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Our experience organising successful scientific and educational events for students in the bioinformatics community (while operating on a low budget).
Our experience organising successful scientific and educational events for students in the bioinformatics community (while operating on a low budget).
Manuel Corpas, Nils Gehlenborg and Sarath Chandra Janga
Manuel Corpas*, Nils Gehlenborg and Sarath Chandra Janga
(* To whom correspondence should be addressed)
== Preamble ==
== Preamble ==

Revision as of 06:14, 3 December 2007

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Our experience organising successful scientific and educational events for students in the bioinformatics community (while operating on a low budget).

Manuel Corpas*, Nils Gehlenborg and Sarath Chandra Janga

(* To whom correspondence should be addressed)


More and more scientific career articles [1] are converging on the need for students and researchers to be able to 'know how' to organise a scientific meeting. Scientific meetings are at the heart of the scientist's professional life, since they provide an invaluable opportunity for learning, networking and brainstorming new ideas. In addition, meetings should be enjoyable experiences that add exciting breaks to the usual routine in the lab.

The International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) Student Council (www.iscbsc.org) is the young members' section of ISCB that focuses on the organisation of activities and events that facilitate their scientific development. From our experience in organising the Student Council Symposium [2, 3], a satellite meeting of an ISCB-related mainstream conference [4], and other scientific events, we ourselves have learnt a great deal of aspects not so well cared for in the usual academic curricula.

We argue that the experience of organising events by students has immense value for the development of the future scientist; many skills are exercised: organisational, managerial, team work effort, etc. All of these skills are important assets that may make the difference in a successful scientific career path.

Before the Conference

  • Allow plenty of planning time

We recommend a minimum planning time that ranges from nine months up to a year, depending on the size of your event, taking into account that bigger conferences require more preparation times. Allow plenty of time to select your venue, for your attendees to book their flights early and for submission and review of material to be presented. Outstanding keynotes will require also many months in advance in order to find a hole in their busy schedules.

  • Study all potential financial issues affecting the event

Sponsors are a great source of income together with your attendant's registration fees. To increase the chances of being sponsored by industry write them a clear proposal stating what the money will be fo and what they get in return. Telling them where the money goes might get you a free openning ceremony courtesy of "X". You may also want to offer some time as industry talks or demos as a way of attracting more sponsors. Before approaching sponsors though, make sure you approach first the ones that match your interest topics the closest. If they say they are not interested this year, keep their contact for the future, as they might be able to sponsor you in futire events. Approach them early rather than later in any case. The cost of your conference will be proportional to the capacity of the venue, therefore a good estimation of the number of attendants can tell you a good estimate of your costs. You will need to include meals, coffee breaks, the actual cost of renting your venue. Other potential costs might include fellowships, publication costs of proceedings in a journal and awards for outstanding contributors. All these issues will determine how low you need to charge your participants to attend.

  • Choose an appealing theme/topic for your target audience

When choosing a topic for your conference, it is important to have in mind the needs of your target audience. Make sure that you have a sufficiently wide range of areas, without being too general. The greater the number of topics covered the more people are likely to come, but the lesser the interest to deepen into practical questions. Emerging areas are more likely to attract greater interest, try to include them in your program as much as possible and let your audience decide what your preferred topics are if you have the capability of asking them.

  • Choose the right date and location

If this is your first conference, it needs to be as far apart as possible from established conferences. Alternatively, you may want to organise your event around a main conference, in the form of a satellite meeting or Special Interest Group (SIG). Teaming up with mainstream conferences may increase the chances of attracting more people, specially if this is your first time and also save you a great deal of administrative work. If you decide to do it on your own, you should consider the accessibility of your location, how easy is to fly there, whether it has a local interested community and has cultural/turistic interest. Turistic resorts may offer the posibility of making of your conference a holiday, so more people may be attracted to come to visit, especially if accommodation is not too expensive. Cheaper accommodation and cheaper airfares to your destination are always a plus.

  • Create a balanced timetable

A conference should be both a learning experience and an enjoyable activity. A conference is a place for people wanting to share and exchange ideas. Having many well known speakers will raise the demand of your event but also have a prominent chunk of the timetable for presentation of submitted materials. This will also encourage people to attend. We found that a mix senior scientists with young Principal Investigators (PIs) always work for the better. Young PIs may be more enthusiastic and inspiring for students, while top senior scientists will be able to present a more complete perspective of your fiels. Allow plenty of time for socialising too, breaks and meals are ideal occassions for meeting potential collaborators and fostering networking with peers.

