Planning a Scientific Conference Session, or How to Make the Perfect Science Mixtape

By Jeff Atkins

During graduate school I somehow talked my way into organizing a session on ecological impacts of extreme events with a friend and colleague of mine* for the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, the largest scientific gathering in the world. The process of organizing and putting together a session is strange at first. But quickly on I realized, “I am not just picking abstracts, I am making a freaking SCIENCE MIXTAPE for 26,000 of my closest SCIENCE FRIENDS!”

When I was a kid, if you liked someone, one of the things you would do is make them a mixtape or CD. Back in the day, this meant rummaging through all of your tapes, CD, and mp3s and mapping out a perfect tracklist to convey what you wanted to say. It was an art in sculpting the soundscape you wanted. You had to grab them early with something catchy in that first track, then reel them in with tracks two and three. Maybe with track four you could kick it down a notch and throw in something a little mellower . . . you weren’t making a random assortment of songs, you were making an emotional journey for that special person. Your scientific session should be treated with the same level of care.

Here is some inside baseball on how science conferences come together. My experience with organizing sessions is restricted to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Ecological Society of America (ESA). At each meeting, I have organized a variety of sessions, but there are a few general principles behind them regardless of whether they are research, education, or information-focused. At AGU, sessions originate when you and a group of your science pals write a session abstract that is submitted to AGU. If your session is accepted, then you have to advertise the hell out of it and try to get people to submit to your session—you only get a section of oral presentations (aka talks) if enough people submit. For each oral session, you get eight to ten slots for talks, of these you are allowed to have two invited speakers (people you select, or coerce into coming). ESA organized sessions are a bit different in that you have to turn in an abstract and a list of ten speakers for your sessions. Meaning you have to get people to commit basically right after the previous ESA. If anything, you should probably plan next year’s ESA session at this year’s. For AGU, you have to pick from the pool of fine scientists who sought you out. So they are a bit different.

Here are what I think are a few guiding principles to make the best science mixtape you can:

1) The Science!

First and foremost, you need good science. This means focusing on relevant and current issues in your field. Avoid retreading past discussions or covering tired ground. Conferences are the place to push boundaries, to get the best and the brightest in the room. Push the envelope here, but keep it sound.

2) Diverse Voices

Your session shouldn’t look like Mt. Rushmore. If you got nothing but a bunch of old, white guys, you’ve already messed up. MAKE. IT. DIVERSE. A great session will reflect the broad and diverse nature of your field . There are resources likes Diversify EEB that can help to broaden the pool. Use them.

3) Mix Up Career Stages

Look, I have been there. I know you want to get Dr. Important to speak on their transformational research. And maybe that’s OK. However, there is not a strong correlation necessarily between one’s H index and their ability to give a compelling presentation (I have no stats on this, but am willing to listen on how to quantify this). And I am not advocating against senior personnel in anyway. In fact, I think it is good to try to secure at least a couple—maybe at the Associate Professor level or equivalent. These are the people who are the leaders in the field. They are the big names that turn heads. As such though, they are likely to be in very high demand. The chance that you are going to roll out a roster of established rock stars is a bit unlikely. Early- and mid-career researchers are more likely to have their hands dirty (often literally) with the latest research. They are the most connected, most up-to-date, and have the most skin in the game. Plainly, they have a greater motivation to give a better talk, to make a better poster. That’s a plus. There is also the issue of equity. There are tons of great young researchers who deserve a chance to be on that dais. It’s a win-win.

This is also an opportunity for you to network. If you are an early-career researcher, organizing sessions is an opportunity for you to meet people who you can potentially do science with. Early- and mid-career researchers represent the best opportunity for future proposals and research collaboration.**

4) Big AND Small Labs

Large labs are inherently more visible, but if you want your session to shine, you need to diversify in this respect as well. A lot of really great work comes out of smaller schools and labs, and deserves recognition and exposure. This also ensures, to a degree, diversity of the thought that is presented in your session as well. That said, don’t restrict yourself solely to university-based research either. There are Federal, State, NGO, and non-profit based research entities out there full of talented researchers and exciting science.

5) Build a Narrative within Your Session

Ideally, all of the talks in your session will build off or complement each other in some way as to make a cohesive session. This can be difficult though, given some constraints. I have been working with colleagues to put together a session for ESA 2018 focused on cutting-edge remote sensing technologies. Within this, we have people working in systems from the Arctic tundra to coastal marshes. There are folks using solar-induced florescence, Landsat, MODIS, hyperspectral. All sorts of platforms. The narrative device we arrived at was “scale.” The session starts at the very fine scale—within individual tree canopies, or small plots—then moves out to look across sites and landscapes, and closes with broad scale, big picture global remote sensing issues. Another approach would have been to find a slew of people working with hyperspectral sensors across multiple ecosystems, or, people working with multiple methods in one ecosystem.

Building this narrative can be more difficult if you are beholden to proposals submitted to your session, rather than when you are curating the session from scratch. But there are still benefits to trying. While there will always be those who flit back and forth between sessions to catch different speakers, giving some thought to making your session more cohesive will help limit this to some degree. If one talk logically transitions to another, people are more likely to stay.  If you are one of those people who go from session to session though, learn how to close a door more silently.

6) Posters Matter

Personally, I love presenting posters because the interactions are one-on-one, more in depth, more personal. You can have active conversations with people about your work! At AGU, posters are not given short-shrift as much as they are at many other conferences. Posters matter. Most first-time conference attendees, usually graduate or undergraduate students, present posters. As you all know, a lot of hard work goes into those posters. They take time to make. Cost money to print. And then you have to lug them around on the plane, where invariably someone asks you if you are going fishing and you have to explain the poster tube thing. They deserve your attention and your focus. Attend your poster session, talk to your attendees, ask them questions, and thank them for presenting in your sessions.

If you have any say over where and when poster presentations occur as part of a conference, advocate for the prominence and respect they deserve and don’t let them be cast off as a side-event to the main show. #PostersMatter

7) Advertise and Invite

If you have put in the time to organize a session, you should make an effort to get the word out. Social media is a good place for this, particularly Twitter. Message boards and listservs might work, but I would caution against spamming any place. While promotion is good, there is a line. Or maybe you would want to write up a post on a blog site about your upcoming session. That would be a good way to get the word out! (You can submit to by emailing And if you want to revisit my metaphor that I dropped several paragraphs ago, this is the part where you decorate the mixtape with stars and Sharpies.

If you have taken the time and effort to put together a session, take the extra steps to make it great.

*And later two lovely and wonderful people after our session was merged who continue this session to this day.

** A side tip here, if you are a graduate student or early career person, this piece of advice I think holds up in general. Go and try to meet other early career folk too as these will be the people who you will build a career with.

Author’s Note:  An excellent piece on gender/career stage differences in presentations at AGU from 2014-2016 was published between the time I originally wrote this and it was published. It is great and you should check it out:  Ford et al. 2018

Author biography:  Jeff Atkins is an ecosystem ecologist with a remote sensing problem who works on structure-function relationships in forest ecosystems. He writes for PLOS Ecology and co-hosts the ecology and science podcast, Major Revisions.

Featured Image caption/credit: A generic mixtape cassette as metaphor. (Public Domain)

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