At the Materials Research Society meeting in Boston last October, I had flashbacks of my first conference eight years ago. In 1996, as a new master's student, I went to the Conference of Metallurgists in Montreal, Canada, and was completely overwhelmed. I didn't know what to say or who to talk to — I just had the vague sense that somehow I was supposed to ‘network’. Instead, I hid from the crowds at the conference bookstore.
My refuge proved to be fortuitous. After browsing a bit, I realized the conference staff were still setting up the store. I offered to give them a hand. In return, I found an informal way to mix with scientists. The staff told me that I was not the only delegate who would rather read than talk to scientists they didn't know.
Since then, I have volunteered for a conference organizing committee and have led some student chapter meetings at conferences. And I continue to ask senior attendees how they arrived at their work, and what they like about it. It gets easier to approach new people with every conference. By helping out and talking to a few people casually, I learn more from conferences than just what is delivered at the podium. And I no longer try to hide in the bookstore.