Scientific meetings are a coming together of great minds, says Andrea Bauerfeind, CMP, Director of Meetings and Conferences at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).

Her organization plans 30-35 Science Research Conferences (SRCs) annually to promote research and education in biological and biomedical sciences. These are small-group settings in which scientists, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students discuss scientific advances and share cutting-edge research through lectures, poster sessions, and informal discussions.

Recently, Catalyst talked to Bauerfeind to learn more about what unique challenges scientific events pose to planners.

What would you say to someone who thinks scientific conferences must be dry and boring?

It might look like that from the outside, but you should read the meeting evaluations! The scientists who attend are super fascinated by the science itself, and they have the best time. They sit around in a room all day listening to a lecture that has one PowerPoint for all the important points and they love it; it’s what they ask for.

It doesn’t necessarily work when you try to spice things up, as most want to focus exclusively on the conference content. Outside of conference hours, attendees may go on a hike, and one group formed a band and plays when they’re at conferences. But most find the idea of innovative meeting concepts, such as anything but classroom or theatre-style seating, almost disruptive to their learning. They’re after the exchange of ideas. They’ll also pose for a class photo because there’s a great sense of community, but other than that, it’s a coming together of great minds.

How are scientific meetings different from corporate meetings?

Our SRCs provide opportunities for small groups of researchers in specialized biological fields to share information, foster collaboration, and mentor students. Conference ideas are submitted to our advisory committee and if accepted, we organize the conference. Examples of our 2020 conferences include “The Cell Signaling in Cancer Conference: From Mechanisms to Therapy,” and “The Skeletal Muscle Satellite Cells and Regeneration Conference.”

Other differences between our conferences and corporate conferences are:

  • Scientists use a lot more poster boards at our conferences than you see at other types of conferences because they’re presenting research. These take a huge amount of space and might require a separate meeting space. Scientific societies can be space hogs in that respect. I haven’t seen this in my former planning jobs.
  • The majority of content for our conferences are driven by abstract submissions summarizing scientific research that are then peer-reviewed by a committee.
  • As in academia, the pressure on scientists to present and publish is huge, and our conferences give presenters a platform to get the word out about their research and make a mark. Presenting at scientific conferences may allow scientists to publish in an affiliated journal or for their research to be featured in the official conference proceedings.
  • Our conference organizing committees raise sponsorships for speaker reimbursements and travel grants. They submit grant applications to entities such as the NIH and NSF that support certain research areas. While corporate conferences raise sponsorships to offset general meeting costs, the fundraising by our committees goes straight to the conference participants.
  • We have a number of volunteers involved in our conference planning. These are leaders in their field, who suggest the topics, select speakers, choose the location, do the program scheduling, and so forth. The conference content is handled exclusively by these volunteers; we handle the operations and infrastructure, financial aspects, contracts and so forth.

What are the challenges related to conferences in this field?

The growth of fake conferences is a problem in the scientific field. These organizations provide a platform for a conference, but the research is not peer-reviewed, and the arrangers don’t vet the validity of the science. They’re for-profit and really just money-making machines. Again because of the need to publish, sometimes scientists get caught in this. It doesn’t affect us, but it affects the industry.

Small meeting sizes are another challenge. With attendance being small, you must keep an eye on the numbers. Since these types of conferences are modest in set-up and onsite services, there often is nothing you can cut to reduce costs. An unexpected shortfall in attendance by just a few participants is hard and often impossible to balance budget-wise.

What was a memorable conference you helped plan?

My first conference at FASEB—The Gastrointestinal Tract Conference held in Steamboat, Colorado. It was a remote location for me and offered an all-inclusive, with lodging and three meals a day on the premises. This is the group with the band, and like many other scientists, they don’t want to go out much. They were so committed that they had T-shirts made up for the event. The connection they had among each other blew my socks off and set the stage for how I work with our conference communities.