I have been thinking of the many mentoring opportunities that conferences offer. It is usually not the typical long-term mentoring that students look for from their advisors, but it is very important for many reasons.
The SACNAS conference took place about six weeks ago and I was reminded of how quickly students and faculty can connect with one another in the right environment. As they arrive, students know that this conference is a friendly place where pretty much all the events are tailored for their benefit: faculty are there to talk to students, the scientific symposia are designed to be understandable by students, and there are tons of professional development sessions for students, postdocs and professionals.
One of the first sessions of the conference is called “conversations with scientists” and the room is set up with round tables full of math students and math faculty meeting one another. The idea is for math conference participants to meet right at the beginning of the conference so that they recognize each other as they run into one another later on.
Faculty prompt students for their current academic status, their future plans and their professional dreams. “Have you considered going to graduate school?” “Have you participated in an REU?” And so the conversation starts. Most important is the fact that the atmosphere is such that students feel very comfortable approaching faculty and asking for advice and talking about their background. This session sets the stage for later lunches and random meetings.
Nowadays, many mathematics conferences include undergraduate poster sessions and other student events. For those of you who are involved in organizing conference sessions for any organization, you might consider the “conversations with scientists” model of bringing people together early on and creating a good environment for mentoring students throughout the conference.