Tips for making the most of your time at ACTS and Washington, DC
I attended my first Translational Science (TS) conference last year. I attended for several reasons. First, the conference is held in Washington, DC. As a native of the Washington, DC area myself, any excuse to go back to see family and friends is always a welcome getaway from the grad school grind. Second….nope, I think that was it. There was only one personal reason.
Getting an opportunity to visit the DMV (that’s what natives call the DC metropolitan area – it’s DC, Maryland, and Virginia, not the Department of Motor Vehicles) is, of course, not the only reason to attend Translational Science. TS excels at providing the typical conference opportunities – professional development, opportunities to network and brush elbows with leaders from so many fields, opportunities to engage in discussions with peers and panels, and access to funders (looking at you, NIH program officers). Add all that to a trip to the DMV in the spring time (the best time of the year to visit, in my opinion), what’s not to like?
But Translational Science also provides so much more than that. When I attended my first TS conference last year, I was a second-year doctoral student in Health Education & Behavior, a NIH/NCATS TL1 trainee, at the University of Florida (UF). Our UF crew was large and diverse – or so I thought. My fellow TL1 trainees were from departments in Communications, Pharmacy, Bioengineering, Medicine, and Clinical Psychology, among many others. Some, like me, were second-year students; others were in MD-PhD programs and/or had already completed one degree and were halfway on the other degree. In my experience, conferences are generally by and for professionals in specific disciplines. Before the conference, we had talked about how Translational Science would manage to have something for each of us. TS, of course, exceeded our expectations. On the way back, most were talking about their favorite talk or poster, an old connection that was reignited, or a new connection that was forged. TS had somehow managed to have something for each of us. And therein lies my biggest tip.
Translational Science is unlike many other conferences – intentionally. It is the “Translational” conference for a reason. It brings together scientists, policy makers, educators, students, and other stakeholders from across the T0 – T4 translational spectrum. Take full advantage of this experience. Find talks and folks that do research outside of your field (trust me, it won’t be that hard). You never know what is going to spark that next brilliant idea of yours. Listen and ask questions. Engage in open conversations, and I am certain that TS will be your favorite conference in no time.
Don’t fret – here are some conversation topics to get you started, based on who you’re talking to.
- Talk to other trainees on how they manage their challenges in grad school (‘cause it ain’t easy) – time management, how they “manage up”, goal setting, and prioritizing projects
- Talk to early career investigators on how they transitioned from grad school to post-doc or faculty – lessons learned on the job market, how to choose/develop a line of research
- Talk to NIH and other agency personnel about your next grant ideas, fit, and ask where the money is
- Talk to established investigators about career advice, how to best prepare for post-docs, and direction of the science in their field
If all else fails, you can always rely on the tried and true approach and ask them about their research. Ask them what got them interested in the topic, how they got their start, and where their research is going.
After engaging in these conversations, be sure to leave the door open for future conversations – exchange business cards, emails, and even twitter handles. That’s one way to grow your social capital.
In addition to lively conversations:
- First time conference attendees may benefit from planning ahead to maximize their time in DC and at Translational Science. If you know you’re coming back at least for a second TS (looking at you TL1 trainees), don’t worry too much when choosing between the NIH, FDA, and Capitol Hill tours. There’s always next year.
- Plan ahead and pick out a few talks and posters you definitely want to attend. Choosing on the go can be overwhelming, and you don’t want to be on the other side after missing a great talk (trust me).
- Enjoying work travel is also important, but don’t worry too much about seeing all the landmarks in DC – trust me, you won’t get through that even in two years. So choose a few spots that are close by, and be sure to go. TS is held in the Woodley Park neighborhood, which is centrally located for so many DC activities. Smithsonian museums (which are all free) and the zoo are close by. Historical DC sites are nearby, and a short metro ride away (a train station is right outside the TS hotel).
- There is also an excellent food and cultural scene close by in Adams Morgan. If you need tips on any of these, and/or are in the mood for Ethiopian food – find me at TS 2020 or @Neooology for recs.
Most of all, I like Translational Science because it reminds me that we (researchers, students, policy makers, program officials, etc) all have something in common, that is deeper that our chosen field. The “Translational” piece gets us out of our silos and highlights our shared drive to improve the human condition in all aspects. Dedicate a portion of the conference to attend talks, visit posters, and go exploring. Allow yourself to get excited by novel science. Think about implications of others’ work for your own work. Translational Science provides us a unique opportunity to be confused and discover new things. So, again, what’s not to like about that?