Ask TON: Meeting Coverage

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

I will be attending a scientific meeting in a few months. About 6,000 scientists will be there. I’d like to come away with as many news and feature stories as possible. What is the best way to prepare beforehand?

Science journalist and author Carl Zimmer:

  • Prepare a strategy. Start with the subject areas that you’re really interested in. Read all those abstracts and find the ones you really want to catch. Make a spreadsheet and start plugging those talks in. You may want to get in touch with people in advance to get a sneak preview of what they’ll talk about.
  • Chances are, a lot of them are going to be lousy—and you’ll probably realize they’re lousy within a minute or two. So spend some time finding other talks at the same time that you might want to go to as well. (This works best if the talks are in nearby rooms. If you have to cross a convention center, the second talk may be over by the time you get there.)
  • Also bear in mind that if you know a subject really well, talks on that subject may be a waste of your time. Many times I’ve read an exciting paper in Nature, gone to a talk by the author, only to realize that the talk is just a quick summary of the Nature paper. Allow yourself to go to some talks about things you know nothing about, especially if they’re lectures that offer a big picture.
  • I’m generally not crazy about press conferences at meetings, unless they’re about something I’m already writing about. You’re in a room full of other reporters. Will you all write the same story?
  • Don’t forget about the poster sessions. Most posters are pretty sketchy, because they’re describing work in progress. But as you get to talking with people, interesting things have a way of popping up.

Science News staff writer Tina Saey:

  • The meeting’s web site is your friend. Most meetings of this size have an itinerary builder that allows you to search abstracts according day, time, presentation type, key words, authors or other criteria. I usually start combing through these abstracts a couple of weeks before the meeting and adding ones that interest me to my itinerary. Then I e-mail or call the authors or session organizers to let them know I’m interested in their presentation. Sometimes researchers will give you a sneak preview of what they are going to present, but more often I arrange to meet with them at the meeting. Be sure to exchange cell phone information so you can track them down when they are away from their office phones.
  • I also advise finding yourself a scientist buddy—someone you’ve interviewed before and get along with well is usually a good bet—and take them to lunch or coffee. Pick their brains about the hot new findings at the meeting. Some may even be nice enough to introduce you to their colleagues.
  • Some press offices are better than others at identifying press-conference-worthy research. If your meeting has a competent press office staff, they may also be able to help you track down researchers to talk with. Some meetings will hosts breakfasts or lunches for journalists to meet with the scientists who are officers of the society. They are great people to quiz about new developments in the field as they know everybody and may have been involved in selecting abstracts for talks.
  • Also, if you have a few days to spare before or after the meeting (I recommend before as my brain fills up fast during meetings) take a look at faculty at universities who are doing interesting work and ask them if you can come for a visit.

Science magazine staff writer Greg Miller:

  • Reach out to the organizers. Identify a few sessions that look interesting and get in touch with the people chairing them. They should know if any of the speakers they’ve invited will be presenting new and interesting work. If it’s a meeting organized by a scientific society, the people on the meeting committee (or press office, if there is one) may be able to help you flag promising sessions.
  • Make the most of previous knowledge. If you’ve written about this area of research before, search for topics and people you think are interesting. Check in with some of your past sources to see what they’ll be presenting. Even if it’s nothing earth shattering, they may know of colleagues with a hot new finding. Be flexible once you’re there.
  • Ask everyone you meet what’s the most interesting thing they’ve seen. If you pass a packed lecture hall with people trying to peer over the crowd from the doorway, be willing to scrap your itinerary and see what the fuss is about.
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