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Organizing a Science Symposium: Don’t Be Intimidated!

Skidmore symposium

A symposium at Entomology 2017 titled “What’s the Buzz with Industrial Hemp and Entomology?” is one of several that Amanda Skidmore, Ph.D. (center) has organized at ESA Branch and Annual Meetings. Skidmore recalls being intimidated by the process of organizing a symposium as a graduate student, but she says ESA members at any level will likely find it to be a rewarding experience. (Photo credit: Paul Lenhart, Ph.D.)

By Amanda Skidmore, Ph.D.

Have you ever wanted to organize a symposium for an Entomological Society of America conference or elsewhere but been a little intimidated?

When I was a young scientist in graduate school, the thought of organizing and moderating a symposium was daunting. I had an idea for an innovative symposium on a topic that had never been covered at a national meeting. I was scared it might be rejected, but a wise mentor encouraged me to purse developing my topic and submitting it for review.

Amanda Skidmore, Ph.D.

Amanda Skidmore, Ph.D.

I labored over the submission process, waited with bated breath to see if it would be accepted, dedicatedly researched and reached out to speakers, and anxiously anticipated the event. It was accepted, and once the symposium was successfully completed, I realized that my worries had been completely unfounded. The symposium had a positive impact on fellow scientists, created a buzz of excitement among the participants, and had energized me to consider new ways of looking at the topics presented. I was ready to do it again! Since then, I have had the pleasure of organizing several symposia for both branch and national ESA meetings.

I want to share with you some ideas and tips for creating, organizing, and moderating a successful symposium—and, importantly, one that fosters diversity and inclusion within our science. Hopefully you will find these ideas useful as you develop your own symposium!

[Note: The tips and ideas here are presented in the context of Entomological Society of America (ESA) programs, but many of them likely apply in concept to organizing a symposium at other scientific conferences, as well.]

Create: How Do I Come Up With a Good Symposium Idea?

Anyone can organize symposia for ESA Branch Meetings or the national Annual Meeting. Every year, the conference program committee reads through proposal ideas and selects the final symposia. Here are some ideas for developing a symposium that will stand out:

Picking a topic: If you don’t have a topic already in mind, picking a topic for an innovative symposium can be hard. If you are struggling, here are some questions that might help you come up with a topic: Think about the past ESA meetings you have attended: What symposia were awesome? What symposium really made you think about your science? Did you feel like there was a topic missing from previous years? Is there a new topic in your field you would like to see covered? What topics could encourage those who historically don’t participate in the meeting? What topics will encourage a diverse group of speakers?

Don’t do it alone: Find colleagues that are knowledgeable or interested in your topic. Your colleagues will be able to give you feedback, and together you will be able to come up with ideas that will benefit the entire entomological community.

Speakers: Once you have a topic, it will be important to reach out to potential speakers and ask if they would be interested in participating, should your symposium be accepted for the meeting. Having potential speakers interested in talking in your symposium will help support why your symposium is important. Some tips for inviting speakers:

  • Shoot for the stars! Is there a leader in your field that would be an ideal speaker? Don’t be afraid to reach out to them and invite them to participate. Most people are flattered to be invited to talk about their work!
  • Aim to have a diverse group of presenters in your symposium. Are there individuals from typically underrepresented groups who may have been overlooked that you could invite to be part of your symposium? Speakers with diverse backgrounds (gender, ethnicity, career stage, etc.) can bring unique perspectives and deepen the impact of your symposium.
  • Don’t be afraid to invite non-entomologists to share their work. Many branches of science study insects in relationship to their discipline. Having speakers with varied scientific understanding can help provide a better understanding of your topic.

Submit your symposium: ESA has a very easy-to-use system for submitting your symposium and an excellent FAQs page to help answer questions. Here are some additional tips and considerations to help you strengthen your submission:

  • Have a creative title. Find a title that will stand out but is also descriptive of your topic.
  • Provide a clear aim or goals for your symposium. This is your opportunity to summarize your ideas and advocate for why your symposium should be included in the program.
  • Does your symposium submission represent the diversity of work being done on the topic?
  • Consider selecting the “invited and contributed” option when selecting a symposium type. A potential speaker can then submit their talk to your symposium if they feel their topic is closely related. This will allow you to decide if their talk is a good fit and helps to include researchers you may have overlooked in your initial speaker search.

Pay attention to submission dates: Symposia are planned many months in advance. Make a note of important deadlines so you don’t miss out on sharing your ideas.

Organize: My Symposium Has Been Accepted—Now What?

Finding out that your symposium has been accepted is always exciting. Now is the time to contact your speakers and start thinking about the story you want your symposium to tell.

Speakers: Reconnect with your speakers to confirm their participation. If they have a conflict with the date of the symposium or have had a change in their situation, ask if they know a potential substitute speaker.

