Walking along the walls of the Walled City in Cartagena, built in the
colonial period by the Spanish. The architecture feels like you are
taking a step back in time. Photo taken during the SCB Walking
Last summer I attended the International Congress for
Conservation Biology from July 23 – 27th, hosted in Cartagena,
Colombia. It was my first international conference, my first time travelling
outside of Canada/USA, and to top it off, I was travelling alone – no one from
my university or anyone I knew was attending the conference. I felt a little
nervous about travelling so far by myself, but I was also excited and took it
as an opportunity to challenge myself and grow both as an individual and a
I have decided to compile a short list of tips for others travelling
to conferences, whether they are travelling across the world or just across the
1. Travel alone, if possible. I think a lot can be learned by travelling on your
own. It forces you to think ahead, but also encourages spontaneity because you
do not feel tied to staying with a person or a group of people.
2. Talk to people.
I cannot stress this enough – I may not remember many of the talks I went to
now, but I had many conversations that stuck with me. Much of these
conversations took place over lunch or in-between sessions. Do not be afraid to
engage with those around you, whether that means joining a person at a table
for lunch or chatting to those next to you in line while waiting to upload your
talk. Most people are quite open to chatting; it is good to force yourself to
make the first move.
conversations that challenge you. Related to the above, I highly recommend
taking the opportunity to go out of your way to have challenging conversations.
During a poster session I saw a poster for a group that had aspects I knew I
wasn’t very comfortable with, so I went out of my way to go talk to those
people and learn more about the subject. I was rewarded with a very engaging
conversation and an opportunity for collaboration.
4. Go to events.
Besides the science (that’s why we go to cool conferences, right?), many
conferences have various events from student mixers, interest-group mixers, and
outside-of-conference events (e.g. walking tours, organized hikes, SCUBA diving).
These events provide a more casual setting for you to interact with others
attending the conference. I chose to participate in a walking tour the morning
before the conference started and I found I made connections that made the rest
of the conference much smoother.
During the SCB Walking Tour, I snapped this photo of the Cartagena Film Festival office. The festival is an annual event
that focuses mainly on Colombian and Latin American films. The statue is of India Catalina, an indigenous woman who plays a role in Colombian history and small
scale replicas are used in the film festival awards.
5. Research. Some
people are fine with living spontaneously and planning things as they go, and
if that’s you – great! But I would recommend doing some research beforehand to
know what you’re getting into – which locations you might want to go visit,
which hotels to avoid, how are you going to get around the city (e.g. I
discovered that taxis in Cartagena weren’t a problem, but in Bogota you have to
be much more careful as fares can be confusing), and what kind of food you
definitely want to try. Because I was going to South America, I asked some of
my friends who had been before for advice – what food items should I look out
for, where should I go, important phrases in Spanish, etc. And I found these
tips to be incredibly helpful! Doing your research helps give you the
scaffolding to make your conference trip even better.
6. Know your limits.
With all of this in mind – know yourself. Know when you need to take that
evening off to just relax back at the hotel, or when you need to push yourself
just a little more. Be honest with yourself and find your optimal balance.
I hope these short tips help prepare you in some way for a
future conference or travelling opportunity! I would be happy to discuss
details should anyone have any questions.
Elizabeth Lawrence is a PhD candidate in Dr. Dylan Fraser’s lab at
Concordia University where she studies vertebrate biodiversity across a
latitudinal gradient in the American continent. Her Bachelor’s degree at
Dalhousie University inspired a love for working with data that has led her to
fast-tracking from an MSc to the PhD work she does now. To find out more, her
personal website is http://erlawrence.weebly.com/.