A few weeks ago I attended the joint annual meeting (JAM) of three Entomological Societies: British Columbia, Canada, and America. I was able to attend because it didn’t require any major travel, and I also was able to keep other costs to a minimum.
As someone starved for academic interactions (except via social media and the internet), the Vancouver JAM ranks very high on my list of great ones. I don’t normally like huge conferences (this one had an attendance of 3,800+), but as big conferences go, the Vancouver Conference Centre provided an excellent venue where it was surprisingly easy to run into old friends. Consequently I missed a lot of talks as I was constantly running into old friends and colleagues. An added bonus was sharing a room with my very good friend Ken Raffa. As is always the case with these big conferences, I also missed a lot because conflicts are unavoidable with numerous concurrent sessions every day. For someone in early or mid-career, it can get extremely frustrating. I had 35 years or so to figure it out, and at this point, I am more interested in social interactions than in hard science (although I really enjoy watching student presentations – they seem so much more sophisticated now than in my days).
In 1978, I and one of my course mates in the Master of Pest management Program at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Tom Ward, drove to Pullman, Washington, to attend a relatively small meeting on lodgepole pine (I was writing my MPM project on pests of this species). On the drive to Pullman we almost ran out of gas because we decided to enjoy Washington State’s back roads! At that meeting, I met some of the leading researchers on mountain pine beetle, all of whom seemed like demi-gods to me (e.g., Les Safranyik, Gene Amman)! I got my first lesson that entomologists are in fact incredibly friendly and accommodating, and I have enjoyed seeing this repeated again and again throughout my career. It is indeed a privilege to be an entomologist.
My first large conference was the Entomological Society of America meeting in Atlanta in 1980. I was a wet-behind-the-ears PhD candidate and had been sent as the only representative from SFU. Consequently I felt somewhat intimidated, and spent the first couple of days wandering around trying to muster the courage to speak to someone – anyone! In January of that year, I had visited University of California Riverside, taking advantage of a holiday trip with Art Stock, another student in John Borden’s lab at the time. We got the opportunity to visit Tom Baker’s lab, and on that visit I had met Bas Kuenen, Research Scientist, USDA-ARS. Through Bas I got the opportunity to meet some of the emerging pheromone-elite linked to Tom’s lab (I later visited Tom Baker’s lab again, this time with Jon Sweeney, (CFS, Fredericton, recent recipient of the ESC Gold Medal), and I have enjoyed re-connecting with Tom at numerous conferences since). I was mainly interested in bark and ambrosia beetle research, however, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and at a mixer marched up to Gerry Lanier, Cornell University, who was one of the leaders in the field at that time. His friendly response reaffirmed my first impression of a very inclusive discipline, which has been borne out at every meeting since then. These encounters also demonstrated to me the importance and value of networking, as I was later able to communicate and cooperate with many of the people I met throughout the years. Some of them became important mentors and many became friends to varying degrees.
Small, focused conferences make things a lot easier. Large conferences tend to have numerous concurrent sessions, making it virtually impossible to catch more than a fraction of what you might want to hear. At my first number of such meetings I would write out a schedule and run around like a chicken with my head cut off to hear all the talks of direct relevance to me. Eventually I realized that I tended to go to talks on topics that I knew fairly well, so at some point I switched strategy. I started going to sessions instead of talks, and by doing that, I reduced my own stress level, and I got to hear about research that I would have been unlikely to seek out otherwise, i.e., I was truly learning new material. The poster sessions are often quite rewarding as well, and you can often chat with the author(s), which enhances the experience. I would still try to attend talks to support students or colleagues, but to a much lesser extent. I believe that the change helped me move to a more ecological approach to my own research, rather than the purely applied mind-set I had operated under earlier. I think that this re-invigorated my research, hopefully making it better.
My favourite conferences over the years have been IUFRO (International Union of Forestry Research Organizations) working group meetings and Western Forest Insect Work Conferences (WFIWC). Not because they are ‘work conferences’, but because of their moderate size. A typical IUFRO meeting has 50-100 attendees, while a WFIWC may be attended by as many as 150-300, depending on location. Unfortunately many of these have occurred during semesters when I have been occupied by teaching duties. Consequently I have been unable to attend more than a handful, including a IUFRO session in 2005 that I organized myself (with a little help from my friends). I have only attended one World Congress of Entomology (Hamburg 1984), even though they have often been in exciting places like Iguazu Falls, Brazil, Brisbane, Australia, and Durban, South Africa. I don’t really feel that I have missed out, although it would of course have been interesting to have visited these countries (which has nothing to do with conferences).
Many researchers continue to go to conferences long after they retire. My recent positive experience at the Vancouver JAM makes me wish I could follow suit, but the fact is that it would be very hard for me as a true retiree (i.e., someone who does not just continue to work for free after retirement) to justify the considerable expense. I will still be able to attend local conferences, like the Entomological Society of British Columbia. I have one more WFIWC to attend, held in Alaska, which I will be attending to give a talk associated with receiving an award. I can’t really pass that up, can I?