Friday, November 27, 2009

Science and Technology Awareness Network Conference and Networking tips

Alright people... it has been a couple weeks since I got back from the Science and Technology Awareness Network Conference in Ottawa. I would have posted sooner, but we're a really busy bunch in the SciComm program. Our weeks are packed with lectures, work, guest lectures and pet projects. I'm not complaining mind you. It is just context for why I haven't posted on STAN...

I left Sudbury at midnight and took the seven hour Greyhound bus to Ottawa. I slept surprisingly well. I bused/walked downtown to get to the Marriott Hotel where the conference was being held. It was November 10, the day before Remembrance Day. Ottawa had a particularly Canadian feel to it that day. Everyone on the street had a red poppy in their jacket and a Tim Hortons cup in their hand.

At the hotel, I quickly ducked into a bathroom and changed/cleaned myself up for the conference. I may have slept well, but seven hour bus rides don't exactly make you presentable. At the conference, I happened to sit at a table with Let's Talk Science (LTS) and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) representatives. I'm trained as a fisheries/marine biologist and I'm a LTS alumna so I knew I was in good company.

The 6th annual conference was aimed at "building an innovation culture" and "understanding issues that influence youth choices". All the talks were great, but the one that stuck out for me was by Bill Buxton. (You can find his talk on the STAN website). It was the first talk and a keynote address. Bill Buxton is a principal researcher for Microsoft. He is also Canadian, a former professor at U of T and a musician!

His biggest complaint was that Canada is losing its culture of innovation and creativity. When Bill was a student, he worked with computers at the National Research Council (NRC) to compose music. He and his colleagues at the NRC had an idea for a computerized drum. This involved having a computer be able to distinguish various touches on a panel. Sound familiar? That same technology is now used world wide in  cellphones, computers, PDAs, Cameras etc. Canada is credited for pioneering this technology, but it was commercialized by companies in the US who saw the potential for it.

Nowadays, a lot of research grants go towards applied technology research. Canada is funding things that will be useful... supposedly. In our current research culture, we never would have produced touch pad technology. The first point of Bill's drum example (one of many during the presentation) was that you never know where innovations may come from. We need a playground for researchers that allows them to pursue ideas.

Bill had a great analogy for our culture today. Hockey. We have an amazing hockey culture in Canada today. The system however is built so that all Canadians can enjoy and play hockey. There are local leagues and minor leagues, recreational hockey and professional hockey. The hockey culture in Canada provides resources and cultivates talent. However.. the point of hockey is NOT to produce the next Gretzky. Sometimes that talent comes along however and the resources are in place to help them be great.

Can you see where this analogy is going? In Canada, our research and technology culture is the opposite. We only want to fund the Gretzkys. To create a science culture in Canada we need to integrate everyone! That means making science accessible and appreciated by the general public. It means engaging students in school in science. It means we need to get back to basic science to play around and explore! It means celebrating our achievements in science! All these things are important and are unfortunately lacking in Canada.

Scientists are concerned. We need a shift in culture to change this around. It is why STAN held that conference and why science communicators are needed.

There were many other talks that day, but like I said, Bill's keynote address had the most impact on me. I'll hopefully post more on these talks in the upcoming weeks.

Now that you've let me rant, I'll give you some practical tips for networking at a conference.
  • Have business cards. I can't stress this enough. It is always good to have a business card to hand out to people. You never know if there is a potential employer or good contact in the room. Not sure what to put on your business card? Name, address, degrees, title (it says graduate student on mine), contact information. Follow this link for some tips on making a card.
  • Do your research. It is impossible to meet everyone at a conference. An old labmate of mine attended a conference with over 2000 people. Look at the agenda and pick out a few people you want to meet. It will make those networking breaks a lot easier. You may also find someone you know who can introduce you to people.
  • Introduce yourself. Saying "Hi my name is..." can be difficult if you are not used to walking up to strangers and introducing yourself. It is vital for meeting people though and it takes practice. If you are are having trouble, start small. Introduce yourself to other students.
Hope these tips help and I hope you are thinking a little bit more about science awareness in Canada.

- Justin

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