Toward a More Inclusive Conference: A Practical Guide for Trainees, Mentors, and Program Organizers
Creating an inclusive conference environment depends not only on the conference organizers but also on the participation of trainees and mentors. However, for some trainees, the traditional scientific conference experience may seem intimidating and exclusive. We all can play an active role in shaping the landscape of future meetings. The current environment of virtual meetings presents a timely opportunity to address this issue and take practical steps toward fostering a more inclusive conference experience for all. These practices also have great potential to inform the planning of future in-person meetings to cultivate a sustainable culture of inclusivity throughout the scientific community. Here we provide practical advice for trainees, their mentors, and conference organizers to help make meetings more inclusive, beneficial, and enjoyable for all.
If you have ever been curious about the excitement of attending scientific conferences, this section of this article is for you. The scientific conference plays an important role in the science community because it fosters a culture that thrives on deepening and expanding one’s knowledge of the research landscape in a given area. The scientific conference provides a unique opportunity to be in community with others who are studying similar or different aspects of an area of interest. Attending conferences is an important aspect of building the foundations of a young scientist’s career, no matter what their intended career path (e.g., academia, education, industry, science policy, or advocacy). However, conferences can also appear as daunting events for young scientists, especially those belonging to underrepresented and/or marginalized groups. The sometimes insular nature of some conferences can cause individuals to question whether the conference experience is for them and/or how they fit into the overall science community and culture. In this article, we share a few thoughts and suggestions that can help you navigate the scientific conference successfully.
Demystifying the conference experience. When facing a daunting task like attending an event that advertises participant numbers in the high hundreds, thousands, or even ten-thousands, it often helps to understand the landscape. At most scientific conferences, you can expect to be surrounded by a mix of heavily curated research, displayed for public consumption. Some conferences also specialize in the sharing of preliminary work, and these tend to be smaller, more intimate conferences that allow for maximum benefit from participant feedback. Whatever the size of the conference, it is important that you make the best of all that the conference experience has to offer.
Tips for leveraging the conference experience. Create a plan. As scientists, we can appreciate the value of a solid plan/approach. Conferences usually publish their programs in advance on their websites (for virtual and in-person meetings), but at some in-person meetings you can also get a paper program at check-in. Take some time to look through the program and take note of the different events (e.g., opening ceremony talks, minisymposia, poster session presentations, and exhibit hall sessions). Using the program, you can plan out your time wisely for the duration of the conference.1
You also want to keep an eye out for social events, as these are a great way of meeting peers at your career level, connecting with potential future mentors, and networking for your next career stage. Many conferences schedule networking and social events and they are perfect settings for building community and even connecting with potential future collaborators. If you are attending an in-person conference and you already know other participants, you could also try to plan a group outing where you go sightseeing together. Take advantage of everything around you, especially if you do not travel often. A virtual meetup is also an option if you plan on attending the meeting remotely.
Scientific conferences can seem a bit intimidating, especially if you are planning to attend by yourself, but you should know that the more you immerse yourself in the conference experience, the harder it will be to feel alone or without community. ASCB and EMBO have many great events during their annual conference and provide a number of opportunities and resources to help young scientists like you get involved and attend. For example, the ASCB Women in Cell Biology (WICB) Committee and the Minorities Affairs Committee (MAC) offer a number of community-building activities through multiple panel discussions followed by themed networking events. Importantly, these events are scheduled in both the virtual and in-person meeting settings and have proved to be effective toward maximizing interactions among attendees with common interests.
Benefits of attending a scientific conference. Preparing to attend a scientific conference can present many career development opportunities, from crafting an excellent poster and an attention-grabbing elevator pitch to developing effective networking strategies.2,3 The scientific conference presents a great impetus to work on perfecting one’s elevator pitch, which can be used as a verbal business card. It can also be an excellent exercise to gain constructive feedback from your mentor.
Similarly, the scientific conference can be a great way to get a fresh perspective about your research. Through proactive networking, you could also use this opportunity to identify potential graduate school or postdoctoral mentors, meet contacts for your next career stage, or learn more about other types of scientific careers. In these tech-forward times, conferences can also be helpful in building an audience or following for your work and in honing critical skills, like giving engaging presentations.
As experienced scientists, research mentors have a deep appreciation for all of the great benefits an inclusive scientific conference has to offer. The scientific conference is an ideal venue for professional and career development for more senior scientists, as well as an opportunity to actively engage with early-career trainees in a productive manner to enhance the mentee experience and their participation in this important scientific activity. It is also a great place to recruit students and postdocs for your lab. ASCB poster sessions that feature MAC members also provide a place to identify and recruit potential faculty colleagues from groups historically underrepresented in science.
Maximizing pre-meeting activities. Mentors often have a full schedule of a meeting that can be shared with lab members ahead of time. The schedule can facilitate appropriate planning, budgeting, and coordination of subsequent activities needed for abstract, travel award, and/or scholarship application submissions. Conference activities can also be used to create working timelines around preparing abstract and travel award applications. Mentors can further use the pre-conference period to help trainees set realistic goals and communicate expectations for their research plans. Preparing for conferences also provides a mentor multiple opportunities to share constructive feedback with mentees about their work.
