Conferences: The secrets of a standout seminar

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online

Break with the routine and discover how to engineer a scientific meeting that everyone will remember.

Africa Science Leadership Programme

Conference success is greatest when attendees and speakers spend time talking with one another.

A scientist with unlimited travel funds and time could easily spend every week of the year on the conference circuit. Nature's Events Directory, for example, lists an average of 250 meetings a month. But that same scientist could expect often to hear the same cast of speakers, giving the same talks, at multiple meetings in their field.

Organizing even a standard conference can be a monumental task (see 'Meeting magic'), but conference organizers can shake things up by assigning workgroups a specific scientific problem, hosting a workshop in a location that encourages thought and collaboration, and ensuring a diverse crowd in terms of gender, ethnicity, seniority, geography and expertise. “Just sitting in a lecture hall all day long is not inspirational,” says Helena Ledmyr, head of development and communications at the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility in Stockholm.

The size and goal of a meeting help to define it. Symposia tend to be smaller-scale versions of an academic conference, whereas seminars and workshops typically involve more discussion and participation by attendees. But before deciding on the size and aim of any meeting, an aspiring organizer must first consider whether there is an unmet need or desire for one at all, says Eileen Furlong, a developmental biologist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. One way to draw interest is to carve out a niche. This can be done by constructing a meeting around an emerging field of study, for example, and so creating a community of researchers with aligned interests. And it is key, say veteran organizers, to encourage interactions between those attending, and between attendees and speakers.

Meet me in St Louis

The topic idea for a meeting can come from the organizer's own interests. At Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, evolutionary biologists Joan Strassmannn and David Queller (who are married to each other) are interested in the definition of an 'organism'. It's not a straightforward question, notes Strassmann. For example, is a lichen one organism, or two or three? Strassmann and Queller have proposed that an organism forms when individual units, whether cells or multicellular structures, reach peak cooperation with minimal conflict between them (J. E. Strassmann and D. C. Queller Evolution 64, 605616; 2010). To encourage discussion around their idea, they invited a diverse mix biologists and a few philosophers to join them in St Louis for a workshop in 2015.

In the mornings, all attendees offered a 20-minute talk about their work. In the afternoons, they split into groups. Their assignment was to define and discuss a problem relating to 'organismality' — the extent to which something can be said to be an organism. Strassmann and Queller told participants that they weren't promoting their own theory of organismality, just presenting the problem. “If they came up with some other solution, that would be fine,” says Strassmann. Each group would sum up its discussions in a 10-minute presentation on the last day.

Strassmann spent weeks in the build-up organizing the attendees into groups. Her goal was to link people who would probably share interests. “We tried to have a core of two to three people on the same page, and others that would stir them up,” she says. At the conference, Strassmann and Queller floated between groups, providing a nudge when necessary.

Two years later, Judith Bronstein, who attended as an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, retains vivid memories of the organismality workshop. “I thought it was amazingly interesting, and it really, really worked — for the most part,” says Bronstein, noting that it was a risky approach. “Throw people in a pot and turn up the temperature,” she says, “and see what happens.” And, indeed, some groups gelled better than others, Bronstein recalls; she says that she was lucky to be in one with excellent interpersonal chemistry.

Strassmann aimed to get a paper from at least one group; in fact, the discussions inspired two, including one prepared by Bronstein's team (S. L. Díaz-Muñoz et al. Evolution 70, 26692677; 2016; and E. Libby et al. Preprint at; 2016).

Box 1: Meeting magic

Organizing and producing a meeting, no matter the size or length, is a service that faculty members can provide for colleagues in their discipline. Here are some things that you can do to ensure you have the right ingredients for a successful conference.

  • Focus on a topic that isn't already getting heavy attention on the meeting circuit.
  • Choose an eye-catching title to help stimulate interest and registrations.
  • Share the workload. Junior faculty members may want to recruit well-known co-organizers. Senior faculty members within or outside your institution can suggest speakers, and their connections and cachet may come in handy in getting those speakers to accept your invitation.
  • Include speakers from many backgrounds, and from locations near and far; and invite researchers from a variety of fields and at different career stages.
  • Keep a couple of local scientists on a backup list in case a speaker drops out at the last minute: emergencies happen.
  • See if you can get funds, a venue and logistical support from the organization hosting the meeting.
  • Apply for grants to offset some of the meeting's production expenses.
  • Give yourself at least a year and a half to put the conference together.
  • Schedule your meeting at least six months before or after any similar one.
  • Choose a relatively isolated location. This will stop attendees (and speakers) wandering off for lunch or in search of nightlife, and will encourage them to spend time talking with one another.

The workshop was built on principles that Strassmann had learnt when co-organizing a conference on animal-behaviour with Knowinnovation, which helps to set up and run workshops worldwide. The company, with teams in the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Spain, specializes in applying theories of creativity to scientific discussions, says chief executive Andy Burnett, who is based in Buffalo, New York. For example, it has run meetings in which scientists brainstorm new ways to achieve sustainable development, find original approaches to understanding the origin of life on Earth and develop better undergraduate curricula.

