D.C. that the conference would be huge. Like “20,000 people” huge. With an organization as diverse and far-reaching as AACR, it was to be expected. However, as with so many things in life, a big number like that doesn’t really register until you see for yourself.
Most days, on top of the vast array of seminars, lectures and forums, there was a combined poster session and exhibitor fair, located in the largest enclosed space I have ever seen, with the possible exception of a professional baseball stadium. Four parallel sessions of 360 posters were all up at once, with three blocks of lab supply and biotech companies spread out in between. Given that the largest scientific gathering I had attended prior to this was City of Hope’s Research Staff Organization Advance last year, this was all a lot to take in.
As was the setting for the conference. I had never been to D.C. before and was glad for the days when I had a few hours’ gap in my schedule to wander around the nation’s capital. Just as the size of a 20,000-person crowd doesn’t register until you see it, neither does the scope of the monuments and landscape of the National Mall. Topped off on the last day by the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, my time as a tourist was just as fascinating as my time as a convention-goer.
Which brings me back to the convention itself. I had thought that in many cases the opportunity to share your own work and to network with others who could appreciate it were the most important aspects of a conference trip. Both of these facets were certainly rewarding, but perhaps even more rewarding for someone still in the opening phase of earning a Ph.D. was the ability to see what all of the other presenters had to share. There is nothing like a few hours a day of talking to people about their new insights, keen observations and really cool ideas to drive your imagination and give you some new ideas as you plan the course of your own research.
I suppose my take-home message is: Don’t wait until you have most of your thesis research under your belt to go to an event like this. Of course, bring something unique of your own to present, but make sure you still have some time to explore all of the inspiration you will draw from those around you. It has been said that science is a team effort, and I will be the first to agree that a team 20,000 strong can accomplish a great deal indeed.