The Undergraduate Researcher’s Guide to Conferences and Packing

Scientific conferences are fantastic opportunities to get out of the lab and showcase your research, as well as meet and interact with peers, collaborators, and like-minded scientists. Attending conferences and making the most of your time are such important investments in your future career; however, conferences can be overwhelming. A lot is packed into a few short days–poster presentations, workshops, career fairs, exhibit halls, networking, etc. And although it seems like a lot, conferences are definitely surmountable!

I’ve learned a bit about conferences and conference travel/packing in the past year or two, and I wanted to share some of that knowledge for anyone who might be preparing to attend a conference for the first time, whether it’s packing tips or just general tips for conferences!

General tips for conferencing:

Presenting my work in drug delivery at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS)

Presenting my work at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students

  • Pick the right conference(s)— choose conferences that not only interest you but that will benefit you most! If you want to go to a conference where you’ll be able to present your work or a conference that will bring you up to date with the latest findings in your field, choose a conference that will allow you to do that. (Ex: SACNAS, ABRCMS, SCCUR, and major-specific meetings are great options!) If you want to go to a conference to network, build connections, or possibly land internships, look for options that can do just that for you! (I attended SASE and PBWC this past year!)

    Some of the group at the SASE National Conference!

    Some of the UCSB group at the SASE National Conference!

  • Pack smart–I always make a list of everything I need, pack outfit pieces I can overlap into other outfits, etc (more about this in the next section), and leave extra room for goodies on the way back. Additionally, I never check any of my bags, just to save time at the airport! But more on this stuff down below!
  • Plan ahead–Meetings and conferences tend to have multiple tracks/schedules that are often spread out across convention centers, so planning ahead of time is a great idea! Check for online programs (some even have mobile apps!) for workshops, events, etc  you want to attend!
  • Network!–Building a professional network is one of the most important reasons for going to a conference. Networking offers the opportunity to start building your scientific network, which will yield benefits in the form of scientific collaborations, recommendation letters, postdoc appointments, and so on. So, talk to others about all the cool things you do, and listen to all the cool things that others do! You’ll be surprised by the things you’ll find out and who you might meet!
  • Hand out business cards–A business card with your name, email, university, phone number, etc, makes it that much easier to exchange contact information and connect with people afterwards! Additionally, find a way to make yours creative that way it stands out amongst the others!

    Back of my business card! QR code connects to my LinkedIn!

    Back of my business card! QR code connects to my LinkedIn!

  • Talk to people– Talk to EVERYONE!. Most people are super friendly and probably want to talk just as much as you do! Get out of your comfort zone, ask people what they want to get from the conference, how far they traveled etc, you never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet.
  • Don’t hang out solely with the people you came withGo to different sessions, eat meals with other people, maximize your time at the conference so you can share with each other what you’ve learned.
  • Make a schedule, be willing to change it— make a schedule of what you’d like to attend, know what you absolutely must see and go to, and be willing to miss a few things for coffee or touristing around with friends, both old and new!
  • Make time for yourselfconferences can be overwhelming with all of the workshops and networking,.  Remember to make time for yourself, whether that’s spending a night in, sleeping in a little past breakfast, or going out around the town for sightseeing!

    Skyline of Seattle from Gas Works Park (where 10 Things I Hate About You was filmed)

    Skyline of Seattle from Gas Works Park (where 10 Things I Hate About You was filmed)

  • Drink a lot of water–Flights and traveling are notorious for dehydration! Plus, it’s so easy to forget when you’re on the go all day!  So be sure to fill up and stay hydrated!
  • Take lots of pictures and make lots of memories–Whether it’s a motivational key note speaker, a night out on the town, or just your fancy dinner for the night, pictures and videos are great ways to remember your experiences!

    MARC Ladies at Chihuly Garden and Glass!

    MARC Ladies at Chihuly Garden and Glass!

  • Follow up–The conference is over, and you’re probably going to be swamped with homework and labwork, but don’t forget to send out those emails to program coordinators at universities, message people you met at the conference and stay connected, look over notes and ideas, etc! One thing I like to do is “convert my ideas into actions,” or in other words, make a list of things I want to do, be it finding a summer internship or looking up a really awesome topic I saw at a poster session, and set them to life!