Coming up with these plans and theories requires an innovative approach. “The whole idea of giving presentations at conferences is, I think, of very limited value,” says Burnett. In fact, Knowinnovation often asks speakers to post a lecture on YouTube so that attendees can watch it beforehand, instead of filling the conference with presentations. The company also sometimes connects two or more researchers for conversations before the meeting. When everyone assembles at the conference, they're already prepared to delve into big problems right away. They work in small groups towards a goal, such as a report or research proposal.

Spark those conversations

Even at larger, lecture-heavy meetings, faculty hosts can find creative ways to get attendees talking outside the sessions. At the EMBL, for example, conference organizers are experimenting with 'speed networking sessions'. Scientists are organized into pairs, based on mutual interests, to chat for five to eight minutes before moving to their next partner. The conversations often continue throughout the meeting, and new collaborations have begun this way, says Jürgen Deka, head of external scientific training at the laboratory.

EMBL symposia also often include 'meet the speaker' sessions, in which speakers sit at a labelled table during the coffee break after their talks, so that others can join them and discuss their work. Certain poster presenters are asked to give 'flash talks' of two to three minutes. “It gives a very brief overview over many posters or scientists at the meeting, and is compressed into half an hour or so,” says Deka.

Africa Science Leadership Programme

Networking is a component of fruitful meetings.

Panel discussions are not optimal, says Furlong. “They're a bit too staged,” she says. “I often find they don't really have flow.”

It's also important to remember that scientific conversations can — and should — spill over into evenings and free time. Brittany Barreto, co-founder of the science-based dating-app company Pheramor in Houston, Texas, says that she made an error when co-planning a June seminar on molecular mechanisms of evolution in Easton, Massachusetts. She and her colleagues did not schedule a party, and after watching small groups head downtown to get to know each other after seminar sessions, she realised how important socializing is in building up professional networks. She adds that the socializing needn't be too structured; it could take the form of discount drink coupons for a local pub, a shuttle bus to town or a board-game night with drinks.

It's the people that matter

The speaker and attendee list is also a crucial element of a memorable conference, and experts say that it's important to think beyond the well-known superstars in a field. “Your meeting can only be as good as the people you invite,” says Strassmann.

If it is difficult to identify the right mix of speakers, a conference host may be able to help. For example, Keystone Symposia in Silverthorne, Colorado, encourages faculty organizers to put together a programme in which women and underrepresented minorities account for at least one-third of the speaker list. Keystone maintains databases of speaker sources, says chief executive Jane Peterson.

Diversity is about more than gender, ethnicity and geography, adds Mark Kozak, executive director at the Telluride Science Research Center in Colorado. He likes meeting organizers to bring in both senior and junior scientists and researchers from different disciplines. For example, Telluride recently hosted a meeting on photovoltaics that included theoretical, synthetic and experimental chemists; experimental and theoretical physicists; computational scientists; device physicists; and materials and process engineers.

“Each discipline brings to the table their knowledge of the question at hand, allowing the community to build a complete picture,” says Chad Risko, a chemist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, who co-organized the gathering. “The meeting was fantastic, as we had very active participation from everyone involved.”

“If you select the topic carefully, then people will come to the meeting even if it's at the North Pole.”

For the organismality workshop, Strassmann invited biologists with expertise in a variety of fields ranging from fungi, plants and invertebrates to cancer. That meant inviting people she hadn't previously known, and identifying them takes a lot of time, she says. She starts with a Google Scholar search, and reads all the papers by people she doesn't know. She also asks other scientists to suggest names.

Given the intimate, collaborative nature of the organismality workshop, Strassmann knew it was important to invite scientists who work well with others. She tries to determine whether researchers have this quality by perusing their web pages for studies that they've co-authored with other groups, or asking mutual acquaintances for information on good collaborators.

Location, Location, Location

The site of a conference can affect its success. Furlong recommends an isolated location to encourage speakers and attendees to interact at long breaks and meals. For example, she says, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York is a bit too far from Manhattan (almost 27 miles by road) for people to head there for sightseeing. Although it is important for a conference site to be relatively close to an airport or transport centre, the main attraction, says Furlong, should be the sessions, speakers and attendees — not museums or shops beyond the site. “If you select the topic carefully, then people will come to the meeting even if it's at the North Pole,” she says.

Burnett agrees. “Ease of transport is a factor, so being close to an airport is useful, but that doesn't mean it has to be a major city,” he says. “We always prefer a slightly more secluded venue, where people will be less likely to be interrupted.”

Yet it may be helpful to leave the venue behind, at least for a short time. Amy Shen, a chemical engineer at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Japan, likes to organize an excursion and lab tours between presentations. For a recent microfluidics conference, she had planned an outing to a beach and a local castle. Rainy weather prompted her to change her plans and take the group instead to a museum that celebrated traditional Okinawan lifestyles through tours and performances. “It's a good opportunity for people to mingle, get to know each other and discuss research in a more relaxed setting,” says Shen.

Author information


  1. Amber Dance is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.

Author details

Additional data