Features

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.101 Published online 8 August 2016

Conferences: Science beyond online networking

GBSNP Varma

It’s where scientists talk shop, network, share ideas, learn new things, and gain insights into their own work and others’. Conferences fuel scientific enterprise. A changed setting, lots of networking and new friends  conferences can be important voices outside one’s own head. In times of social media and online networking, Nature India talks to scientists to find out why conference trips are still the most-awaited events in their annual calendar.


Conferences provide a changed setting, triggering personal chemistry for lasting professional friendships
© ISTS
Kartik Shanker, an associate professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at India Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, is a champion of turtles. When he first attended the Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation in 1998 in Mexico, he connected with scores of other turtle researchers from across the world. “I met senior and famous scientists who I had been reading about for years,” he says.

After several annual symposia, he was elected president of the International Sea Turtle Society in 2009 and got the conference to Goa in 2010. “For a small group of seven marine turtle species, the annual conference gets over 500 participants from close to 70 countries,” he says. Not restricted to only scientists, the conference attracts conservationists, activists, volunteers and students too.

The conference in Baja, California was particularly memorable for him. It was held in a small town, with accommodations in tiny motels and conference talks in streets, plazas, and even a boxing ring converted into a stage. In the evenings, the tiny bars were packed with turtle people.

Kartik Shanker (sitting) with a colleague at a post-conference party
© Kartik Shanker
Besides the science, people argued about conservation approaches as a community — questions like whether subsistence fishing of turtles should be allowed or the practice should be universally banned were brought up. “The involvement of local communities in conservation has gradually increased and the symposium has played a role in shaping these approaches,” he adds.

Speciality conferences often provide valuable opportunities for people in niche research areas, says Prateek Sharma, an assistant professor in the physics department of IISc. On the other hand, large conferences are ideal to disseminate important results to the wider community. Two of his important papers came off conference discussions and collaborations.

A 2014 meeting in Copenhagen brought forth the importance of his work, and led to the state-of-the-art numerical simulations of powerful jets (driven by massive black holes) interacting with the intra-cluster medium, the X-ray emitting plasma permeating galaxy clusters. “I am really proud of this work as there are not many groups in the world that do this,” Sharma says.

In July 2014, Vatsala Thirumalai, a researcher at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), was invited to the International Conference of Neuroethology in Sapporo, Japan. She presented a talk on "Emergence of motor patterns in simple vertebrates".

“The conference was the right size to foster interactions among participants — not more than 200 participants, it was neither too big nor too small,” she says of her first such meeting. Sapporo, known for its beer, also provided the right setting for a barbeque and beer banquet, she fondly recalls.

Ravi Manjithaya

Some conferences bring in fresh perspectives that go beyond the brief. For instance, when Ravi Manjithaya, a researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), attended a conference in Seattle, he did not know it would be such a novel experience. The conference was around his research interest — peroxisomes, organisms inside cells that are essential for survival. Babies born with a genetic disease that disables peroxisome function don’t survive for many years.

During dinner, the organisers invited families with babies who had the genetic disease. “The researchers and parents were sitting together, discussing issues. Parents wanted to know what research was going on and if there was any hope for a cure,” he says. The discussions also led him to evaluate his own research path and understanding of the impact. “It was a moving experience,” he adds, “with this human touch.” No amount of online networking would ever be able to replace these flesh and blood experiences.

Problems of international travel in India

There are several barriers which make it rather difficult for Indian researchers to travel internationally. Most research grants of India’s Department of Science and Technology or the University Grants Commission (UGC) do not allow international travel.

“This rule is undesirable and must be removed,” Prateek Sharma of IISc laments. “Indian conferences may not be that useful since there are not enough people working at the cutting edge,” he says. Most of his international travel has been funded by conference organisers or non-Indian grants. He makes use of his Cumulative Professional Development Allowance (CPDA) — an allowance given to institutes under India’s human resource development ministry — for his students and postdocs to visit conferences and schools.

International travel support from Indian grants require people to travel by the national carrier Air India. Many times this restriction leads to very inconvenient connections and rather expensive tickets, researchers say. Vishwesha Guttal, a mathematical ecologist at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at IISc says grants for international travel are meagre and Air India turns out to be expensive with limited connectivity. The paper work is also cumbersome. To top it all, “you don’t know the results (of your application) until the last moment. You don’t know whether to buy an air ticket or not till the last hour.”

Even prestigious national fellowships like Ramanujan, Swarnajayanti and J C Bose only allow one international travel every year. An official at one of the national grant giving organisations admitted that these programmes supporting international travel have their limitations. “We cannot solve all the issues,” he said seeking to remain anonymous.

“In a moderate-sized group, one international trip per year is simply not sufficient”, Sharma says. “Lack of international travel leads to stagnation of research ideas and being left behind in the fast-moving fields — even in the era of arxiv and Skype,” he rues.