A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna, affectionately and efficiently known as EGU.
Over 13,000 scientists from across the world get together for a week to discuss the centre of the earth, far flung space and everything, literally everything, located in between. Seeing so many researchers together, in so much comfortable footwear and with such a wide array of backpacks, is a special experience indeed.
This was my second EGU, but my first as a grown-up scientist rather than a student. The first time was completely overwhelming, and I left thinking that mass meetings were not my scientific bag.
But this year was very different. I got some useful feedback on my work, met heaps of new people in my field, connected with some people I’d been longing to collaborate with, and re-connected with great old colleagues and friends.
I am a bit more experienced now it’s true, and know a few more names and faces. This year I was also fortunate to give a talk , and give it at the start of the week, meaning that a) my presentation was out of the way early and b) the few people who did see my talk had more time to catch me and ask questions.
But I was also more prepared this year, and I think I’ve figured out a few of the dos and don’ts (dont’s?) of EGU. They are, in the order that I thought of them…
EGU releases the conference schedule a couple of months in advance. You can then make your own personal program online from the absolute mountain of sessions available. Once you’ve made your personal schedule, you can download the app and have all the deets in your phone. I used all of this technology and it was great.
But even greater was a trusty paper timetable of the sessions I wanted to see, which I made one night with a supportive glass of wine. The paper version gave me a clear overview of what was on, while the app gave me all the info about particular talks and posters.
Mix it up.
The great thing about EGU is that there is all sorts of science going on, things you would not normally see at your more niche conferences. So go on, learn! I went to a cool session on volcanic research, some interesting talks on phenology, and checked out some posters on making scientific equipment. There are also heaps of special sessions throughout the week. Science communication workshops, grant preparation tips, analysis technique classes and small group meetings abound, and sometimes you even get free lunch!
The most useful, and enjoyable, things I got out of EGU this year were the conversations I had, and, at least half of them were with strangers! This is obviously terrifying, particularly if said stranger is actually a big wig in your field. But if you have a question, just ask it. Talk to people giving their posters, put your hand up at the end of a talk, and introduce yourself to someone if you recognise their name on their namebadge. You never know what game-changing answers you might get.
By this, I mean definitely say yes to that lunch or dinner invitation if it comes your way (see: Be brave). It would be an interesting study to see how many collaborations are formed in the restaurants and bars in Vienna, compared to the actual conference itself! Surely more scientific decisions are made in the pub.
Also, if you are on Twitter, check in with the #EGU conversation every now and again, to keep up with changes, or incredibly interesting sessions. Don’t forget to spruik your poster or presentation too, you’d be surprised how many extra faces you might see.
Pack snacks. And water.
EGU is a marathon, not a sprint. So put on those comfy shoes, make sure you’ve got an apple (or, who am I kidding, some chocolate) and a refillable water bottle to get you through each day. There was some free food available this year, but don’t rely on it, because scientists can smell a free biscuit from 1500 metres away.
Try to see everything.
If you do, you will drown in abstracts and conclusion slides. Take your time to peruse the schedule before you go (see: Be prepared), and pick the sessions that you really want to see. If there are two or more equally fascinating sessions on at the same time, note them down in your trusty paper timetable, and pick your favourite on the day. Trying to see 4 different talks in 4 different rooms over the same session time is stressful and will probably result in you missing all of them because you are lost in the Mensa-grade labyrinth that is the Austria Center.
Forget the poster sessions.
As a self-confessed poster snob, I have never been very good at conference poster sessions. This year I made a concerted effort to check out posters that interested me and talk to their creators, and it was awesome! I learnt heaps, met fun new people and was able to share my work as well. If you get there early, you can even grab a free drink or two before the thirsty hoards arrive.
Five days of science from 8:45am until 8pm is a pretty big ask, even if you have stocked up on snacks, water and have a kick-ass timetable. So make sure you take some time to see a bit of Vienna. It’s a beautiful city with some great museums, buildings and sausages. You can duck in and out of the city during the lunch break thanks to free Metro transport with your registration, or even sneak out for an afternoon to give your poor eyes a break from all the fluorescent lighting.
Bring your laptop.
Unless you want a bad SHITELLY score or you have a deadline during EGU, just leave your laptop in your hotel. You don’t want to be the person who flew all the way to Vienna just to check your email. You will learn more with a notebook and your phone, I promise, and your spine will thank you for it.