My First Conference Experience
"His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy..."
Eminem's "Lose Yourself" was the perfect description of how I felt as I was making my way to my very first conference.
In late April, I submitted an abstract to do a poster presentation at the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology (ISPNE) conference. The topic was going to be about “Diversity, Health, and Resilience: Taking Science Beyond Discoveries” and I felt that my pilot study fit in perfectly! For My Master's thesis, I was working to see if therapy dogs are an effective intervention in college students by decreasing biological stress. As I was writing my abstract, I was nervous. This was my very first submission for a conference. Once I submitted, time passed and I kind of forgot about the conference. But a month later, l I got an email a month later that my abstract had been accepted! I was ecstatic and my lab rejoiced with me as I announced it in our first summer lab meeting. I was to present at my first ever conference. I felt that this was a step closer to identifying as a scientist. I had three months to prepare myself: academically and mentally. The conference was to be held at UC Irvine from September 6th-8th. I got this, there was time. I was looking at how to get there should I fly or drive? I decided to fly. Where was I going to stay? Luckily, I had family in Southern California so I could stay with them. What was I going to wear? This meant a shopping trip for professional clothing! All these details had to be taken into consideration. And how was I going to design my poster? Should I keep the same layout or start from scratch?
There were multiple reasons I was nervous. I mean it was my first official conference. I entered late into the idea of research so I now had my first opportunity to present results on a pilot study I did in April 2018. I also never had the opportunity to speak to others in my field beside my lab. But like we say in Spanish, me puse mis pilas, which is a saying that means I got my act together. I was ready.
I arrived in LA the night before the conference and stayed with my family. The first day wasn't going to start until 2pm and that was also the day of the poster presentations, so I spent my entire morning in anxiety just waiting till it was time. Once I got to the Beckman Center, I set everything up and was standing at my poster. People were walking around looking at other posters and here I was a ball of nerves. Do I make eye contact? Do I not? Should I smile? What do I do with my hands? Do I look friendly? What do I say? What's my project? All these questions were racing through my mind.
And who would be the first person I speak to? The president of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology. She was interested in my project! So that was amazing! And throughout the rest of the time I also got a lot of foot traffic at my poster. I mean, people really like dogs. As I talked to more people, I realized the people knew my field! I didn't need to talk about my background or stress. All I had to do was a little rationale and the results.
One of the reasons I became a scientist is because I enjoy learning and I was able to learn so much from others in my field. The seminars were very informative and provided a lot of information that I was able to bring back to the lab.
It was a great experience for my first conference. I think I was overthinking the entire time. It is a different environment than when than when you speak in school or to other students in your program. The ISPNE conference was very focused on the topic that I was studying. However, I think it would be a different environment if one does a general science conference. I think you have to realize you aren't the only one feeling this way and it's completely normal. It also helps give you more confidence the more you speak about your science and your work. You are the expert here.
So future or current scientist, everyone has their first conference experience and it's normal to feel nervous. It's just a little step in the grand scheme of science.