Surviving life on the congress treadmill
n 1995, there were 32 major congresses connected to medical imaging – not even counting congresses in Australasia and Latin America. There were hundreds more catering to national, local, and specialized audiences.
The last European Congress of Radiology in Vienna attracted more than 7,000 radiologists and 5,000 commercial people, while 17,000 medical and commercial professionals attended the last annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology. The Journées Françaises de Radiologie usually bring together some 5,000 radiologists and 9,000 exhibitors and visitors to the exhibition, and Medica in Düsseldorf has more than 100,000 attendees. The 1995 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago easily draws 15,000 physicians or, in total, more than 60,000 professionals.
Why do we attend these meetings?
To learn and to teach, to buy and to sell. However, attending big conferences is not always a pleasant experience. If you are surrounded by several thousand fellow-radiologists, it usually looks like this:
La ronde commence –
The merry-go-round starts …
In the worst case the nightmare of big conferences starts already on the airplane which takes you to the conference city: it is crowded with fellow professionals and exhibitors. If you are lucky it does not start until you reach your hotel. As soon as you arrive in the hotel lobby, you hear: “Good to see you!” from somebody you definitely did not want to see, stressed as you are after traveling so many hours.
“Good to see you” can mean anything from “I am really happy to see you” to “I did not know that you are still in the business”. Whatever is meant, you have to smile and be polite to the person greeting you. The next morning, you have breakfast at the hotel for US$ 30, even if you have only a cup of tea and a slice of dry toast, and then you take off to the …
Nearly all conference centers are labyrinths, built to confuse participants. Try to find the entrance to the conference center in Nice on a hot summer day – it is always at the other end of the building, all other glass entrance doors you approach are locked; when in London, you will get lost in the empty corridors of the Barbican Center; in Vienna, you will circle around the walled-in center of the Austria Center; at the Porte Maillot Conference Center in Paris, you first learn that the city office of Air France on the ground floor is not in charge of the meeting – but they would happily sell you an airplane ticket to Guadeloupe; when you think you have finally located your event you suddenly realize that you are in the men’s room.
At the registration desk you receive the obligatory conference folder. This is rarely leather but rather tends to be plastic – and smells plastic –, sometimes it is even paper. Although it looks very fashionable, it can be completely impractical, particularly if the conference program does not fit into it. This folder is meant to carry around the abstract books, but unfortunately it soon breaks and you have to transport the five kilograms of books by hand.
Every pickpocket in town can easily recognize his foreign victims: They all carry a conference folder with the colorful imprint of the 75th International Congress for Imaging the Uvula and Vocal Chords. After your book of proceedings has been stolen, you realize why it has been stolen – the price for a replacement copy is DM 450, or exactly your registration fee.
The opening words in the program reveal that the conference is under the auspices of the ministry of agriculture because the conference president attended school with the minister.
To get an overview of the conference, you open the program booklet and try to find your way around. The typing font used makes the program look blurry and your eyes start to water. There is no overview and the schedule of the meeting is categorized by topics rather than days. You discover that after day three of topic one, the printed program features day one of topic two. Finally, at the end of the conference, you understand the organizing scheme, but now it is too late because you have missed all the lectures you would have liked to attend.
Some conferences now offer the program and book of abstracts on CD-ROM. This is an excellent solution to the problems mentioned, unless your portable computer does not have a CD-ROM drive or you travel without a computer. Whereas it is easy to read a printed book in your hotel room, without the required equipment it is impossible to get any information out of a CD-ROM at midnight when you start thinking about what sessions to attend on the following day.
At many conferences you will suffer from the frustration of parallel sessions, which often cover virtually the same topic, so that you have no idea which one you should attend. You finally decide to listen to neither of them and to go shopping before your colleagues buy all go the good stuff.
Once there was this conference for which the program had not been finished when the meeting started. The only printed material available was a preliminary list of participants and a detailed description of the lunch and dinner menus, including the wine list. On the first day of the conference, some of the participants set up the scientific program. Such conferences have the advantage that you never forget them.
Another problem is name badges. At registration everybody receives one of them, usually with your own name. Unfortunately, often the names are printed too small to read from a distance, so that you have to approach a person you believe you know but whose name you have forgotten until you are nearly standing on her or his feet to be able to decipher the name – and then, embarrassingly, it is the wrong person.
Furthermore, badges with clips are often impossible to fix on a woman’s dress, they have been developed for men. So you find many women choose to put their badges in their pockets or handbags, hold them in their hands, or attach them at odd angles to their dresses, adding further to the difficult task of finding out their names.
Some people are without name tag, which means: “You should recognize me without tag, I am so important”; some, in particular at congresses in the United States and in Great Britain, have ribbons hanging down from the tags like prize bulls at an agricultural show. Accordingly, the names are followed by all kinds of abbreviations, you have no idea what they mean (MD or PhD is all right, but what is a FACC?).
