The meeting circuit

Some people expressed surprise that I was at the Midwest Zebrafish meeting. They have meetings about zebrafish? How weird. Only not. What I find weird is that people are unaware of this mundane part of the science experience, so I thought I’d briefly explain it.

Every sub-sub-discipline does this. There are zebrafish meetings, fly meetings, worm meetings, mouse meetings, bat meetings. There are meetings dedicated to specific diseases. There are meetings for organs and tissues: brain meetings, kidney meetings, hair cell meetings, enteric nervous system meetings, ear meetings. There are meetings dedicated to the mechanisms of vomiting. There are meetings with 50 attendees, others with 30,000. They are going on in every city of the country all the time. We are right there under your nose.

Why do we hold these meetings?

  • Practice. It’s part of student training.

  • Networking. Bringing together people with similar interests is a great way to make connections.

  • Sharing new ideas. Sometimes an experiment might not be right for publication, so you get feedback on preliminary results.

  • Inspiration. We learn all kinds of cool stuff we can try in our labs.

  • Good times. You know how nice it is to hang out with weirdos with the same interests?

Who gets to go? Anyone. They’re open to anyone willing to pay for registration (which may be a few hundred dollars). You don’t want to go. It’s all very esoteric. This is where we let it all hang out: talks are wall-to-wall high-density jargon in which we assume everyone knows all the basics, or even the advanced stuff. It’s great, but lay people will be bored or lost. This stuff is often so rarefied and narrow that not even science journalists will be interested. It’s often condensed down to 12 minute talks — kind of like blipverts for the most technical stuff.

Sometimes people might wander by the hotel we’re having it in — it happened last night. The poster session for the meeting was held in the atrium, and we had a couple of people stop by and ask what it was all about. That’s great! We had a nice conversation and showed off some of our videos. Most scientists are happy to talk to anyone about the weird stuff we’re doing.

Now you know what it’s all about. Tomorrow I get to go home after an intense weekend…and I get to repeat it again in July.


  1. robro says

    As one of those people who poked fun at the zebrafish conference, I would like you to know that I appreciate the need for such meetings. Highly specialized conferences occur in a lot of fields, of course, not just science. I’ve been to a conference for technical documentation and one for a specific style of technical documentation. They were thought provoking and provided lots of information on how to make our work more useful.

  2. blf says

    Of course, all those experimental subjects — files, worms, mice, etcs†, zebrafish, and besieged hotel atriums — hold their own meetings, with talks like “Taking the wrong turn in the maze: Disrupting carefully-done trials”, “Slithering out of the cage and fixing the notebooks”, and “New remote methods of scientist monitoring”. Plus the infamous “Beard beard beard”.

      † Etcs aren’t used much anymore, being mostly replaced by et als, but there are still the occasional, albeit small, meetings of etcs researchers.

  3. archangelospumoni says

    Drumpfheteers have meetings as well. In front of the tee-vee with a couple o’ six packs and “Farting with the Stars,” for example. Then for their natural history, The Flinstones. For Oceanography, Baywatch. See?

  4. blf says

    Don’t forget the drinking.

    A former colleague of mine once observed (paraphrasing), “If you can remember those weird drinks you had at the conference, you spent too much time at the conference and not enough money in the bar.”

  5. magistramarla says

    Latin teachers have some great meetings! We once had an ACL (American Classical League) meeting in Nashville, Tn. I don’t know how many in the horde know this, but there is a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. We Latin teachers and our spouses were allowed to have a cocktail party there after hours, wearing our togas and stolas!
    I’m retired now, but I miss those fun times.

