Mohamed Noor: Con vs. Con

Mohamed Noor, taking a break from academic conferences with a trip to DragonCon.

My public presentations span two universes, both figuratively and sometimes semi-literally. I speak at scientific conferences almost every year about my work as a professor, studying the evolutionary genetic changes that cause new species to form. As a Star Trek fan and someone who enjoys teaching scientific principles through the use of science fiction, I also speak at sci-fi conventions most years. As one might imagine, these two speaking venues share some attributes but also differ. Below, I describe the similarities and differences using the venues at which I speak the most often for each area: the annual Evolution conference (location and timing vary though usually in the United States and often late June) and DragonCon (annually on Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, USA).

For context, the Evolution conference typically hosts 1500-2500 evolutionary biologists, and probably between one-third and half of those attending give some sort of presentation, whether that be an oral slideshow on their research or standing beside a poster and discussing the science presented on it. Meanwhile, DragonCon is a broad popular-culture convention allowing roughly 80,000 people to attend various “tracks”, with presentations in each track by actors, artists, gamers, scientists, authors, and many more.

For each of these outlets, the mechanics are similar. Attendee registration starts months in advance, and fees often increase as the date approaches. Each outlet invites “headliner” speakers who have some or all of their expenses paid for attending. Attendees are very eager to see the final schedules, and always whine on social media about how close to the event the schedules are released. Some events are anticipated to be more popular than others and receive larger rooms, and sometimes the organizers anticipate incorrectly, resulting in a cavernous empty room for one event and people packed into chairs and across the floor in another. Both feature vendor areas for purchasing items related to the outlet’s topic (e.g., books and software vs. artwork and memorabilia). And generally speaking, in both venues, the most rewarding and memorable features are rarely the presentations, but instead fun or fruitful interactions with other attendees. Few attendees in either venue go talk-to-talk for the entire duration, but much time is spent in hallways or off-site for eager discussions or other interactions.

Noor’s book, Live Long and Evolve, is an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

However, the similarity in mechanics belies the difference in purpose which becomes more apparent when one looks at the presentations. For the Evolution conference, oral presentations are given because the scientist presenting wants to disseminate a very specific research result to the broader group of scientists in the audience. At DragonCon, oral presentations are delivered to entertain an audience or to educate them in a fairly general area. The former is primarily directed by the presenter’s intention, though audience members attend particular sessions when they feel that they may learn something interesting and/or relevant to their own research. The latter is aimed at giving the audience what they want. For example, when the cast of CW’s Arrow comes on stage at a session in DragonCon, they have no particular message that they seek to convey. Even in DragonCon’s science track, the intended message of any panel is quite general, such as “a better understanding of genetics”, and presenters are eager to answer questions, even those only marginally related to the stated topic. As a result, virtually every oral session at the Evolution conference comes as a single-person PowerPoint presentation that fills most of the allotted period, while at DragonCon, presentations are typically multi-presenter open question-and-answer sessions on a topic following a very brief introduction.

Lest one think that science fiction conventions are therefore more pure in intention than scientific conferences, I stress the financial model is very different. The top media guests at science fiction conventions receive tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for their time, in addition to having all of their expenses covered. Since attendees are subsidizing these media guests’ travel and income as well as potentially providing a profit for the convention organizers, it makes sense to tailor things for the attendees. In contrast, the president of the non-profit Society for the Study of Evolution, who delivers a plenary address at the Evolution conference, only gets part of their travel expenses paid (no meals or per diem, partial housing) and reaps no honorarium, stipend, or other compensation from the society or conference. Most speakers at the Evolution conference get no financial compensation. Interestingly, science guests at science fiction conventions also get rather small compensation. For a recent other science fiction convention I attended, most of my travel expenses were paid, but for DragonCon each year, I only receive a waiver of the registration fee and that of a guest. Realistically, most of the 80,000 people who come to DragonCon don’t come to see me or the other scientists, but we’re happy to catch their attention and teach them some science when they’re not ogling Stephen Amell.

What do I love about each? I’m a researcher in evolutionary genetics, and I love telling my fellow scientists about our recent results as well as learning what they have discovered recently. It’s extremely intellectually stimulating and rejuvenating to go to scientific conferences. But I’m also a teacher, and I love getting people excited about geeky biology concepts and facts when perhaps they have not had much training in biology. My last talk at DragonCon earlier this month was on why there are so many humanoids in Star Trek, but sneakily, it was also a primer on many evolutionary biology concepts and recent results. Someone walking out of the room at the end commented to their friend, “I learned A LOT.” I could wish for no greater outcome than that.

 

Mohamed A. F. Noor, besides being a Trekkie, is a professor in the Biology Department at Duke University. He is the editor in chief of the journal Evolution and author of You’re Hired! Now What?: A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.