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March 05, 2005

Running a conference

For the past eight months, I've been heavily involved in organizing a "mini" conference within my department. Originally hatched as a way to get graduate students to talk to each other about their research (and similarly to make professors aware of research being done by other groups in our department), it was supposed to replace the long dead "graduate tea" series that used to fill the same role on a weekly basis. And so, myself and the other officers of the Computer Science Graduate Student Association decided to try to make this even as realistic a conference as possible, complete with a review committee, research talks, a poster session, a keynote address and all the trim.

After hundreds of hours of work, many meetings, a couple of free lunches (thank you CSGSA), the conference actually happened yesterday, Friday March 4th. We had 60+ attendees and 20+ presenters (about 10 talks, and 15 posters), a keynote address by Orran Krieger from IBM Research in New York, lots of free food courtesy of sponsorship from Sandia National Labs, and generally a really successful mini-conference. We even got a couple of nice emails from the faculty after-the-fact, thanking us for putting on the event. (About half of them showed up at some point (a few even stayed the entire day), and several sent nice apologies for not attending; it would have been nice to have seen all of them show, as a kind of voting-with-their feet support for students and their research. I guess you can't win them all...) Orran said something very nice about the conference while I was chatting with him before the keynote - he said that his graduate department at Toronto would never have had something like this, which brought together so many people from such divergent aspects of computer science. Perhaps we really did do something unusual.

Having been the general chair for the mini-conference, I can safely say that organizing one of these things is a highly non-trivial task. Duh. Mostly, the pain of doing it revolves around coordinating people, setting time-lines and doing basic logistics, since you rely on other people provide the content for the event. Being the general chair is a bit like being a potter - using only your hands, you have to mold a hunk of rapidly rotating wet clay (which basically wants to fly apart and get everything, including you, very messy) into a coherent, balanced and pleasing form, all before the water evaporates... :) For this kind of event, I'm very grateful that I'd done some things very similar in a previous life at Haverford College, when I was deeply involved in the Customs Program (a.k.a., the freshman orientation and residential advising program). It's definitely true that the more of this kind of thing you do, the easier the next one becomes. You're less scatter-brained, less fatigued, less frustrated, more likely to cover all the bases, more likely to manage the micro-crises that always pop-up, more likely to make good logistical decisions, etc. Yet, there is no part of me that wants to do this kind of thing for a living. It's fun occasionally, as a pleasant change of pace, but there is nothing so mind-numbing as logistics and endless massaging of egos to get things done.

In the next few months, I'll be attending both a high-powered workshop at the Mathematical Science Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley and the ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing (STOC) in Baltimore. I have much respect for the people who organize these large-scale events, since they can have hundreds of submissions, hundreds of attendees and budgets orders of magnitude larger than ours. But knowing myself, and my apparent complete inability to stay away from organizing things (indeed, I seem to have an almost compulsive desire to reshape my environment to suite my egotistical beliefs/desires), I'm a bit fearful for the day that I'll actually want to organize something so large!

But for now, it's nice to have another small line on my c.v., but more importantly to have added one more interesting life-experience to my history. Next on my list of life-experiences: a two week trip to Japan later this month.

posted March 5, 2005 02:37 PM in Simply Academic | permalink


Having chaired the Berkeley Biophysics Retreat, I know how much work goes into that sort event. We didn't have a review committee since it is usually enough of a fight to get the students and faculty to present, but then again we're all fabulous. . . . :-) I've already passed on the position to a hapless 1st year, so I'm not sure when I'm going to be taking on this sort of thing again.

Posted by: Joshua at March 7, 2005 10:53 PM