Last week I went to someone else’s conference. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in my field, but I don’t often attend conferences so far outside my own domain. But as part of a cyberinfrastructure study that I’m working on, I went to the Metagenomics 2008 conference. I was happy to discover that I could follow the general idea of most of the talks (although, of course, I was usually baffled when speakers got to the highly technical details).
But as an outsider, I found myself frequently turning to the person next to me and asking, “Is this cool?” or, “Is (s)he anyone?” Understanding the science is a prerequisite, but in order to really be a member of the community, you have to know to whom or to what to pay heed. I’m at a conference in my own field this week, and last week’s experience has made me more sensitive to this phenomenon. Today I overheard someone explaining to a conference newbie why one session was likely to be more interesting than the other, and I realized that a) I completely agreed with him, and b) to know that required a lot of knowledge that wasn’t in the conference program.