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I attended my first ESA meeting in 2003 as an undergraduate hoping to get a better idea of which direction I wanted to go in ecology. When I arrived Sunday night to check in, I was completely unprepared for just how big the meeting was! I spent the next five days trying to squeeze in as many talks and special sessions as possible, often dashing from one talk to another, trying not to get lost as I made my way through the huge conference center, all the while feeling completely overwhelmed. Needless to say, by the end of the week I was completely exhausted! I’ve since attended two other ESA meetings, both of them even larger than the first, and have learned quite a bit since that first experience about how to get the most out of the annual meetings…
Plan before you go! The sessions, workshops, and business meetings are all listed on the ESA website well in advance of the meeting. With sometimes as many as ten or more sessions running concurrently at any given time, it’s a good idea to take a look at the schedule ahead of time. Make a short list of the workshops, talks, field trips, and other activities that you absolutely do not want to miss (don’t be too ambitious here); make another list of talks and activities that you want to attend, but wouldn’t mind missing if an opportunity to chat with a colleague or potential employer comes up (this list can be longer). Don’t forget to leave time in your schedule to get outside and away from the conference center for a little while!
Get involved! With sections and chapters representing just about every subdiscipline of ecology, geographical region, and other groups, there’s no reason not to get involved, and I guarantee it will make your meeting experience even better! A logical choice for students is to get involved in the ESA Student Section; ESA is very supportive of student activities at the meetings, and it’s up to the students to organize the sessions and events that they want to see at ESA. No matter how you choose to get involved, you will make valuable contacts, meet new friends, and reduce the feeling of being “just another ecologist in the crowd.”
Meet new people! This is the one time every year that thousands of ecologists from all over the United States and the world get together in one place to see what’s new and exciting in their field, meet future collaborators, advisors, or employers, and catch up with old friends. Traveling alone? Find a roommate or arrange to travel to the meeting with somebody else by checking the ESA website a couple of months before the meeting. Introduce yourself to the person who presented a talk or a poster that you found particularly interesting, and see if they want to have lunch or meet later for conversation after the days’ activities have ended. Traveling with your lab group? You see them every day back home – take this opportunity to meet other folks in your field, maybe arranging to share a meal or a cold beverage and some good conversation. This is a great opportunity to meet new friends and to make contacts that could prove valuable later in your career!
Above all, remember to have fun and enjoy the good company and stimulating atmosphere! There’s a lot to see and do, and you can’t possibly do it all. Prioritize your time, actively participate in the meeting, and make new friends and contacts, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy the meeting! You’ll still be exhausted, but at least you will have had a good time, learned new things, and met a bunch of great people!
Colorado State University