On 1-5 October 2019, I attended the CSHL Mechanisms of aging conference. It was a first for many reasons. It was my first visit to the USA. From visa application to huge airports, to wonderful two days I spent in Manhattan, to unhealthy fastfood chains - they were all new for me. It again made me realize what a wonderful career I have chosen. Apart from satisfying my scientific curiosity, thanks to this conference, I’ve taken a trip that otherwise wasn’t likely, visited the top of the Empire State building, visited Natural History Museum, seen Central Park!
Let’s start talking about the conference. It was way above my expectations. I think I can give 10 / 10. Still, there are things I’ll criticise. First, non-scientific parts:
CSHL Campus & Organization: As someone who spent METU many years, it is almost impossible for me to get impressed by any campus in the world. But you must see the scene here! Not just the scene, they also have a relatively affordable bar on campus ;)
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay on campus because of the number of attendees and they arranged accommodation in closeby hotels. Everybody shared their rooms with one more person. I thought that was a bit weird, especially considering the registration fee. A conference starting at 19:30 on Monday and continuing until Friday noon was 1234 dollars for students!! 1234 dollars!! It is almost like they didn’t want to make a calculation and randomly entered numbers :) As a result, the number of students was low. I am one of a few and my expenses were covered by my institute EMBL-EBI. If that wasn’t the case, it would be impossible to attend considering the registration fee + visa fee + flights!! The conference committee provides a limited reduction in fee for the students who submit an abstract but still it is not enough to increase the number of students. Anyway, I managed to attend this year, and I am sure it will be as expensive in future years but I still will try to attend! It was that good :)
Conference talks: As an important difference compared to other conferences I attended - the longest talks were just 15 mins. As far as I understand, invited talks were 15mins and selected talks were 10mins. Compared to 45min talks, these were much better! But of course only if the presenters prepared nice talks. If they just squeeze a 45 min talk into 15mins and talk like a rapper - nobody gets anything useful from this. The other issue is data visualization. A figure should be made keeping the purpose in mind! Some are for exploration and they can only be in SI for an article, some are for explanation & showing the results and would be placed in the main text of an article. However, I don’t think you can show the data itself in a 10min presentation!! And I think you shouldn’t, it cannot be understood unless people already know your work. The only way to explain a new concept in a conference that is very diverse in terms of topics and methodologies, the only way is to have summarized and abstract figures that are well labeled. People who considered these issues have made excellent presentations and they were very useful. I learnt a ton in just 15 minutes - and actually if these talks were 45 mins I would lose my interest since I don’t work on the same specifics.
There were 8 sessions in total with 2-3 invited and 8-9 selected talks. So, we are talking about a conference that starts at 9am and continues until 9-10 pm. It was an extremely tiring but equally informative conference. But I haven’t talked about the best part yet! This conference created an ideal environment for networking. Time allocated for lunch and dinner was long enough to meet and talk with new people (1.5h - 2h) and there were at least 3 occasions for networking (e.g. party, drinks & nibbles). Instead of small tables like in most of the conferences I attended in europe, they had large tables for ~ 6 people, so people came together and talked. They also arranged ‘meet the speakers’ sessions so that ~ 10 early career researchers can come together with world-renowned scientists.
Apart from all these, another impressive part was the poster sessions. Apprx 130 posters were presented in two days. As a result of this huge participation, it was a really nice, diverse poster session. It was both interesting to go around and learn what research has been conducted and also people who visited my poster made really good comments and gave some useful feedback. I had a chance to establish 2-3 collaborations thanks to these sessions.
Long story short, thanks to this conference, I have found the opportunity to meet a lot of scientists who have been doing really good work in this field.
Let’s also talk about the dark side of the meeting: what else have I learned?
I learned that the selection of posters / talks doesn’t particularly depend on the abstracts we send, but may actually be influenced heavily by which group we are a part of. There were some talks that shouldn’t be even presented as a poster (not because they are not interesting or low quality, it is just because it was too early for these projects), and there were so many posters that are or probably will be published in Cell or Nature, but were conducted in labs that are not in Harvard but in some modest universities in Europe. The second is, although people are always kind and nice to each other, I realized there is an immense competition between labs - which was very surprising to see. Still, eventhough there is a high competition, I believe they have a nice relationship and they all value scientific integrity. There were many unpublished work and they still presented. However, there were so many comments and questions that were raised just because people wanted to criticize the work, no matter if the point is actually valid. Unfortunate grad students had to gone through that on stage, that was the worst part. What else? Apparently, it is really difficult to survive as a postdoc in famous labs in the US! It seems like, postdocs who does not produce enough in a year can get fired easily. So, learning continues…