  • Select carefully your key helpers: the organising committee

You do not need to master all skills required for the successful organisation of your meeting, but you will need to have an organising committee that is able to cover most of them. You might want to separate the areas of responsabilities between your helpers depending on their interests and availability of time. Some potential responsabilities that you may be able to delegate are 1) contents and design of website; 2) promotion materials and marketing; 3) finance administration 4) fundraising; 5) reviews of submitted material; 6) on-site specifically related issues; 7) programme and speakers; 7) awards. Your organising committee should be large enough to handle all the above aspects but not too large, avoiding free loaders on your committees. It is invaluable to have a local organising committee, because they will be able to involve local institutions, speakers and companies. Local organisations can help you with administrative tasks, dealing with registration of attendees and finding accommodation around the venue.

During the Conference

  • Meet everyone from the organising committees the day before the event

For many people it may be the first time they come to the place, so it is crucial that they get familiarised with the venue. Make sure you have inspected all the facilities and all the necessary materials for presenters: poster boards, pointers, a working laptop with cable for electrical feed, projectors, etc. Distribute responsabilities for the helpers: some of them will be needed for the registration table, some others carrying the microphones during sessions, recording if you have, organise and change presentations, introduce the speakers, etc.

  • Have contact information for all relevant people

You never know what will go wrong, so you want to be best prepared with a contingency plan, especially if you need to make last minute decisions. We recommend that you have at hand a list of the all names of the organisers, their mobile phones and their specific duties. Also have at hand the names and contact information of caterers, building managers, administrative personnel, technicians and the main conference organiser if you are having your event as part of another conference. It is also important that you have a designated meeting point where someone of the organisation is going to be avaliable at all times or where helpers may find someone to ask questions.

After the Conference

  • Make have a lasting impact in your community

This is important for you as the organiser, particularly if you are planning to organise a future edition of this event. If you had evaluation sheets given to your audience for feedback, make this information publicly accessible through your website. Evaluations may help you improve the focus of your conference and will let you know if there are issues that you were not aware of that people did not like. Get ready your submitted materials for publication in a journal, bering in mind that this may cost money depending on the journal. Upload to the website photos and videos (if you have any!) and post the names of the awarded people and travel fellowship recipients to the website. Always give credit where credit is due: recognise contributions by sponsors, speakers, organising committee, etc. Giving some simple but useful gifts to your keynotes will leave them a good impression of your event. You never know, they might be your paper's reviewer in the future and this might help tilt their judgement on your favour.

  • Send one last email a couple of months later

This would be to all delegates to inform the about the things that have happened since the conference, videos and photos that have been uploaded, related articles that have been published and announcements about your next conference if you are brave enough to repeat the experience!


We have presented here a set of guidelines and suggestions for the organisation of a scientific event. Although our experience comes from catering the student community in the field of Computational Biology, but we believe that such principles are valid to any scientific event, regardless of their target audience or topic. We have both organised satellite meetings associated to a mainstream conference (Student Council Symposium in ISMB) and helped the organisation of standalone events (BioSysBio). As we have shown, a wide range of skills are required for the successful accomplishment of a scientific event. We believe that knowing how to organise scientific events should be part of the educational experience of the developing scientist as well as a distinctive mark of a successful scientific career path.


We would like to acknowledge the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) for their support towards the organisation of the Student Council Symposium, in particular BJ Morrison-McKay and Steven Leard. We are also grateful to all the Student Council leadership for their enthusiasm and their hard work in the many activities the Student Council organises.


