On the benefits of conversations with other scientists

I returned this week from a busy trip west to the Bay Area in California. I went for a meeting (previously blogged at ASN 2016, stand-alone meeting), but I also ended up working with a new collaborator at Syracuse University, and visited an old friend and group at Stanford University. This week really was one of the pinnacle weeks in my professional career thus far. At the meeting I met dozens of scientists, both young and old; I conversed with a collaborator for the first time about a project we are working on; and I gave a talk, went to happy hour with graduate students and postdocs, and met people on campus at Stanford University.

Although socializing can be quite exhausting, I find that I personally gain so much more from a conversation than reading papers or books. Why? Well, I presume that it's due to the symmetry in information exchange. In reading, information is only passed in one direction, from the page to one's brain. I can see the benefits of the page's information because it is well thought out and is more structured. Further, if one doesn't understand what's written, it's challenging and beneficial to hopefully solve what is unclear to the reader. However, if there is misunderstanding or a problem is not solvable in the printed word, there is no way to correct it. I find the former problem of misunderstanding rampant in my field of ecology, where definitions are critical. Conversations, in contrast, pairs or groups of individuals can adapt their information output by responding to listeners, and adapt their information received by sending signals to the transmitter of the information. In the end, I think that it is more efficient and quite fun for multi-engagement.

As I mentioned in the previous post in anticipation for this meeting, the meeting and visit were the first times I would be presenting the work I have done for the past 1.5 years as a postdoc. I believe that it was well received, and I quite enjoyed the engagement. My poster ended up going 30 minutes into dinner (well-beyond the 1.5-hr. allotted time) and there was always multiple people at my poster. I probably spent half of the time talking, with half of that time explaining and the other half fielding specific questions about my poster. The other half of the time was discussion, in general, about the overarching subject of my poster, population dynamics between mutualists. I feel like I am in a position where I am still learning theory and about the biology of all the different types of mutualisms. In a way, I think that I have approached this study with broad knowledge, but not yet at the depth that I would like to have about theory or the biology of mutualism. It will come with time, like it always does.

The talk I gave at Stanford was a bit tough to prepare. I knew that the lab was largely empirical, focusing on many applied issues of community ecology. I ended up introducing myself for about ten minutes, focusing on my empirical work that was more relatable to the group, and the remainder of the talk moving a bit more carefully through the theoretical aspects of my current work. There weren't as many questions at the end as I anticipated, but there were some good ones, including at the graduate student/postdoc happy hour. I think that the question that was the most difficult to answer, was asked by the professor of the lab I was presenting to: ``What kind of information can ecologists collect to answer some of the questions that [I am raising]?'' That made me really think about the bigger issues in ecology and, more importantly, ask myself what can I do to make my work more valuable to the scientific community and public?

I am still processing all of these conversations and the information overload from the past week. In my gregariousness, I think that I have become MUCH more excited about my work and science in the past week. That, perhaps, is the most important reason to make sure that I simply talk with people more about my research!