  6. says

    The research conference I’m organizing will start in one week! And everything is almost ready! (which shouldn’t be confused with “almost everything is ready” ;-)

    Actually, we’ve been very bold and aimed at a heterogeneous public: like it says on the website, we’re aiming at bringing together researchers from two different mathematical tribes – algebraic topologists and representation theorists – “around common algebraic interests”. Each talk is 50 minutes long, and a good part of it should be accessible to a wider public (i.e. think of the other tribe). And we’ve been wildly successful, with almost seventy participants! The deal: fee lunches and a fancy conference dinner, for a registration fee of zero Euros. This is typical of pure maths meetings, but don’t ask me why (nobody would show up otherwise?).

  7. zetafunction says

    What @Ivo said, except I personally think 50 minutes is too short and 60 is much better. Plus, many European conference centres serve wine and beer at subsidised prices – and all of them buy the best espresso machines they can afford (and yes, that usually means free espresso).

    If you’re curious, you can check the best of them all, Oberwolfach in the Black Forest: a place where doors don’t lock (so mathematicians who loose their keys don’t lock themselves out), there are four free meals a day plus after dinner snacks, and the amenities include a snooker table, table tennis, fussball, and a music room with a baby grand piano. Plus (of course!) a huge library and big, chalk blackboards.

    PS I’m a bit envious of @Ivo because there aren’t enough algebraic topologists in my corner of the woods.

  8. felicis says

    The Polyamines in Parasites (specifically protozoan parasites) meeting… Every two years.

    I was only a lab tech, but helped with the conference management and was a general gofer – I think we had about a dozen people show up from around the world. I thought at the time that it was a little weird to have such a specific and small conference, but this is a good way for the people doing the work to occasionally meet each other in an environment to talk about their work (as opposed to more general conferences where it’s more difficult to focus on your specific topic…)

  9. KG says

    There are meetings dedicated to the mechanisms of vomiting.

    With practical demonstrations?

  10. screechymonkey says

    There are zebrafish meetings, fly meetings, worm meetings, mouse meetings,bat meetings

    The bat meetings take place at the same bat-time and same bat-conference room, but this year’s just wasn’t the same….

  11. williamhyde says

    A generation ago I attended a “6ka” conference, dedicated to the study of the Earth’s climate 6000 years before present. Most of us wore passes labelled “6ka”.

    It was held over a weekend, and in a suburban Ottawa hotel. On the Sunday the next room was packed with fundamentalist Christians including, if I heard correctly, some who spoke in tongues.

    As this was only Usher year 5996, I wondered if any would ask what our “6ka” badges meant, only to discover that next to them a whole room of heretics were studying the Earth as it was four years before G-d made it.

    William Hyde

  12. Johnny Vector says


    It’s great, but lay people will be bored or lost.

    Not just lay people! I remember an atomic physics Gordon Conference in the late 80s or early 90s to which they invited a famous particle physicist, just to mix things up. He spent 10 of the 20 minutes in his talk explaining this awesome trick called Separated Oscillatory Fields, and how cool it was that atomic physicists had come up with it. Well, yes, it is cool (it got Norman Ramsey a Nobel Prize, after all), but… dude. You’re in a room full of atomic physicists. We all already know everything* about the technique! It was quite amusing, really.

    *Some of the people in the room may not have known that Ramsey came up with the idea while lecturing about the effect of the hole in the center of a telescope primary**. But then, Dr. Famous Particle Physicist didn’t mention that either.

    **Because Fourier is everywhere!

  13. dvizard says

    I find conferences can be quite different in character. For example, the huge general assemblies which for grad students are more like school camp, where you mostly go to build a social construct with your lab peers and attend the conference party, and the senior scientists go to meet their scientific friends and decide behind-the-scenes things in side meetings, where everyone basically doesn’t care about most of the presentations at all except for a few select ones. Or the small 30-people meetings where grad students discuss creative ideas intensely one-to-one with professors. then go drink with faculty at night, and after 4 days everyone is worn out to death but full of ideas and some new connections (sometimes, also, enmities).

  14. dvizard says

    @Wiliam Hyde: why specifically 6ka? Was this kind of an unofficial standard for the field that everyone started to follow?