What to expect at your first international science conference

One of the exciting things about being a scientist is that we occasionally get a chance to meet up with colleagues from all over the world. I just got back from the 2018 Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on Scientific Methods in Cultural Heritage Research in Castelldefels, Barcelona, Spain. Now, you may be asking yourself what someone from the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology has to do with cultural heritage research. Well, the skills that I have learned and the networks that I have built as a graduate student in the CSN have given me many transferable skills that I can use in my new role at The Metropolitan Museum of Art starting this fall.

The views from the hotel were breathtaking and I enjoyed reading and responding to emails during the breaks under the cool shade of a tree. With the conference being in Spain I was able to satisfy my quest for knowledge and adventure. (photos by Alicia McGeachy)

But back to the GRC. We’ve talked on the blog before about how to prepare for and survive conferences, but I found this experience to be a bit different from what I’m accustomed to at a “typical” conference. Here are a few factors to consider before attending your first international Gordon Research Conference:

What is a GRC?

If you have never attended a GRC I strongly encourage you to try and attend one. They are mostly held in the U.S., but occasionally they are hosted at an international site. There are over 300 different GRCs on nearly every topic, ranging from advanced health informatics to X-ray science. In one of our previous posts, we spoke about our time at the Environmental Nanotechnology GRC and hinted at some of the activities that are involved, including oral and poster presentations by participants and even some free time to continue the scientific dialogue (or have a mental break). GRC conferences are chock full of unpublished research so there is a restriction on discussing the specifics of presentations or taking photographs. But this venue serves as a great space to network with other researchers in your field who are at every stage of their career. Unlike other conferences such as the American Chemical Society, there aren’t multiple talks going on at the same time. Each day, there are a series of presentations all in one space. The days are generally long, sometimes going from 7:30 am when we meet for breakfast until 9 pm when dinner service or the poster sessions has ended. But do not be overwhelmed by the schedule: there is plenty of time in the afternoon (~3 hours) to unwind, sightsee, catch up on other work, or to engage with other attendees.


GRCs are more expensive than most conferences because the registration includes all housing and meals, and an international GRC is even more pricey than usual. But don’t let that stop you from attending! If you want to go to a GRC, there are many ways to fund your trip, including the Carl Storm Underrepresented Minority Fellowship (for first-time attendees who identify as a member of an underrepresented minority), Carl Storm International Diversity Fellowship (for students from some countries), and the Predominantly Undergraduate Institution fellowships (for faculty). As a U.S.-based conference series, having a GRC at an international site is a rare treat.

Maximize Your Trip

If it is your first time visiting the country where your GRC is being held, try and bookend your trip with two or three days on either end of your trip. This will be useful for you to adjust to the jetlag and also allows you to find more time to explore your surroundings.

For example, during a long layover in Paris, I made my way to Luxembourg Gardens followed by a leisurely walk where I came across this mural of Marie Curie.

Left: Luxembourg Gardens; Right: Marie Curie mural (photos by Alicia McGeachy)

While in Spain I got to travel to Sitges which is a great place to shop, enjoy the sun, and eat.

Sightseeing in Sitges. (photo by Alicia McGeachy)

If you are even remotely interested in architecture, then you will want to see the work of Antoni Gaudí. He has even worked on La Sagrada Familia which has been under construction since 1882! Work is scheduled to be completed in 2026.

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (photo by Alicia McGeachy)

Language and Culture!

Take some time to learn some of the local language. If you are planning on traveling around or even having simple conversations with locals, it is important to learn at least a few phrases in the local language. This will help you in navigating your way through the country and in many places will be seen as a good gesture. Duolingo is a great platform to try out if you are looking to learn a new language. You might also try learning a few key phrases from a Lonely Planet or other guidebooktran or, if you are technologically savvy, try downloading a Google Translate Dictionary.

Network, Network, Network!

This is true for any conference, but at an international meeting you might meet outside the “usual crowd” that you see at U.S. conferences. Before the conference, take time to look over the attendee list to see if there are any people that you might want to connect with while there. The beauty of the GRC conference is that you have plenty of opportunities to engage with the other participants. Try sitting at a different table for every meal and that way you will interact with at least two other people over the course of your meal.

Delivery is Key

Are you giving a poster or oral presentation? Make sure to speak slowly. Recognize that while many members of your audience will speak English fluently, it might not be their first language. So slow down! Time your presentation (or pitch in the case of a poster) so that you build in time to slow down. Talking in noisy environments (like a poster session) can also be challenging, so be sure you are facing your conversation partner, so you can see each other’s faces. Don’t be shy about asking people to repeat themselves if you have trouble understanding.

Also, dust off your elevator pitch skills! You will be networking a lot and you will want to have at least some idea about what to say when someone inevitably asks you, “What are you working on?”

Castelldefels panorama (image by Teodoromix)

Do you have any tips for navigating your first international conference? Share them here or tell us on Twitter or Facebook!