Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Diversity and Dissemination in Scientific Conferences

I've been swamped with service obligations these past few months, pretty much single-handedly organizing the SMBE Satellite Meeting on Eukaryotic -Omics at UC Davis (and a joint QIIME workshop) last month, as well as serving on the organizing committee for iEvoBio 2013. Both of these conferences aimed to emphasize interdisciplinary agendas (the SMBE meeting focused on high-throughput sequencing in eukaryotes, and iEvoBio on "big data" approaches in biology). But I'm consistently struck by the fact that interdisciplinary research never feels interdisciplinary enough--you're always wanting to reach a broader audience, connect with more diverse researchers, and spread the message of the conference as far and wide as possible.

Lately I've been reflecting on many issues I've encountered related to conference organization, diversity, and dissemination. Some things I've been asking myself lately as a conference organizer:

How do we balance out gender ratios and recruit female speakers? 

Female scientists represent a much smaller pool compared to their male counterparts. Scientists in general are over committed, and in my experience its been much harder to secure female speakers because they're fewer in number. For iEvoBio 2013, we decided early on that since we have an all-female organizing committee, we wanted all female keynote speakers (a nod to all the publicity about gender issues in science lately). We approached many different people on the iEvoBio speaker shortlist before finding our keynote speakers. In the end, the iEvoBio committee volunteered me (!) to speak because time was ticking and we just could not secure a second woman speaker. Senior women appear particularly trickly to nail down - we started sending out speaker requests back in Autumn 2012, a full eight months (!) before the event was happening, but still no dice. For the SMBE meeting, I had also started with an initial gender-balanced and career-stage balanced list, but as time went on this list became increasingly male-biased. So even if meeting organizers are committed to promoting gender diversity, you're grappling with many external factors that inherently seem to work against you.

How do we increase diversity at meetings? 

Increasing diversity encompasses a lot of things: ensuring a spectrum of career stages, balanced gender diversity, and participation from underrepresented groups. It has seemed much easier to ensure diversity of career stages (e.g. via travel awards for grad students and postdocs) than to ensure diversity in regard to gender and underrepresented groups. We had even advertised dedicated diversity awards for the SMBE meeting (travel awards targeting females and participants from underrepresented groups), but in the end we had a very small pool of applicants for these awards. I'm sure this is an advertising problem (I doubt I reached faculty at primarily undergrad institutes, or faculty at places like Historically Black Colleges), and a function of the gender/ethnicity ration amongst scientists, but overall I was left desperately searching for effective ways to increase diversity.

How do we advertise conferences? 

This is particularly a concern for interdisciplinary conferences (how do you recruit participants from disparate disciplines, when particularly when the organizers themselves are outside those target disciplines?) and newly established events (how do you get people to attend when new or one-off meetings aren't already marked on anyone's calendar). I really struggled with advertising the SMBE meeting, which fit both of these criteria. I sent out countless e-mail notifications to colleages and listservs, Tweeted meeting announcements, and blogged about the event. I've begged other people in my professional network to do the same. There's so many different channels but I never know what the right channels are--and there is often no way to gather data on what advertising strategies worked and what didn't. For advertising events, I often feel like I'm flailing around and hoping that people bite. How do you ensure that the information reaches the right eyes?

How do we minimize the administrative burden, particularly when scientist organizers have little/no admin support? 

After being buried by the administrating burden of the SMBE meeting, I've been mentally repeating that "I'm never organizing another conference ever again". I'm enthusiastic about meetings--I always learn a great deal from my peers and leave scientific events feeling inspired and motivated. I'm also perpetually optimistic that organizational and service activities won't be much of a time suck at all, as long as I gradually stay on top of things. However, I grossly underestimated the administrative duties for the SMBE meeting at UC Davis--travel reimbursements, room booking, alcohol permits, website updates, writing the program, sending e-mails, and collating abstracts--these all consumed my life in the weeks leading up to the meeting (and I was lucky to have help from our lab's admin support person). I worried about the meeting not running smoothly or the materials looking "thrown together" and having an unprofessional air, since I was doing all these organizational duties in my "spare" time outside of research. Perhaps running a meeting is easier for faculty members vs. postdocs (faculty may have admin staff of their own, but certainly grad students/postdocs who can share the organizing duties), but organizing even a small conference fundamentally requires a lot of admin duties regardless of the type of the event.

I don't have  answers to any of the above questions - only observations and thoughts based on my own experiences. I'd love to hear comments and suggestions from the community - please discuss!

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