  • It will be your responsibility to contact your speakers to have them provide titles and abstracts for their talks.
  • Take time to search for additional speakers. Sometimes between the time you first start researching speakers and the time your symposium has been accepted, new research on your topic may have come out. Take time look at the scientists in your field and make sure you haven’t overlooked someone who would be a valuable asset to your symposium. Again, consider the diversity of your speakers and their backgrounds. Diversity in speakers can bring in new ideas and new ways of looking at research and issues you encounter.
  • Consider any speakers who have submitted talks to your symposium. It is OK to turn someone down if their topic isn’t a good fit with the overall aim of the symposium, but also remember that including a broad range of speakers and research can greatly improve your symposium’s impact and bring new research to light.

Plan: Take time to read your speakers’ abstracts and think about a logical order for the presentations. Some thoughts to consider when planning the order of the presentations:

  • What do you want your audience to learn? Would a certain order provide a clear story? Does it make sense to group certain talks together?
  • Mind speaker conflicts. Be considerate if a speaker needs to be free at a specific time because of another event they need to attend.
  • Share your plan and speaking order with your presenters. I like to prepare a document for my speakers providing everyone’s talk times, titles, and abstracts. If speakers see a summary of the content being presented by their peers, it helps to reduce repetition or overlaps in talks and allows researchers to focus on their main points.
  • If you have a speaker that needs to submit a pre-recorded talk, consider scheduling that talk for immediately after the break. This will allow you time to work out any technical issues you might have (lag time, speaker volume, etc.) during the break and not in the middle of your symposium!

Spread the word: Promote your symposium across different social media platforms. Share the information about your symposium’s aims and date and time with groups that might find your symposium beneficial to their work.

Moderate: Time to Rock n’ Roll!

Your symposium has been accepted, your speakers are lined up, your travel plans have been made—what is left to do? There are several important responsibilities that make a good moderator and a successful symposium:

Plan: As a moderator, you are responsible for introducing the symposium and speakers. Take time before the meeting to write down how you plan to introduce your session. Remember to welcome participants for coming, thank your speakers, and enthusiastically introduce your topic. Now is a good time to reach out to your speakers and ask how they would like to be introduced and the correct pronunciation of their names.

  • Use inclusive language in your introduction. Instead of “ladies and gentlemen,” try “colleagues” or “fellow scientists” instead. This will help to make everyone in your audience feel comfortable.
  • Make sure to treat all of your speakers equally. Give similar introductory statements for each speaker.

Moderator training: ESA requires all moderators to come to moderator training. This is offered on multiple days during the conference, so mark your program and make sure you attend. You will get instructions on how to run the audio/visual equipment in your room, how to manage time for your speakers, and how to smoothly transition between speakers.

Go time: Arrive to your room early. This will give you a chance to orient yourself to the equipment and make sure everything is working properly.

  • Keep to the program running on schedule. This is both respectful to the audience and the presenters.
  • To make your symposium stand out and look welcoming to your audience, show an opening image in your presentations that represents your symposium. It looks much cleaner than a messy desktop or blank screen. Often I show the image before the symposium starts, during the break, and at the end as people are mingling. You can also include a slide with your name and contact information at the end.

Wrap up: Once your symposium has successfully completed, don’t forget to thank all of your speakers. Follow-up emails to thank your speakers for their contribution are a great way to personally connect with your speakers and build future networking opportunities.

Advance: Share Your Experience and Carry the Momentum Forward

Did your symposium get you excited? I have often been super energized and full of ideas after a great symposium. Here are some things you can do with that energy:

Post: Use social media to talk about your symposium. Post pictures or share cool articles from your speakers. Encourage others to consider diversity in their speakers and symposia as well.

Write: There are many opportunities to summarize your symposium and share it with the larger entomological community. Write a blog post for Entomology Todayor a short note for American Entomologist about interesting things that you learned or cool topics that were discussed.

Create a working group: One of the great things about having national and regional meetings is the opportunity to engage with fellow scientists in your field. Reach out to your speakers and participants and see if anyone would be interested in having a follow-up discussion via videoconference. And be inclusive, not exclusive! Make sure everyone has an equal chance to participate. You can set up a Doodle poll to determine the best meeting time and record meetings (or provide summaries) for those who cannot attended.

Host a webinar: Conference talks are short summaries of research projects, but hosting a webinar series would allow for longer presentations. Reach out to your ESA Branch representatives and discuss opportunities to host a webinar.

Plan: Start planning for next year! Would it be beneficial to have another symposium on your topic to bring fellow researchers together again? Did a new idea come from your symposium that would make a good follow-up topic for new symposium? It’s never too early to start thinking about the next branch or national meeting!

Finally, remember that planning a symposium should be fun! It is your opportunity to communicate with fellow entomologists and share work on a topic you are passionate about. Don’t be intimidated—you’ve got this!

Amanda Skidmore, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research associate and project manager at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is currently the chair of the ESA North Central Branch Student Affairs Committee and the NCB Representative to the ESA Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Instagram: @Dr_Skidmore. Twitter: @Dr_Skidmore. Email: amanda.skidmore@gmail.com

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