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!


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)

From Nothing to Everything

A little more than three hundred sixty-five days ago, I couldn’t have imagined a life in research. In fact, I didn’t even know that it was an option. Now, about three hundred sixty-five days later, I don’t know how I ever lived without it.

Coming in as a chemical engineer, it seemed predetermined for me to follow some strict pathway to success: go to school, intern at a large company, and then work directly after college. Professors spoke of job availability. Peers mentioned the salaries. Counselors talked about summer internships. But no one ever said anything about other options. To me, it didn’t seem like there were any. And I was okay with that. It all seemed that way—that is, until I participated in SIMS.

SIMS or the Summer Institute of Math and Sciences is a two-week summer bridging program for incoming freshmen that engages its interns in academic preparation, professional development, educational presentations, and research projects. On the first day of SIMS, each and every mentor highlighted the importance of research. The idea of research was completely new to me. I assumed it meant mixing two differently colored chemicals from Erlenmeyer flasks into one until something exploded or sizzled, or at least, that’s what I assumed based on what I had seen in movies and in TV shows.

To my surprise, research was anything but that. I started on a project, working on improving blood glucose monitoring systems, utilizing concepts from biology, chemistry, as well as electrical and computer engineering.

From that point on, I was hooked. I went on into a computational chemistry lab, utilizing computational chemistry programs to calculate reaction energies and other properties for organic and bioorganic molecules. And from there, I managed to stumble my way into my current lab, a drug delivery lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, working on understanding transport processes in biological systems to develop novel devices and materials to diagnose and treat various ailments and diseases.

Research helped me display a sense of curiosity, imagination, and a love for life-long learning that I had never experienced in my classes or in any other circumstances. Research allowed me to pursue my interests in a variety of fields I never thought imaginable, learn something new and unique, as well as challenge myself in new ways.

More than that, becoming involved in research has definitely been one of the most impactful experiences for me, solidifying my aspirations to apply for graduate school and to pursue research as a career.

A year or two ago, I had no idea research was an option, or really, that research even existed. But here I am, a year or two later, completely absorbed and enveloped in everything the world of research has to offer. Now, it’s only been a couple of “365 days” so far, but I know there’ll be plenty more to come.

Of the Many Reasons to Love Research

I am constantly asked why I do research and what it is I like about it. For me, it’s more than just gaining experience or improving my resume, it’s every reason— whether good or bad, frustrating or exciting, mundane or extraordinary. There are plenty of reasons to love and to do research, here are a few that come to mind:

  1. Research makes a difference. There is nothing cooler than knowing that you are contributing to the discovery or development of something that can make a difference in people’s lives or a change in the world! Every contribution matters!
  2. Research introduces you to great people! Not only does working in research give you the opportunity to work alongside incredible faculty mentors, research also provides the opportunity to work with a mentor and lab group that may serve as guides, counselors, and as friends outside of lab! Shout out to the Mitragotri Group!
  3. Research is applicable. One really cool thing about research is that it transcends beyond what is taught in the classroom and enables you to apply all that you know or have been taught and apply that knowledge into what you are learning and doing in lab.
  4. Research can help you! As mentioned above, research can enhance both your professional and academic credentials for future graduate/professional school or for career advancement. It can also help support applications for internships, scholarships, and other awards!
  5. Research opens doors. Participating in research can afford the opportunity to go present your work at professional conferences, to meet other researchers like yourself, and to participate in great events. Research can also aid in networking and in making contacts early into your career! (Check out Lunch with Faculty every quarter!)
  6. Research changes the pace. Unlike with practice set exercises or protocol lab experiments with predetermined solutions and expected results, research has you come up with the experiments but also has you come up with the answer. Research makes you think differently by engaging you in the creation of new knowledge.
  7. Research is challenging. Sometimes, experiments don’t go as well as planned or give you unexpected results. And that’s okay! In these cases, you’re given the opportunity to question you process, make changes, and to think beyond. Research stretches your mind, and challenges and tests you to think of new ideas, new reasons, and new possibilities.
  8. Research is the future. It’s exciting to be a part of an adventure that will change the face of the future. Research is constantly pushing the frontiers of knowledge, and it’s crazy to think that the theory, the process, or the discovery you make today may determine how the world is structured tomorrow.
  9. Research doesn’t stop. Every study and every project in the world of research not only provides insights, answers, and details, it poses new questions. And even in the case where answers may be inconclusive, it still puts into consideration what it would take to solidify those answers.
  10. Research changes you. Somewhere along the way, research helps build traits and characteristics like independent thinking, resilience, communication, and creativity. Research can help mold you into the person you’d like to be while also changing all that you do, value, and hope to achieve!

Whether you’re in research or interested in research, what excites you? Why do you do research? And why do you love it?