Strategies to increase participation and promote inclusion of underrepresented individuals at scientific meetings include encouraging mentee participation in workshops and special interest group meetings and encouraging trainees to apply for conference awards/scholarships (e.g., travel or childcare grants managed by the MAC and WICB, etc.). Senior mentors can also use their expertise to nominate fellow Persons Excluded because of Ethnicity or Race (PEER)4 scientists for mentoring and for keynote, plenary, and special lectures at meetings. These strategies can greatly increase the participation, diversity, and inclusivity of scientific meetings.
Enhancing participation. Participation of experienced lab members can be enhanced through active networking and the formation of new collaborations and opportunities to mentor junior trainees. Helpful suggestions include mentors asking senior lab members to complete evaluation forms after visiting posters and attending talks. This encourages the conference coordinators to propose popular sessions in the future, as well as reinforcing the need for recurrent sessions that feature scientists from underrepresented groups. Mentors could also encourage trainees to attend the conference, even if they are not planning on presenting, especially in virtual conference settings because registration and travel costs are often reduced. Trainee participation helps to maximize the lab group’s overall scientific conference experience.
Post-meeting activities also enhance the meeting experience. Consider scheduling a post-conference meeting to discuss all of the meeting highlights with the rest of the lab or department. Conference participants can use this opportunity to discuss favorite talks, feedback received during presentations, future research directions, and new collaborations. Post-conference sessions help to foster an open forum to discuss and share experiences from the conference, which can reinforce a sense of validation, encouragement, and belonging. An additional bonus of virtual scientific conferences is the accessibility of conference presentations posted online for viewing after the meeting.
What can organizers do to create an inclusive conference? Planning committees spend months organizing annual conferences. From finding the keynote lecturer to organizing minisymposia and poster sessions, the organizers do their best to make the science and featured activities as diverse as possible. Here we highlight action items that conference organizers can use to help create an inclusive conference experience.
Cast a broader net. Although many scientists know the names ASCB and EMBO, many trainees are unfamiliar with these organizations and their many available resources. To encourage representation at scientific conferences like the ASCB|EMBO meeting, organizers could consider extending their reach by leveraging connections with college student chapters, minority-serving institutions, and outreach programs and using databases of underrepresented scientists (e.g., WICB’s Speaker List, MAC’s Speaker List).
Spotlight first-time attendees. To increase inclusion and active participation, as well as retain new first-time attendees for future meetings, small additions such as the use of name badge“first-time attendee” ribbons can be easily implemented. The distribution of the ribbons could be managed during registration or check-in at the conference. One ribbon could be attached to the name badge, and a second ribbon placed on the participant’s poster board to increase visibility. For virtual meetings, a special banner or symbol can be displayed on the screen of first-time attendees to facilitate easy identification and encourage participant interaction.
Encourage informal discussions. Because large conferences like the annual ASCB|EMBO meeting can feel overwhelming to first-time attendees or PEERs, it is important for organizers to consider increasing informal interactions. For example, hosting a pre-meeting meet-and-greet for first-time attendees or attendees traveling alone. This would give attendees an opportunity to meet new people and find peers or a “conference buddy.” However, a meet-and-greet event could be a daunting activity in and of itself, with potential for further isolation. Therefore, it may be beneficial to incorporate more “artificial” interactions that will facilitate new meetings between people who may not have naturally interacted (e.g., “speed-networking”). Additional informal interactions include ice breaker sessions, scavenger hunts, or ASCB’s Mentoring Round Table and Scientific Round Table discussions.
Many of our suggestions can be easily implemented in scientific conference plans. Strategies like the ones discussed throughout this article can greatly influence the success of societies like ASCB to foster an inclusive community through the scientific conference. We can each play an active role in shaping the landscape of future meetings, and the opportunities to get involved are plentiful. We encourage you all to participate in making conferences like the ASCB|EMBO annual meeting a truly inclusive experience for everyone.
1Quarmby L (2009). How to get the most out of the ASCB Annual Meeting. ASCB Newsletter 32(8), 22–23.
2Schachter B (2017). The perfect poster: let your objective, message, and audience shape your presentation. ASCB Newletter 40(5), 12–14. https://www.ascb.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/june2017wicbcolumn.pdf.
3Atkinson S, Ligon L (2014). Perfect pitch: getting your message out in two minutes. ASCB Newsletter 37(3) 7–8.
4Asai D (2020). Race matters. Cell 181, 754–757.
About the Author:
Raz Bar-Ziv is at the University of California, Berkeley.
Fadie T. Coleman, Ph.D. – Boston University School of Medicine, MA – MAC
Eavan J. Donovan - Columbia University, NY – COMPASS
Chantell S. Evans, Ph.D. - Duke University, NC; WICB Committee – WICB
Dana Lynn Koomoa-Lange, Ph.D. - University of Hawaii at Hilo, HI – MAC-FRED mentee
Michelle M. Martínez-Montemayor, Ph.D. - Universidad Central del Caribe-School of Medicine, PR – MAC