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A conference of our own

Setting up a brand-new student-run conference isn’t easy, but for Adam O’Connell and Reaal Khalil, it was an opportunity to develop skills that a standard physics degree course just doesn’t provide. Here, they reflect on their experiences.

Last year, as we entered the second year of our degrees, it became apparent that something was missing from our student experience. True, we had busy schedules full of lectures, labs and tutorials, and we were learning the essentials that future scientists would need to know, but there’s more to being a scientist than knowing the books inside out. We also have to be able to communicate, collaborate with others and maintain that childlike curiosity we are all born with. Our course wasn’t teaching us these things, and they are not something you’ll find in a library, either.

This isn’t really the university’s fault, or the department’s, because these skills are among the hardest to teach. To really develop them, you have to practise, learn about your weaknesses and be open to making mistakes. So we decided to create a way for undergraduate students to do just that: to practise sharing their work, in an environment filled with other interested students, and without the pressure of it being a graded part of their degree.

This idea was the beginning of IN[SCI]TE, a conference run by and for undergraduate students, with undergraduates as speakers and attendees as well as organizers. The name comes from the conference’s mission to promote interdisciplinary science, technology and engineering, but we quickly learned that it takes a lot more than a great idea and a great acronym to host such anÊevent.

When we started out, we had no sponsorship, no speakers and no attendees. In fact, for the first month, we didn’t even have a name. Deciding on a name was fairly easy, we set up a committee and drew on all science students’ love of puns, but we soon learned that getting any of the three big things requires the other two. Companies were reluctant to sponsor a conference with nobody going; speakers were wary of signing up to talk at an event that had never happened before; and potential attendees were understandably cautious about buying a ticket to an event that didn’t even have a venue.

Thanks to this three-way chicken-and-egg problem, it was a real struggle to get things going. It’s a shame there isn’t more support for new ideas like this at universities, even just a small fund or university recognition as a proper organization could have really helped us with advertising and getting sponsorship. Academic staff certainly seemed in favour of the idea when they found out about it, and many thought it deserved support, but unfortunately in such a big organization it’s hard for young initiatives to be noticed.

Towards the end of our first term, after weeks of dead ends with sponsors and a disappointing trickle of speakers signing up, we were a bit disheartened. Nevertheless, we believed strongly in the potential of our concept, and our shared confidence kept us persistent. We carried on putting our message out to students however we could, and e-mailing every company we found, and eventually our belief that we could make it a success started to convince others. Days before the speaker deadline, applications rocketed, and at the same time our first and largest sponsor finally came through. This was the boost we all needed: the reassurance that IN[SCI]TE was going to happen.

Everything comes together

Over the two days of the event in April, more than 100 attendees joined us to experience 34 of the most inspiring and interesting talks we have ever seen, rivalling even the presentations of experienced professors and Nobel laureates we’ve seen at societies or special lectures. In front of us were not just fellow students, but young scientists. They were well researched, energetic and enthusiastic about their subjects, and the standard and variety of talks surpassed our hopes: we had people presenting information on the mechanics of dialysis, computational creativity, biomimicry and active matter, and there was even an interdisciplinary talk about bees. It was genuinely uplifting to experience.

In addition to the student speakers, the conference also included a careers panel. All of the panel’s members, a conservation scientist working at the interface between science and management; a researcher developing novel nanoscale manufacturing techniques; a biologist modelling the evolutionary history of human-pathogen interactions; and an aeronautical engineer turned patent attorney, had interdisciplinary careers. The main message we took away was that we shouldn’t worry too much about whether we’re choosing our ideal career right out of university, but to keep an open mind to the opportunities in front of us. Finally, we had two great keynote speakers (a physicist, Ceri Brenner, and a neurologist, Gero Miesenbšck) to round off the event by giving us an in-depth perspective on the careers of research scientists.

Teamwork in action

Many of us had been involved in student societies before, but organizing something that was so big, and entirely new, was challenging in different ways. It seemed like we were constantly faced with tough decisions, and even relatively minor aspects of the conference took a lot of planning. For example, after we received our speaker applications, we realized that some applicants were short on public-speaking experience, so we worked with an adviser from the university’s career service to offer preparation sessions for novice speakers. This was worthwhile, but also time-consuming toÊorganize.

Sometimes, we faced challenges related to committee members’ responsibilities outside of the conference. There were times when someone’s normal degree work required more attention than usual, and by appreciating this and helping out where we could, we managed to maintain a happy and healthy team. This was a big advantage of having a committee built from many subjects, we all had heavier workloads on occasion, but our varied team meant we weren’t all overburdened at once.

Even so, the process brought up conflicts that you simply don’t see when you’re studying for a degree, where almost all of the work is done alone and solely for your own benefit. For instance, if a committee member was not doing enough, it hampered everyone’s efforts. Talking to that person and finding a way to address the problem was difficult, because we thought of each other as friends as well as colleagues. Once again, we learned that a simple respect for everyone’s opinions goes a long way.

Advice for future conferencing

If anyone reading this is interested in holding a similar event, our advice is: go for it! You will learn more than you can imagine, and develop skills that you can’t get from a university degree. And just in case that rewarding feeling wasn’t enough, employers love experiences like this, especially if you can say that you were one of the founding members. Such a big event can’t come together without great teamwork, communication, decision-making and many other soft skills, which are increasingly important in an employment landscape where more and more people have the same top grades and technical ability.

The benefits of holding such a conference stretch well beyond the organizers and speakers, though. During IN[SCI]TE we were surrounded by intelligent students who were passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects. Watching them present ideas from various sciences was an inspiration, and increasing insight and interest across the different disciplines leads to better understanding (and perhaps even new discoveries in the future). It took a lot of effort, and was difficult and frustrating at times, but organizing IN[SCI]TE is our proudest achievement of last year, and we’re looking forward to making next year even better.

 

Adam O’Connell was head of marketing and Reaal Khalil was president and co-founder of the 2016 IN[SCI]TE student conference. Both are entering the final year of physics degrees at the University of Oxford, UK