Organising a Conference

By Alexander Koch

The two-day conference showcased presentations and posters by students from the London NERC DTP and the Imperial SSCP DTP

The two-day conference showcased presentations and posters by students from the London NERC DTP and the Imperial SSCP DTP.
Image by Claire Asher.

This September, the first student-led joint-DTP interdisciplinary conference between Imperial SSCP and London NERC DTP was held at King’s College London. The organising committee consisted of eight students, four from Imperial College and four, including myself, from the London NERC DTP.

For me, the main reason for signing up to the organising committee for an inter-DTP student conference was the prospect of glory an exciting learning experience that might prove helpful in my post-PhD life.

Our first team meeting somewhat resembled that between a supervisor and a fresh PhD student; a vague exchange of ideas. We all knew there’ll be a conference in a few months time – we didn’t really know how to get there, how committed each of us were and – most intriguingly – how much money there was available. That was crucial, because one point we all agreed on from the start, was that the conference had to be free to attend for all students and supervisors. So we wandered off on the search for suitable venues. Only to realise why conference fees are as high as they are…

We realised we had to focus on less cost intensive options (but still with enough room to host our conference) and it quickly came down “London’s most central university” – King’s – as the preferred conference venue. Around that time we were also given a budget, so we were able to start to sketch out a first draft of the conference format. Through animated discussions of the wildest ideas; such as parallel sessions, BBQs, comedy shows, and hold your breath: 3-minute thesis competitions; we slowly meandered towards a plan. We set up individual tasks to create a conference website, an email address, a schedule (only to then ignore it for most of the time), information material for potential sponsors, and so on. Some of these tasks turned into more of a group effort, like finding conference sponsors and keynote speakers.

The conference included two poster sessions as well as talks.

The conference included two poster sessions as well as talks.
Image by SSCP DTP.

Tallying up our estimated expenses showed that a big chunk of our budget would go into catering (BBQ’s in London aren’t cheap hey…) and the remainder would not suffice for the planned evening science comedy event with Steve Cross. But finding conference sponsors turned out to be more challenging than expected. The partner organisations of both DTP’s were already fairly involved into sponsoring different aspects of the training programme so we had to turn to other organisations that were in one way or another affiliated with the SSCP or London DTP. Most of these organisations were interested in the conference, but not able to contribute with a sponsorship. Luckily the management of both DTP’s agreed to provide an additional “emergency” funding to save the conference.

Should presenting at the conference be mandatory or simply “encouraged”? Our feeling was that it should suffice to encourage students to present a talk or poster, despite the risk that some might not feel particularly drawn to the idea of presenting to their fellow students. Further discussion with the DTP management however led us to change our position, which inevitably led to some confusion not just between our fellow students but also in the organising committee. The main lesson I (and probably the other seven committee members) learnt from this was to clarify positions and expectations in the early stages of planning, and certainly before communicating anything to the attendees.

The length of the presentations was also one of the trickier things to decide. Too short and there will be no time for any explanations of interesting findings, make it too long and there will be no time for questions about those interesting findings. Parallel sessions are the obvious solution, but they would split the audience, and in the worst case leave one presenter with only a few listeners. Eventually we settled on a 10-minute presentation plus two minutes for questions – leaving enough space for 38 presenters. After the submission deadline, Lucy then had the pleasure of organising the submissions into groups of 6 to 7 speakers.

Finding suitable keynote speakers also proved to be a surprisingly challenging task. It didn’t make much sense to us to have someone talking about one specific scientific topic at an interdisciplinary conference. Since we were all so-called “early career scientists” we thought it would be a great idea to have some “late(?) career scientists” talking about their scientific lives, and some of their career-defining moments.

Prof. Chris Rapley gave the first Keynote speech of the conference

Prof. Chris Rapley gave the first Keynote speech of the conference.
Image by Daniel Hdidouan.

We were lucky with our first approach, Prof. Chris Rapley from UCL immediately agreed to give the keynote speech on the first day. Finding a female counterpart, however, proved to be more difficult, not because there weren’t many great contenders on the table, but rather because they were all incredibly busy. With only six weeks left, one of our co-organisers, Dan, suggested Elisabeth Surkovic from the Royal Society to give us insights about her experience of “the corporate world” – a decision that proved to be the perfect choice.

Despite our many different personalities, we worked surprisingly well as a team, especially considering everyone of us each had their own PhD work to tackle while organising the conference. Working in such a large group always means you need to listen to other ideas and to negotiate compromises, not least when deciding in which pub to hold our reunion.

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