  • Tomazou EM & Powell GT (2007) Look who's talking too: graduates developing skills through communication. 8, 724-726 (September 2007) | doi:10.1038/nrg2177
  • Corpas M (2005) Scientists and Societies. Nature 436, 1204 doi:10.1038/nj7054-1204b
  • Gehlenborg N, Corpas M, Janga SC (2007) Highlights from the Third International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) Student Council Symposium at the Fifteenth Annual International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB). BMC Bioinformatics 8(Suppl 8):I1
  • Lengauer T, McKay BJM, Rost B (2007) ISMB/ECCB 2007: The Premier Conference on Computational Biology. PLoS Comput Biol 3(5): e96 doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.0030096


Before the Conference

  • Choose an appealing theme/topic
    • general scientific topic but focus on a particular question that students are interested in eg. academia vs. science, future of the field, etc. or pick a particular scientific topic that is just emerging (see BioSysBio)
    • regular annual conference typically run by large societies???
    • make decision whether you want a general conference or an event that focusses on a particular topic - make sure you have a sufficiently wide range of topics in the former case
  • Choose the right date and location
    • either long before or after other major conferences in the field or as part of a major conference
    • teaming up with a larger event will save the delegates a lot of money
    • Locations should be easy accessible (train and plane, also local public transport)
    • budget accommodation should be within reasonable distance.
    • choose a place where attendees can make of it a holiday

  • Create a balanced timetable
    • Allow a significant proportion of the timetable to submitted, reviewed and accepted material
    • Give ample time for socialising during the conference
      • allows people to meet their peers
      • colloborations
    • confirm keynote speakers very early
      • they are busy so the book out quickly
      • having the names of keynote speakers helps to promote the event
    • mix top senior scientists in the field and young PIs
    • find a good mix and people that are committed to the student community
    • Young PIs can give good insight into what it takes to get faculty or postdoc positions
    • Top senior scientists usually have a great overview of the field and can comment on developments that are to be expected in the future and how current topics fit into the bigger picture
    • big names makes your conference more attractive
    • Surveys of your target audience can tell you what are the most suitable speakers
    • Panel discussions where keynotes show they personal side are most inspiring to young researchers
    • include social activities and time for networking
  • Select carefully your key helpers: the organising committee
    • Wide set of skills required
      • website and printed materials
      • reviewers from a wide range of areas
      • finances and fundraising
      • organization
      • marketing
      • evaluation
      • managing/organisational skills
      • local organization
    • should be large enough to handle all aspects but not too large
    • try to avoid having free loaders on your committees
    • involve local organizations by inviting a speaker from the local community
    • involve local organizations by inviting representatives from local companies (you might want to offer one spot for an industry talk as a means to raise money)
    • will help to give easier access to venues, local organizing team/volunteers, etc
    • Sponsors from the local area might be easier to target
    • local organizations could take over administrative tasks (registration, find accommodation)
    • give credit where credit is due: recognize contributions by sponsors, speakers, OC, PC, etc.
  • Allow plenty of planning time
    • 9 months to a year because:
      • Submission deadlines need to be considered
      • production deadlines as well
      • confirming invited speakers and other aspects of the agenda
      • spreading the word (ie. marketing)
      • fundraising
    • give enough time for people to get their visas and book their travel in advance for cheaper fares and accommodation
    • get better rates on venues

  • Study all potential financial issues affecting the event
    • approach sponsors early
    • make clear how they will benefit
    • find best matching spnsors to your audience
    • even of this timee your approached sponsor does not support your event, keep the contact for the future
    • make an estimate of you cost for conference venue, meals,
    • make an estimate of how many people you expect
    • set registration fee appropriately
    • fellowships for people who could otherwise not come
    • awards for outstanding contributions
    • allow publication of abstracts in a journal, etc.

During the Conference

  • Meet everyone from the OC the day before the event
    • inspect the facilities
    • discuss responsibilities if you haven't done so before
      • contact point
      • registration (this needs to happen earlier i guess)
      • speaker liaison
  • Have contact information for all relevant 3rd party people
      • caterers
      • building manager
      • main conference organizer if you are having your event as part of another conference

After the Conference

  • Wrap-up all information aspects that may have a lasting impact in your community
    • particularly important if you are planning to have a similar event in the future
    • make evaluation publicly accessible
    • submit abstracts to journal
    • upload photos of the event to the website (videos too, if you have any!)
    • post names of winners of awards and travel fellowships on the website'
    • make an evaluation to improve the focus (if desired) of the conference
    • identify issues that you were not aware of - i.e. what people didn't like
  • Send one last email
    • to all delegates informing them about the things that have happened since the conference
    • include announcements for the next event if you are planning one