I recently viewed a live-streamed session from the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2018 from the comfort of my own home, and I also attended (in-person) a scientific conference for a different topic within the same month. I began to think of how scientific societies engage trainees, graduate students, and post-docs at conferences. This is all from my perspective as a post-doc, so my observations should be taken with a grain of salt.
The first thing I noticed is that, in my opinion, PI’s typically outnumber trainees at conferences. This is interesting because most labs usually have one PI and several trainees. You might expect a similar parity at conferences, and I believe the reason that most conferences I’ve attended have fewer trainees is the cost of attending. I have been extremely lucky in finding travel awards to attend conferences, yet there have been several that I wanted to go to or committed myself to attend without having funding to support the trip. This can be extremely stressful and is fairly common because as a trainee, your position is not very stable.
When I was a PhD candidate in 2015, I attended a non-AHA conference. At the conference, I volunteered to be the junior representative for the graduate student/post-doc section of the society. I was elected to the position and had to return to the conference in 2016 to accept and begin my term. I was obligated to attend the conference again in 2017 as I transitioned from junior representative to senior representative and again in 2018 as the outgoing senior representative. That means I was supposed to attend the conference 3 years in a row with no clear funding path to pay for any travel. To top it all off, I graduated with my PhD in 2016, just 3 months prior to the 2017 conference date, with no justification for why my post-doc advisor should pay approximately $1,500 for my expenses to present my graduate work. At the 2018 edition of this meeting, I could finally present my post-doc work and luckily received a travel award to offset the cost of the meeting. To make a long-story simpler, 3 or 4-year conference commitments for trainees can be valuable because over that time period I met and worked with many more senior scientists, but shorter commitments would likely entice more applicants to volunteer and greatly reduce the stress involved.
One of the reasons I was elected to the volunteer position in the first place was because I was one of the only graduate students/post-docs to apply. And when I asked other trainees why they hadn’t applied, most said they would be graduating before the 3-year term finished and they didn’t know what type of lab they would end up in. An alternative option for societies is one that I recently sought out and has been surprisingly refreshing. That is the Early Career Blogger Program from the American Heart Association. To lift the veil a bit, I applied after reaching out to one of last year’s early career bloggers, Shayan Mohammadmoradi, who is now a Senior Early Career Blogger with the AHA. This is a 1-year volunteer position, and while it requires attendance at the AHA scientific sessions (I’m planning to attend in 2019), there are some incentives as an official Early Career Blogger that make it possible to attend. First, the conference registration is covered, and if you want to attend other AHA meetings throughout the year, the registration is covered for those as well. AHA also provides access to live-stream their largest annual conference, Scientific Sessions.
I study cardiovascular diseases in the context of aging, and I think supporting early career professionals is a great strategic plan for AHA or any scientific society from the perspective of aging. Early career professionals eventually become middle- then late-stage career professionals and are the next generation of PI’s. By showing that they value early career scientists, AHA will likely reap the benefit in the future.