AMSS 2018: Top tips

It’s always good to start off the New Year with new experiences. This year marked the first time that I attended a scientific conference: the 2018 Alaska Marine Science Symposium.  On top of it being my first time just simply attending a conference, it was also the first time I made and displayed a scientific poster.

Me and my first poster!

So who am I? I was a research fellow over the summer at the ASLC studying diving behavior of Steller sea lions, but I’m relatively new to the field. I have not published any papers, I didn’t take any science classes in undergrad, nor did I attend any conferences in my graduate years as I was stranded on a remote island for the majority of that time. Thus, being my first conference/poster session I did not really know what to expect and what to prepare for.

Now that the conference is wrapped up, I thought it would be helpful to impart a little of what I learned from this week, to help prepare other up-and-comers in the science world for what to expect (especially if you are a self-proclaimed socially anxious human who overthinks everything like myself).


1.When making a poster, it helps to critique other posters. This can be either a good critique like, “What do I like about this poster? What does it display well?” Or you can go the opposite route and ask yourself, “What do I dislike? Why isn’t this poster working? What works and what doesn’t work?” By starting with an idea of what fundamentally makes a good poster, it makes it easier to plan out both the design and the information you want to include.

2. When planning for a poster session, figure out what YOU want to gain from the session. In combination with the previous point, and something that I struggled with in the making of the poster, is that you should ask yourself, “What are the main things I want people to gain from this poster?” If you want feedback on methodology, focus your poster on that aspect, whereas if you want insight into your discussion points, make sure to highlight that part on your poster. By having your poster already focused on the points that you want to get across, and possibly want feedback on, it makes it easier to jump into a conversation and get responses on the certain things you want.

Your poster is a good way to have conversations with other scientists

3. When packing for a conference, ask people who have previously attended what to wear. This seems silly, but if you are like me, then you have this grandiose idea of what a scientific conference was. But, in reality, it isn’t as fancy as it sounds. I assumed everyone would be dressed in business attire, so I packed blazers and fancy pants. What I learned was that AMSS is a fairly casual affair. This isn’t to say that no one wore business casual, but in general it was perfectly acceptable to wear jeans and a sweater or nice top. So get the scoop on what is expected at whatever conference you are going, so you don’t feel out of place by either over- or under-dressing.

Going from Florida to Alaska weather meant packing a lot of sweaters!

4. Come with a list of people or organizations you want to meet. This was something that I did not even think about before I arrived in Alaska. It wasn’t until one of my supervisors asked me if there was anyone that I wanted to be introduced to, that I had a facepalm moment. Conferences are unique events that have a broad spectrum of scientists, educators, and stakeholders all in a singular place. It’s a valuable time to make connections and contacts that you can call upon later. Having an idea of who you want to get in contact with (be it people or organizations) is useful, especially if you have someone who is willing to help you make those connections.

5. Don’t feel like you can’t approach people. While it is great to have someone willing to help you make contacts, don’t get overwhelmed or be scared to introduce yourself to people who are of interest to you. If you saw a poster or presentation that intrigued you, definitely let people know. Especially if it is in a research area you are currently participating in or wish to explore in the future. For me, I’m socially awkward and it’s extremely nerve-wracking to just approach people, so I will admit I didn’t follow my own advice on this regard. But after having attended a conference and understanding the possible missed opportunities, I know this is something I need to work on.

The lab group together at one of the sessions.

6. Inspect the agenda prior to arrival. AMSS was a nice first conference because it is relatively small and most of the agenda items (e.g. workshops, presentations, posters) did not overlap, so I never really had to make the choice between going to one thing over another. However, in other, larger, conferences this might not be the case. It’s generally a good rule of thumb to just take a gander over the agenda for the week and make some decisions of where you want to be and when.

7. Be prepared to not understand things but embrace that. AMSS is a conference that covers a wide array of topics, from marine mammals and seabirds to ecosystem perspectives and human dimensions. There was lots of research that pertained to my field of study, but also, a majority of things that were presented were new to me. Some stuff just went way over my head. And while this can be overwhelming, it is also a great opportunity to make note of things you want to better understand and what methods or technology from other fields might pertain to things you are working on.

A presentation on communicating science via still photography.

8. Bring a notebook or laptop to presentations. The first day of presentations, I brought nothing. Big mistake. Having a notebook or laptop present allowed me to easily write down notes on things people were researching and also quick and easy to write down contact info.

9. Have fun. Enough said.

Written by: Ally Dubel


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