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Academic conferences exhaust people, systems, and bank accounts: A reflection on solutions

I’m on a bus traversing, technically, the state of Virginia, but the strangers piled under coats in the zig-zag pattern throughout the bus and I spend our first moments wending through the grid of D.C. It’s especially arduous today because the President is nearby. Isn’t the President often nearby?

My hotel was .7 mile from Union Station. Easy, shouldn’t take very long to get there. Alas, there were 8ft gates and cinder blocks, national guard members and their hummers generating an impenetrable maze throughout the 3-block radius of the hotel. The ripple effect of ineffectual rerouting was wreaking havoc on all the humans trying to live their lives—delivering goods, pushing their strollers, eating their bagels. And then, there’s Scher—my friend colleague (frolleague) and me. We each have giant carry-on bags and rolling suitcases. We crossed one street. And then another. Hailing cabs, checking phones for Uber options, updating our location in GoogleMaps. The blue line, our route, usurped by reds and oranges.

This hamster wheel is no good. Time is running out. All according to plan.

The Principal Investigator of the pilot trial entitled, “Samantha goes to her first conference after COVID-19” sits back with pen and pad. The maze is solid. The GoogleMaps failure setting is high. The Fitbit is at 4% charge. The conference-required mask mandate is ridiculous. The bank account is draining from exorbitant shared meals. The repetitive content is sufficient. Subject 1 is under slept and overstimulated.

But, that’s not all. Subject 1 also did some novel things. She stepped out when her eyes needed to soak up the sun, she planned dinners with people she intended to connect with, she didn’t wear pressed cigarette pants from the Loft the pinch in the crotch, she didn’t stay out late (thinking she’d miss out). And, she taught yoga each day. Moved her body, felt her breath. And was reminded: This is what I’m here for.

I want to share yoga practices for academics to flourish. I want this perception of flourishing to be extended to condensed, overstimulating days at conferences.

I am a dissemination and implementation scientist—which means I’m someone who acknowledges that there is a lot of great evidence out there already, on the shoulders of behavioral psychology giants, physician-researchers, electronic medical record warriors, community health educators, participatory researchers, and collaborative teams and institutions …just to name a few. Let’s not reinvent the wheel.

My academic training started in 2008 and since then, we’ve been talking about speeding the translational lag time: How do we get something we know works, out there? How do we get something we know doesn’t work, to stop?

And it brings me to the topic of this commentary: How do we break the cycle of conference attendance that isn’t working? I don’t know the structural answers, but this n of 1 can attest to some strategies that may help your next Conference Experiment be a success—based on behavior change strategies and yoga principles.

1. Set an intention for your conference. This is your intention. Not your funders or your boss’ (I hear myself saying, find your downward facing dog, not what your neighbor needs or what you needed yesterday, be here now.) Maybe last conference you needed to find a mentor with a specific skill set or background. Maybe this one you need to find a new methodological approach or software to assist in your data collection and analysis. Maybe last conference you needed space to reflect on your next grant. Maybe this one you need to feel re-inspired and grab cocktails with a frolleague.

2. Self-monitoring. Track and reflect on your ABCs: antecedents, behaviors, consequences. Use a journal or other tracking you prefer. Something like, what time of day do you lose energy, what snacks do you need? Have you seen the sun yet? Did you move your body? Remember that all the health behaviors we aim to help others achieve on a regular basis, also apply during conference season.

3. Audit and feedback. Self-monitoring works best when there is a way to evaluate and share your reflections. Maybe utilize a mentor, mentee, or frolleague check in each day, even via text, “How well are you rocking your conference attendance today? 1 = exhausted, wish I wasn’t here, 5 = I am jazzed and riding my intellectual energy wave.”

Looking for multilevel changes? I’ve got them, too. And I’m not alone! One of my regular conferences just sent out a survey asking what days, timing, educational and social content would be of interest.

1. Funding agencies or “supervisors”. Do not mandate that a scholar provides a presentation to be eligible for conference reimbursement. This overstocks posters just so that people have an excuse to go. Five people attend the poster. It’s all a facade. Let people attend if they want to. Period.

2. Planning committees. Build in breaks! Facilitated and purposeful breaks. Not a break that happens at 6:30am. Breaks within the day. This is mental, physical, and social replenishment. Include it in the registration costs so that a) more people come because they “already paid for it,” and b) it can be reimbursed.

You’re either nodding or rolling your eyes. I get it. It’s not this simple, but also, it could be this simple.

Holding my breath for the conference structure to be innovative across all disciplines, move away from posters and dark panels with people hunched over their phones, is going to ruin me. I will spend my time (and thoughts) on the things I do have an influence over which is… just me. And just like that, we’re out of D.C. proper and signs for Route 66 pass my periphery. My reflection over, for now. How do you build a culture of health at a conference?

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