Susan A. Jebb is Professor of Diet and Population Health in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, UK. She is the conference chair for this week's in Oxford.
It’s that time of year again when primary care academics take time away from their desks and surgeries and families to attend the Society for Academic Primary Care conference. This year, in Oxford, with a walking tour of the Botanical Gardens and dinner in the gothic splendor of Keble College Dining Hall on the programme, some of you may have faced the question I was forced to consider after an intense grilling from my son, 'what are conferences for'?
As a student, conferences were an extension of university – a series of lectures where I dutifully made notes and tried to memorise the content in case someone asked me later. As a post doc, looking for my next job, it was about presenting my research and meeting people. In the main sessions I rushed to hear from “the great and the good”, trying to catch the essence of what their research was really all about, their approach to a problem and their latest ideas. It was a chance to garner new ways of looking at a problem that were different from my supervisors or immediate colleagues. And outside the meeting rooms it was a chance to talk to people, especially over dinner, that most culturally ingrained meeting ground for conversation. For me the highlight of many a nutrition conference was the Ceildh - always a great leveler - and after dancing with a succession of eminent professors it made them all a whole lot more approachable on other occasions! I also remember another famous conference walk, up a hill in Grasmere, and as every rambler knows, talking to people while walking side-by-side is much less intimidating than face-to-face. I found new collaborators and made lasting friendships which shape my research to this day. Conferences take you outside your usual circle and by putting people into neutral territory create conversations that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
Nowadays my perspective on conferences has changed. I attend some because I’m asked to speak and in truth they have become part of my academic citizenship - giving something back. Other conferences are an introduction to a new area of work; indeed SAPC has been part of my transition from nutrition science to primary care. But the most important function for me now is that conferences provide an opportunity to meet people I don’t see every day. The core scientific programme provides a natural entry point into new conversations that evolve into new projects. Presentations provoke discussion and sometimes heated debate which might continue long beyond the formal conference session. Conferences are where I formulate new research ideas. At conferences even the most ambitious plans seem possible and I look beyond the mundane and, together with colleagues, we try to change the world for the better.
Conferences support a field of work too. They create a hub for shared interests, for people working in a similar area to come together, to promote a whole discipline and celebrate its contribution to academic endeavour. Taking time out from the day-to-day routine means ideas are nurtured and, at a practical level, it's a great place to hold project meetings when people from across the country can meet face-to-face. They are a key part of the job market too. It’s fair to say my move to Oxford started with a conference conversation and I’m not the only person on the lookout for talented young researchers.
So let’s salute the academic conference and remind ourselves of how lucky we are to be in jobs which allow us to combine serious work with convivial company, often in some of the most beautiful surroundings in the world. And the answer to the question is “no my darling, I don’t HAVE to go, it’s not a decision I make lightly, but a well chosen conference is rarely something I regret.”
The 44th runs from Wednesday 8th to Friday 10th July 2015