I’ve become more enamoured with my job of late (because, primarily, I’m busier with it) but still, it seems I spend a lot of my time at my computer or in the lab - either way, I spend a lot of time with inanimate objects.
If, like me, you’re a bit of a people person, post-doc posts can feel a little isolating, especially if you're not part of a big lab, which is frustrating because as scientists we are building on others’ work and its always a huge boon to talk to other people doing similar work to help you look at things with a fresh perspective.
But in order to do this, you need to actually have an idea of the people around you, and it’s not always obvious to discover what folks are interested in/experts on by just looking at their publication history.
I myself am a whole-body anatomist working in a Cell and Development Department, and I don’t really have too much interest in the heavily developmental lunchtime talks that take place upstairs bi-weekly.
This has always been a bit of a problem here, especially as my last department was a very friendly, daily-tea sort of place, and my team at the Natural History Museum was an outreach team keen on break-out spaces, mind-maps and extended lunch breaks. But I didn’t want to lose my enthusiasm for my job: my actual SCIENCE job I’d been waiting for. What to do?
Why, set up a mini-sympoium gathering a bunch of like-minded people from the immediate area together, of course!
This was the idea hit upon by the amazing Natalie Cooper and I a little while ago – on my final day and her first in the Natural History Museum, London. I was going back into academia, and we were both new to London and felt getting to know the extended family of vertebrate researchers would be an excellent idea.
So over the last month, we invited people to UCL, scrambled around to find a lecture theatre to book (which, it turns out is as tricky as all my peers always told me it was), managed to find a way to order cakes and coffee (even more difficult) and on the 3rd of May we found ourselves introducing the first ‘London-ish Vertebrate Researcher’s Meetup’ (we really didn’t put too much effort into the name).
This originally was planned so mainly mammal workers were going to talk about their work in the hope of setting up collaborations, chatting about problems we were facing with our work, and generally generating new professional networks, but without the hashtags. But we soon found ourselves inviting so many people we had to alter the meeting so that people only had three minutes to talk about their work? Did it work? Yes!
So what did I learn from this fairly slap-dash endeavour?
1. Flash talks are a very good thing.
We really weren't sure this was going to work. At all. Initially this was going to be a small meeting and the flash talks idea only came around because we didn't not want to accept anyone who might like to give a talk. So we had almost thirty names down for a single afternoon.
Astonishingly, everyone was amazing at keeping to time. It really did seem, as Anjali Goswami tweeted, that three minutes was the optimal duration for a talk. OK, she might have been saying that sweetly, but three minutes was a great amount of time to outline what you were interested in, what you were thinking about looking into researching in the future, without getting bogged down with the complexities of the research itself - that was what coffee was for...
2. Coffee is also a good thing.
This was the opportunity for people to ask questions, and ask they did! The three minute introductions were useful for everyone to find out where people's interests where, but it also whetted people's appetites to know more.
3. Young researchers really want to talk about their work.
Obviously, but here was an opportunity to talk about recent work without the fear of it being torn to shreds by your supervisor's nemesis. It really was great to see so many people right at the start of their PhD/post-doc journeys wanting to show their work off and get people interested in future collaborations.
4. Ordering cake is a faff.
But a necessity.
5. The pub is a must.
Finally, this gave everyone a chance to talk a greater length about things that had piqued their interest. And happily, some of the more established professors, especially those recently moved to London, were complimentary about the meeting, as it gave them the ability to say "Hey, scientists in my city, this is me, this is what I do. Fancy a chat?"
Most of this was pretty obvious after attending vast international conferences, but there was something truly collegiate about organising a smaller affair, where everyone we met and talked with worked only (at most) a bus ride away, the antithesis of the three days spent at conferences where further collaborations could only be conducted via inbox alerts.
So, if you’re at your desk, feeling a little blue and it doesn’t feel like there are too many folks around you to enthuse you about your work, be proactive, book a room and get your network-face on. I can’t recommend it enough.