One of the best things you can do while travelling to a conference has nothing to do with the conference itself — visiting another University.
These days, with most airlines operating via a hub-and-spoke model, we rarely get direct flights to conferences. This is especially true if we live in small college towns or if most of the conferences we attend are overseas.
So why not visit a research group on your way to or from the conference?
- Often the meetings you have visiting a University are far deeper and more meaningful than at a conference
- You get to visit laboratories/field sites and see their experimental setups in person.
- You get to see the same project through different lenses, meeting lab techs, undergrads, PhD students, postdocs and Professors
- You get to give a seminar to a usually quite large audience compared to a conference with multiple parallel sessions
- Adding a few days to your trip takes time, and can be especially difficult for those with families
- Landings and take-offs are the most carbon-intensive part of a flight, so if reasonable non-stop flights exist, there can be a substantial environmental cost by adding a stop-over
- Additional financial costs, on top of what you incur from attending the conference, are, proportionally, fairly minimal and often easy to fund (see logistics below)
Last year I wrote a piece documenting that only 4% of conferences were using sustainable practices*. As a result, I’m always concerned about the environmental footprint of my travel.
But part of minimizing the impact of my travel is maximizing the professional benefit when I do choose to take long flights.
This week I just finished a wonderful visit to Hong Kong University, meeting with their Forensic Conservation Lab, hosted by the awesome Dr Caroline Dingle. It was a truly eye-opening experience to see all of the interesting genetic work they are doing to understand and combat illegal wildlife trade. It has been perhaps the most intellectually fulfilling trip I’ve ever been on, and to think it only happened because I chose to stop over from a workshop in China on my way back home to Australia. I think the cross-pollination between mathematics and forensics will lead to fruitful work that will hopefully reduce illegal wildlife trade and give us new ecological insights. The benefit will, therefore, hopefully, outway the costs.
When looking for flights to the conference, take note of cheap and logistically comfortable stop-over cities. Then check which labs are based in those cities. Contact the lab you’d like to visit and ask if you can give a seminar the week before or after the conference. Usually, the flight is no more expensive than alternatives. The only additional expense is accommodation. But there are several avenues to fund this even if you don’t have grant money for it. Options include (1) if you tell a University that you want to visit them, and also let them know that the flight will be covered, they may cover accommodation or (2) they may volunteer to let you stay with someone in the department or (3) you can often ask your department or university if they’d cover a small accommodation expense. They’ll often do it because flights are the big expense for a short trip, and invited seminars can increase the exposure of their department’s research.
While many of us have focussed a lot on the hypocrisy of being an academic ecologist, I think we need to talk more about getting the most out of our activities that cause the greatest environmental damage. We need to maximise the environmental (and/or) societal benefit we attain per unit of environmental damage we do. So let’s not forget the benefits part.
So there you have it, some non-traditional advice on getting the most out of conferencing, in addition to all the great more conventional advice out there.
* although many conferences in Ecology and Conservation, especially ESA, were sustainable