Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Meeting is good

Once again I find myself making some excuse as to why it's been over a month since my last post. My first reason is I'm finishing up my current postdoc. My other reason is I've been doing lots of travelling. This is much more exciting as I've been finding out more about all the cool soft matter / stat-mech work that is going on in the UK. Some of which I will blog about in time. I've also learned that half the people in soft matter in the UK have worked at some point in the Netherlands, which is handy because I'm moving to the Netherlands!

Getting to the point

All this travelling is related to the topic I wanted to get to today - the value of meeting. I was started off thinking about this thanks to Alice Bell's article in the THE on the value of the seminar. Here Alice calls for seminars to be posted online, something I agree with very much, as a way to reach more people (and to improve the standard a bit). From my experience I've had to use hundreds of pounds of grant money touring the country giving the same seminar. While I value that experience - meeting the people in the groups, direct interaction and so on - it's a shame that people at other universities can't see the talk as well.

Of course if people knew it was online they may not turn up, but hopefully not. I might start sticking mine up here.

The more efficient way of way of reaching many like-minded academics is of course the conference. A good conference can do wonders for your creativity and enthusiasm, it can give you an instant snapshot of the state-of-art and you can meet future employers/collaborators.

But they can be a bit stuffy and long. And expensive. So I'd like to fly the flag for a third kind of academic interaction, the informal science "retreat". Not long ago we had our annual Cornish Soft Matter weekend. A small group of physicists and chemists from a couple of universities got together for a more relaxed meeting. Talks were projected onto a sheet, we were sitting on sofas or the floor, and the start of a talk would be delayed due to people making a last minute cup of tea (usually this was me). All this in a really nice setting.

The demographic was largely PhD students and postdocs, and everyone had to give a short talk. If it overran, fine, if people had questions they'd asked them right away. Students were encouraged to ask as many questions as possible and academics resisted the urge to tear anyone to bits with their sharpened critical skills.

Scientifically it's great. I got to hear from the people who make all these synthetic colloids that I always cite. Their concerns weren't always about phase diagrams or dynamic arrest, sometimes it was simply how much stabiliser or chemical X do I need to get the polydispersity down. These are problems I don't usually get to hear about and it's particularly nice to get it from the people at the coal face.

Because the atmosphere is more relaxed you can give a different kind of talk. In a conference you're so worried about being jumped on that you tend to take out all the personality from a talk, all the wild speculation and, well, then fun side of science. Here we could kind of let rip. If we wanted.

Socially it is also a good thing. It's easy to get a little isolated with your own little problem, especially when your doing a PhD, so it's nice to mix a bit. Science, like most jobs, requires a degree of networking. While I hate this word and all that it implies, these informal gatherings are a much better way to get to know people than conferences. People at conferences are always trying to look smart and generally suck up to the established professors. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.

A snappy conclusion

The main thing that made this meeting nice was the atmosphere. I highly recommend anyone to organise something similar if it's possible. Sure, it was no Copenhagen, but the science was good and it helped create that sense of being in a scientific community.

While it's not free it's a lot cheaper than a conference. I guess you don't need to go all the way to Cornwall but it is nice to get out the department for a couple of days - especially when you usually sit at a desk all the time.