By Nick

Welcome to your first big conference, as a very small fish, in a very large bowl. Image from

It’s hard not to get overawed by your first big conference, and Goldschmidt 2012, this year held in the beautiful city of Montreal, was my first big conference. Goldschmidt is one of the foremost conferences in the world for geochemists* and it was big, really big. Around 3000 scientists, and there was so much to discuss and see, that there were up to twenty parallel sessions of talks going on at once**.

So where does it leave a junior geochemist, trying to make his name in the world. There are three principle ways of doing this, a poster, a talk and networking. Posters are great, you get to chat about your science in a more friendly low key way, but it is hard to get noticed. Networking can be a tough gig, how do you introduce yourself to the foremost scientist in your field without sounding like a fanboy or a pompous arse. I will touch on conference networking in a future blog post. Today, I’m going to discuss giving a talk at a big conference.

So with twenty parallel sessions, there can often be the luck of the draw with giving a talk. Luck, that apparently I just didn’t have. I got around fifteen people to my talk, not a great first impression compared to many of the sessions I sat in on. There were probably multiple reasons for this.

For a start, I was located in a small room, towards the back of the conference centre, no-one could wander in accidentally, they had to want to be at my talk. Secondly, it was after lunch, and with a cancellation to my session, there were only two of us talking. Had we been in the morning session, we would have had an audience of fifty or more.

Perhaps also I didn’t sell myself too well. The title of anybody’s talk is often the only thing on which people judge whether or not they will go and see it (until you are well known at least). I made the rookie mistake of titling my talk about my results, rather than necessarily about how I got them. So some of the speleologists out there (people who study cave deposits like me) probably didn’t even know my talk would be about stalagmites. Lesson definitely learned there.

And probably the biggest thing against me was the fact I was up against Gerald Haug in a parallel session. Gerald is a big name in palaeoclimate, he even has a wikipedia page, as well as being ever so slightly dashing. And so, most palaeoclimate people would have gone to see his talk over mine.

But such is life, as a relatively junior PhD student I know that I am starting life out at the bottom, and that it will take a lot of hard work to become a great scientist. And let’s look on the bright side. My talk actually went really well. I didn’t stumble over my words, there weren’t too many uhms and ahs, I didn’t rush and neither did I take too long. I think I got my point across very well.

At this conference, like many of the major ones, you only get twelve minutes to speak about your work, which is not much. But at the end you have to face three minutes of questions, a chance for the scientific world to shoot you down and destroy you, or just ask for a couple of clarifications. I got some questions (so at least I didn’t bore everyone to sleep) and answered them well. Oh yeah! And after the session, I met a few of the scientists in the audience and had some really good discussions about my work.

So all in all, I am pleased about how my talk went. It could have been better, it could have been a lot worse.


* Geochemistry is quite a broad term when describing a particular subset of Earth Scientists. It is basically anybody who studies the earth using chemistry, as opposed to biology or physics. It can range from the very high temperatures associated with the mantle or the deep crust (such as the work Brendan does) all the way to the low temperature end, dealing with the oceans, past and present, (much more like the stuff I do).

** There was even an entire session (not just a talk, but a session) dedicated to the atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, presumably churning through all of the data gathered from the Cassini mission, both from the Cassini satellite and the Huygens probe. I would have loved to have gone, but it clashed with some interesting stalagmite work, and as hard as it was, I had to put relevance to my discipline ahead of my geeky curiosity.