 

Packing:
For a typical 3-5 conference:

In my carry-on:

    • conference shoes (I always wear a pair of black, classic pumps, but any flat/heel/wedge that’d be nice enough for conferencing will do)
    • casual shoes (I usually pack an extra pair of flats and/or booties for after-conference wear)
    • workout shoes/sneakers (if I decide to work out)
    • 1 blazer (to compliment your outfit, I usually choose between black or navy)
    • 1 cardigan (great to keep around for cold conference rooms!)
    • 3-5 outfits (I opt for a dress each day of conference since I’m horrible at putting outfits together! Plus, it makes for less packing!)
    • 1 pair of jeans (I try to pack a versatile, dark pair of denim to match with multiple outfits for after hours at conference or for networking events)
    • 3-4 tops/blouses (I pack a mixture of light sweaters, blouses, and plain tops to dress-up under blazers/cardigans)
    • gym shorts, tank top, and sports bra for sleeping, lounging, or working out
    • coat and gloves for colder climates
    • straightener/curling iron (if you use one)
    • large ziploc bag for all of my liquids
  • make up bag
  • undergarments

In my bag/backpack:

    • wallet (ID, cash, debit/credit cards, and any other items people usually keep in their wallets)
    • cameras (I always carry around a GoPro and a small mirrorless digital camera to take photos and videos throughout the trip)
    • business cards (Conferences are great places to meet people! They’re great for networking!)
    • padfolio (perfect for taking notes throughout the conference/workshops and a great place to stash resumes and handouts!)
    • pens
    • water bottle
    • medications (Advil, Dayquil/Nyquil, etc)
    • laptop
  • any school work or notebooks
  • headphones/earphones
  • 2 portable chargers
    • charging cables (laptop, cell phone, cameras, etc)
    • band-aids
  • nametags
  • itinerary (any confirmation numbers for flights, hotels, conference registration, etc)

Miscellaneous Items to Carry:

  • Your poster and poster tube!

Big tip: Save space for all the things you’ll be bringing back (university goodies, souvenirs, etc)

Limits Do Not Define Your Capability

Everyone has their limits.

I feel like it has been a theme since classes are back in session, everyone is putting in their two cents about how to survive classes and be in a research lab at the same time. In a way this will be my two cents, but not in the typical sense, so to speak.

Recently I have learned that there will be someone better and more capable than you in almost everything. Do not take that as degrading or stop reading, by the end of this I am hoping to convince you that being you is ok despite the world around you.

The society we live in today expects so much of its college graduates. It seems that a bachelor’s degree is becoming useless and if you aren’t in extracurriculars, forget about being a good applicant for what feels like everything. What if you feel incapable squeezing in the time for extracurricular activities? That was me in high school. Turning in college applications I quickly lost some hope because I had absolutely no dazzling extracurriculars to make my application stand out among the masses. You know what? I got here anyway. Beautiful UC Santa Barbara, one of the best public universities in the United States. Not being in extracurriculars in high school did not stop me then, and it will not stop me now. Maybe it did not stop you either, or maybe you’re shocked that I made it here without any. Then in this case you would be the person that is more capable than me.

The one main thing to be ahead in at college is units. I also very quickly learned that I would take 12 units every quarter if I could. The most units I have taken in one quarter was 16, sadly I know this must change soon. In some justification I have had a job since day one of college and now I am adding a lab on top of that.  I also very well know that most people take 18 units minimum every quarter, so I know many people are better at me in that aspect. I am probably shocking some people saying that the max units I have been in was 16.

On top of that many people are in extracurriculars or balancing other school or career related responsibilities. From my own experience, my roommate asked why I was not taking a general education course next quarter on top of my two lab courses, math, chemistry, and physics courses, to which she added, “It’s really not that difficult.” She is a communications major, and I could bring up the never ending argument that STEM majors tend to think they are better than the humanities, but I think it is a misunderstanding of work load. If I add that GE course on top of my classes I know it would only end badly for my mental state and stress level. In this case, I am picking my mental health over units. I know I need those units, but it will have to wait. Maybe you are that person who took or will be taking the same work load and added on a GE. Great for you, as long as you can handle it.

This brings me to my main point. We were all top of our classes in high school and now we are all fighting for A’s amongst the top of every high school in the nation. Someone will be better than you. Maybe you were the only perfect score in your class, but maybe the next lowest score is someone taking more units than you. Maybe you are overloaded with units, but someone in fewer units is in twice as many extracurriculars as you. Someone will be better. Everyone has their limits. Just because your limits are lower in one aspect does not mean you cannot excel in another.  Be yourself. Do not let people drag you down for going at your own pace. If you are pushing yourself on the verge of a mental breakdown weekly, or even daily, reevaluate something. Is your mental stability really worth an A+ instead of an A-? Is it worth taking those few extra units? Is it worth fitting in with your “friends”? If they were true friends they would understand that mental health comes first. I have come to terms that people will be more capable than me at most things. That’s ok. I’m going at my own pace, my own speed, my own mental capability, following my own limits. I encourage you to do the same. I understand the pressure for careers and graduate school are very tough and push you harder than anything before, but is that extra resume booster really worth warping who you are?

Stop and Smell the Buffers

Note: I have lots of thoughts and they like to all come out at the same time. I attempted to organize them the best I could into a cohesive, focused blog post, but alas the lots of thoughts may have won this battle.

Time, the universal limiting factor of just about everything and I’m sure every college student can agree that they always feel like they are needing more. Your first year of college, especially living in the dorms, flyers are being thrown at you and posted on your door every minute of every hour inviting you to academic clubs, sports games, student government, cultural events, volunteer organizations, etc. and it all seems so fun and exciting and you want to try everything you can, until you realize that you’re in college and you have classes, possibly a job, maybe a social life, and if you’re really weird, a biological need to sleep.

Last year, I did try to do everything and it was a blast and I enjoyed every new experience, however, it was also impractical to keep up. I was getting less than five hours of sleep on average, I was irritable, I was stress eating A LOT, and maybe I cried a few times because I bombed my physics final winter quarter.  This year, I knew I needed to make a decision about what I really loved enough to continue for the sake of my mental health and my thighs. Luckily for you, the reader, research remained worthy of my time, so here I am sharing my experience with anyone that knows how to use the internet. If this is the first blog post of mine you’re reading, I’ll give you a little background about myself, I’m a second year biology major, I have three jobs on campus, I’m on the UCSB Women’s Rowing Team, I volunteer weekly with elementary school students in Goleta, and I have a terrible guilty pleasure for Bravo reality TV shows. Those are all the things I decided were important enough to squeeze into my schedule this year in my effort to cut back and prioritize and so far, so good. Since the beginning of summer, I’ve lost ten pounds while gaining an immense amount of muscles, I go to bed around 9:30/10:00pm on a regular basis, I got promoted at two of my jobs, and I’m all caught up on the Real Housewives of Orange County.

I think the point I am trying to make with my incessant listing of all of my commitments and involvements is that the value of college lies so much in the overall experience in addition to the education and you should do everything you can to optimized the time. Never else in my life will I be granted the opportunity to be completely submerged in a lab after having essentially zero relevant experience or travel across the country competing in a sport that I learned just over 6 months beforehand. So many students get lost in the competition of academics and have their sights focused on graduating and getting their dream job but they miss out on all the dreams they could be living out while they’re still in school. While research does look incredible on a résumé, no one should do it solely for this reason. I continue to do research because I know it makes me happy, in addition to being invaluable experience that teaches me something new every time I go to lab that I can use in the future which is something mindlessly studying to get A’s can’t do.

If you don’t learn how to prioritize what you want out of your college experience and budget your time accordingly, you’re going to have a bad time. If you seek out a few things you’re passionate for and devote yourself to them rather than just trying to do all the things you “like”, you’re going to be able to enjoy what you’re doing as well as prosper and excel in those areas.

Workaholics Anonymous

Hello everyone. I’m Karla Bernardo, and I’m a workaholic.

(Hi Karla.)

With graduate school admissions becoming increasingly more difficult, students jockey to become the model student with a 4.0 GPA, all the while conducting research in a STEM lab, publishing scientific journal papers, working multiple jobs to pay off student loans, having dynamic extracurricular activities, participating in leadership, and if applicable, struggling through a personal experience that has all the while made you a stronger person. If you happen to cure cancer along the way, congratulations. The admissions office may just consider you as a competitive applicant.

As a result of this perpetual fear that there is so much uncertainty shrouding my chances of fulfilling my endeavor to be a PhD student in neuropharmacology, I too have fallen into the trap that this aforementioned image is what I must attain. But trying to balance 21 technical course units, 2 research labs, an honors thesis, a job, and a personal life has proven to be tremendously stressful. It is difficult — but not impossible — to excel in every task you decide to take on. There will be times when you may want to break down and cry. But prioritization and perseverance will be your two best friends. Based on my personal experiences, I have developed the following list of advice for current and future students who find themselves working ceaselessly in hopes that they may have a fighting chance to fulfill their academic and professional dreams.