At most conferences you find a board to leave messages for fellow participants. It seems that sometimes people leave messages to themselves just that their names are seen on the message board.
Presentation and slides
Nowadays most slides are computer-generated, in seventeen colors with integrated pictures and graphs. Usually they contain too much text and incomprehensible abbreviations. The first speaker presents slides with pink background, the next one with figures even in the background. They all are very sophisticated but have fifty-five orthographic mistakes per slide – sometimes even the title is misspelled.
Although there is a preview room and everybody can check their slides before the presentations, often slides are upside-down or not in the correct order for the talk. I remember one lecture where the speaker appeared without slides; he had sent them by courier mail, but they never arrived. The only thing he could do was tell the audience the airbill number of the shipment.
No speaker stays within the allocated time frame. They can be divided into five different types: the impolite; the inexperienced: the illprepared; those who do not know what they are talking about; and chairmen whose talks have been rejected but talk anyway because nobody can stop them.
Fortunately some speakers do not show up at all so that the next session starts only half-and-hour late.
Add to this the projectionists whose qualification for the job generally depends on their eyesight: They have to be myopic so that they cannot recognize whether the slides are in focus.
One of the most embarrassing situations at a conference occurs when a speaker does not speak the language of the congress. I remember a conference in France where a speaker gave a talk on a topic I was interested in. I understood about 50% of what he said and was proud of my French. Afterwards I realized that the speaker had given the talk in English but with an extremely heavy French accent. Real problems can occur when the language bears no similarity to English at all, as in the case of Japanese.
There are participants who not only do not speak the language of the conference but also do not understand it. They usually travel in groups and one of them translates everything for the others. Then little mistakes can happen: “Congenital” suddenly means “friendly,” “enema” is an opponent, “impotent” means “distinguished or well-known”, and “terminally ill” describes somebody who gets sick at an airport.
If you want to move at little bit around because you fall asleep in the dark lecture halls, you can look at the posters. Since the scientific committee has accepted all posters to boost conference attendance, there are too many of them, and it is impossible to find the good and important ones. Anyhow, it is nearly impossible to concentrate on the posters because you meet and chat with colleagues you know – which brings us to the ...
As an attendee of radiological conferences for nearly twenty years, I have come to the conclusion that certain patterns are repetitive. You know many of the participants, although sometimes only the faces, not the names. You recognize the big shots, but also some of the other participants.
There are, for instance, ...
the single-topic researchers who talk about the same research for five years; every year, they add some data, change their point of view slightly and their computer graphics completely. After five years, they get support from the Directorate General of Odors and Smells of the European Union for another five years of research on the same topic. Anyhow, all important results on this topic were already published by another group in the 1970s;
the show-offs, the self-styled kings of a certain topic who do not ask questions in the discussion sessions but merely make statements about themselves and their results. They are in the field for forty years and believe that they have discovered and described everything. Some of the show-offs can become extremely aggressive – but they will be forgotten in five years;
the opposites is of the show-off is the quiet gray eminence, to whom nobody dares to talk because she or he already have done everything or know the solution – they will be forgotten in ten years;
the sectarians are show-offs with obscure theses and ideas – they are already forgotten;
the latecomers walk down the aisles of the lecture hall and try to find seats in the first row after a lecture has begun which, as they know, is attended by all those they want to impress and all their enemies. They want to make it clear that they have arrived and participate in the conference but are so busy that they were delayed by an important meeting outside the conference hall. In truth, they may well have gotten lost on the way. These people usually disappear after the first lecture;
the serious believers are constantly engaged, discussing esoteric scientific topics during the coffee breaks, at dinner, in the toilets, at night in their hotel rooms;
the Casanovas (male or female) scan the audience for somebody, like a lion for prey. Dedicated (male) Casanovas join the ladies’ program instead of attending the conference (and vice-versa);
the no-shows submit papers so that their names are cited in the program. It is their way of inflating their curricula vitae without having to prepare a talk or to spend time and money attending the conference.
Le congrès ne marche pas, il danse.
In the evening, you would like to escape the conference. However, what happens?
Cocktails and dinners, or the so-called social events or bar-sessions, which are just a replay of the day. You encounter the same faces, same problems, same topics of conversation – except now your hands struggle with glasses and food instead of books and broken folders. It is impossible to escape.
And finally, as the merry-go-round turns, we reach the return trip: you are sitting sick and sweating on the airplane because of too little sleep, too much food, too much alcohol, and not enough exercise.
See you at the next meeting.
PS. Times have changed and gone even more electronic – which doesn't mean that congresses and attendees or organizers have changed: "It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory …"