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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  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 exploring 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  is an organization within the ISCB that caters to computational biologists early in their career. The ISCB Student Council provides activities and events to its members that facilitate their scientific development. From our experience in organising the Student Council Symposium [3, 4], a meeting that so far has been held within the context of the ISMB [5,6] and ECCB conferences, we have gained knowledge that is typically not part of an academic curriculum.
We argue that the organisation of scientific and educational events by students has immense value for the development of their scientific careers as many essential skills are exercised: organisational, managerial, team work effort, etc. All of these skills are important assets that may make a difference in a successful scientific career.
Rule 1: Allow for plenty of planning time
Planning a conference should be both a learning experience and an enjoyable activity. 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 time to prepare. 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. Having outstanding keynote speakers at your event will also require you to contact them several months in advance.
Rule 2: Study all potential financial issues affecting your event
Sponsors are usually your primary source of funds next to the delegates' registration fee. To increase the chances of being sponsored by industry write them a clear proposal stating how the money will be spent and what they can expect to get in return. You may also want to reserve a few time slots for industry talks or demos as a way of attracting more sponsors. Make sure you first approach the sponsors that match your interest topics the closest. If they say they are not interested this year, keep their contact as they might be able to sponsor you in future 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 together with the actual cost of renting your venue. Additional expenditures might include travel fellowships, publication costs of proceedings in a journal and awards for outstanding contributors. All these issues will determine how much you need to charge your participants to attend.
Rule 3: Choose an appealing 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 likely people are to come, but the less time you will have to focus on a particular subject matter. Emerging areas can attract greater interest, try to include them in your program as much as possible; let your audience decide their preferred topics if you have the capability of asking them.
Rule 4: Choose the right date and location
Your conference needs to be as far away 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 established conferences may increase the chances of attracting more people (especially 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 travel there, whether it has a strong local community in your field and has cultural or tourist attractions. Cheaper accommodation and cheaper airfares to your destination are always a plus.
Rule 5: Create a balanced agenda
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 this has to be balanced with enough time for presentation of submitted materials. We found that a mix senior scientists and junior scientists always works for the better. Young researchers may be more enthusiastic and inspiring for students, while top senior scientists will be able to present a more complete perspective of the field. Allow plenty of time for socialising too; breaks and meals are ideal occasions to meet potential collaborators and fostering networking among peers.
Rule 6: Carefully select your key helpers: the organising committee
It is not required that a single person is a master in all skills necessary for the successful organisation of your meeting, but the organising committee has to cover all of them. You might want to separate the areas of responsibilities between your aides depending on their interests and availability. Some potential responsibilities you should delegate are 1) contents and design of website; 2) promotion materials and marketing; 3) finance and fundraising 4) review and submissions 5) local organisation 6) programme and speakers; 7) awards. Your organising committee should be large enough to handle all the above but not too large, avoiding free loaders. It is invaluable to have a local organising committee; they will be able to involve local institutions, speakers and companies. Local organisations may also help you with administrative tasks, dealing with registration of attendees and finding suitable accommodation around the venue.
Rule 7: Meet everyone from the organising committee the day before the event
For many people in the organisation it may be the first time to come to the site of the conference, so it is crucial that they become familiarised with the venue. Make sure you have inspected all the facilities and have the necessary materials for presenters: poster boards, pointers, a working computer, projectors, etc. Only then it is advisable to distribute responsibilities among the helpers: some of them will be needed at the registration table, some others carrying the microphones during sessions, recording if you have it, organising and changing presentations, introducing the speakers, etc.
Rule 8: Have contact information of all relevant people during the event
You should have a contingency plan if something goes wrong, especially if you need to make last minute decisions. We recommend that you have a list of all the organisers along with mobile phone numbers and their specific duties at hand. Also have 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 organising committee is going to be available at all times to help with problems.
Rule 9: Wrap-up the conference properly
At the end of the conference you should give credit to everyone who helped to make the event a success. If you have awards to present, this is the right time for the awards ceremony. Dedicate some time to thank your speakers and sponsors as well as everyone involved in the organisation of the conference. Also collect feedback about the event from the delegates through questionnaires. This evaluation will help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your conference and give you the opportunity to improve possible future events.
Rule 10: Make the impact of your conference last
After the conference do not waste anytime submitting papers or abstract as a supplement to a journal if your budget permits this. Upload photos and videos of the event to the website and post the names of presenters that have received awards or travel fellowships. It is also a good idea to link the results of your evaluation to the website. Once the journal publishes your supplement its a good idea to send one last email to all delegates including a summary of the activities since the conference. This is particularly important if you are considering to hold future editions of your conference. If this is the case you should also include some information on your plans for the next event.
We have presented a set of simple rules for the organisation of a successful scientific event. Our experience comes primarily from events catering to the student community in the field of Computational Biology. However, we believe that our rules apply to any scientific event regardless of their target audience or topic. Knowing how to organise scientific events should be part of the educational experience of a developing scientist as well as a distinctive mark of a successful scientific career.
We would like to acknowledge the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) for their support towards the organisation of the Student Council Symposiums, in particular BJ Morrison-McKay and Steven Leard. Thanks to Michal Linial and Rita Casadio (our liaisons at the ISCB Board of Directors), Burkhard Rost (the ISCB President), and all the ISCB Board of Directors for being so supportive of our work at the Student Council. We are also grateful to all the Student Council leadership and current and past Student Council members for their enthusiasm and hard (unpaid) work. You all have made the Student Council a great organisation.