  1. Network with professors as soon as possible. If you are an incoming freshman, do not hesitate to send personal emails reaching out to professors whose research interests you. Your youth is more of a benefit than a detriment. More often than not, research groups prefer to have younger undergraduate interns who are willing to stay their entire college duration with them; training someone early, only for he or she to continue yielding positive work for a longer period of time, is worth investing in. As busy as professors often are, sometimes you have to be a little stubborn and bug them until they notice you. They may not have an opening in their lab for you to be a research intern the moment you ask them, but if you continue to foster that relationship, you may find that they have other connections that will help you take advantage of currently existing opportunities.
  2. Befriend your mentors. Graduate students are super cool, and if graduate school is your primary goal, who better to learn about the application process than from actual students who made it in? They’ll tell you the things they did right, the things they wish they could have changed as an undergraduate, and the research grants that undergraduate students don’t even think of applying for.
  3. Do as much research as you can on a particular lab, and when you find one you love and have successfully integrated yourself into that research group, stick with it. As a freshman, I stuck with the first lab I became a part of because of the exposure it gave me; however, as marine biology is not my main field of interest, it is much wiser for me to finish up my work with that research group as soon as possible, and instead, focus on my projects in my current neuro-specific group. There are multiple amazing research groups within the UC Santa Barbara campus alone, but if you find yourself hopping from lab to lab due to sheer curiosity to expand your horizons, you are less able to produce thorough (and perhaps ground-breaking) results in a single field. To reiterate, focus as much time as you can to a single lab rather than dividing your time such that the labs you work in only benefit from a fraction of the amount of your total work.
  4. Take GEs that satisfy three requirements at one time. If you aren’t trying to graduate a year early like I plan to, you have a little more leeway to take GEs that actually interest you. If you are pressed for time, however, there are certain Chicano Studies and Comparative Literature courses that are an absolute lifesaver.
  5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you don’t think you can give your 100% to biology, biology lab, physics, physics lab, organic chemistry, and organic chemistry lab all in the same quarter, don’t do it. Definitely consider summer school for your more difficult courses. It pays itself off to be successful in organic chemistry lab during the summer than to be slightly above mediocre during the school year. If taking summer courses posits a threat to that awesome summer internship you just acquired, speak with an advisor to reconsider some options for you regarding whether or not you should graduate after x number of years.
  6. Keep applying to scholarships. Although this process is not as stressed as it was during high school, there are plenty of scholarships open to undergraduates. Trust me, receiving a scholarship for being a good student — which you essentially have to be anyway — is a much preferred method of financial support than having to work additional hours on top of your already busy schedule.
  7. Keep a calendar. Take advantage of every second of every minute of every hour of every day you have. Prioritize what you feel is necessary to accomplish in a given day, but do not overload your daily goal to the point that you cannot achieve any of those goals. Start small if you must. “Monday I will power through my chemistry homework. Tuesday I will work in lab for five hours. Wednesday I will go to the gym, have lunch with friends, and study for math.” Keep your tasks doable.
  8. Please, please, please take care of your personal relationships. Your family and friends may think you’ve fallen off the face of the earth or gone off the grid if your only focus is your work. Drowning in work is difficult enough. Trying to overcome the heap of work without a support system will drive you mad. Whether or not your friends, family members, or significant other can help you with your goals, knowing that they will be there for you to cheer you on is enough motivation to keep going.
  9. Take care of yourself. Exercise to release the endorphins and mitigate the tension in your shoulders. You’ve got this. Take a breather. We are all rooting for you.

Say Goodbye to Procrastimonster!

To start off, who wouldn’t want there to be 25 hours in a day, 8 days in a week, or even 6 weeks in a month. However, we all know it’s impossible, or else why would I even want to write about it?

We all live a busy life, but we never regret it. Why? Because we love what we do!

Still, sometimes you get frustrated because of too many things all demanding your time and energy at the same time. We are all human and we all get tired at some point and this is where the art of balancing and time managing skills comes in.

Even if I personally haven’t finished my undergrad studies yet, I think one of the things that we learn in college (and actually take away with us after graduation) is how to manage time wisely. We only got so little time and so much we want to do, it becomes imperative that we fully utilize every moment we have.

This became more and more important to me personally as I add more things to my everyday schedule. Take research as an example, I started doing research with Dr. Foltz this past summer when I wasn’t taking any classes. I was able to go in almost every day. When fall quarter first started, everything rushed in at once, including all my classes (especially second year bio major), volunteer work as well as two jobs on top of research. At first I was a bit overwhelmed but I told myself I don’t want to quit or spend less time on any one of them because I love every single of them!

So, I would like to share a trick that I personally have found helpful, which is to create a to-do list. And it is not just a list of everything you need to, but also taking into considering of priority and deadlines. Paper or electronic is fine – there are even apps that can create a nice-looking to-do list if you are the kind of person that only do things when they are listed in a visually pleasant fashion. I personally like using a paper one simply because I enjoy the feeling of crossing off something. Reminders are also really helpful. I have had times where I would tell myself to remember to do something after class (maybe make a phone call) and it wouldn’t be until the next time I have that class where I would ask myself did I have a call that I need to make?

As to the most common symptom of procrastination, I think there is no better way than to just do it. JUST DO IT! Once you made the decision that you will do it later, you become a victim of Procrastimonster automatically.

To be able to manage time wisely is one piece of art that really takes time to master. Procrastimonster still attacks me sometimes but I think as long as we always try our best and learn from the mistakes. Similar to the idea of trials and errors, I would try some time managing tricks and if it doesn’t work, I try something else. Eventually, we know what works best for each of our own individual schedule and can really enjoy what we are doing!