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What is it like to attend to a conference for the first time?

In this chat format, we gather regular authors and guests in Slack and have a moderated conversation, guided by prompts and questions selected in advance. Participants get to respond to each other's points, make comments, and ask each other questions in real-time.

The transcript has been lightly edited.



Will Crozier 🐙
Welcome to another Exercise in Exceptions chat! As you may have noticed from our latest post, Timothy and I recently attended the annual meeting for the American Psychology-Law Society - perhaps one of the best conferences to learn about what's new in the psych and law world. The two of us presented in a symposium on memory in criminal investigations.

However, Timothy and I have been attending conferences for years. It's easy for us to forget what going to your first conference can be like. So today, we've invited Gabriela Rico, who attended APLS earlier this month, for the first time, in order to get your perspective on the conference-going experience

So, welcome to the blog Gabriela. First question: Gabriela, or Gabi?

Gabriela Rico
Thanks for having me! Gabi is good.

Will Crozier 🐙
Alrighty. Gabi, want to give us a bit of an introduction about yourself?

Gabriela Rico
Sure! I'm a current undergraduate at Macaulay Honors College at John Jay, majoring in Forensic Psychology. I'll be graduating this spring, and in the fall, I'll be a graduate student at John Jay, in the Psych and Law PhD program. I'm interested in the role of cognition from the beginning of an investigation to jury decision-making. I've been working with Dr Deryn Strange, and Will, for a few years now, and have recently been working on my senior thesis on inaccurate confessions, which is what brought me to APLS!

Will Crozier 🐙
It's worth noting that I presented the project we've been working on, which became your senior thesis, as part of our symposium!

Will Crozier 🐙

And, as usual, we're joined by Timothy Luke who also presented in the symposium...

rabbitsnore (Timothy Luke)
Congratulations again on your acceptance to John Jay!

Will Crozier 🐙
Timothy, this apls was what number for you?

rabbitsnore
Oh, man... I'm not sure. I started going when I was a graduating senior at John Jay (similar to Gabi, actually). That was back in 2010, if memory serves. So this was my 8th, if my count is correct.

Will Crozier 🐙
I think this was my third APLS?

I skipped a few years because they didn't want to hear about my dissertation project, haha.

But, this raises the point of why we're interested in your opinion, Gabi: it's been awhile since we went to our "first conference."

So seeing as this was your first major conference, what did you expect APLS to be like? Other than in a city with lots of good barbeque

Gabriela Rico
I didn't really have any specific expectations. Overall, I was excited at the thought of learning about problems and potential solutions in psychology and law that I haven’t had exposure to as an undergraduate, either because my classes haven’t covered them or because there hasn’t been much research done on them yet. I also expected that I wasn’t going to understand all of the research and that I would need to do some exploration of my own after the conference to catch up on some background concepts.

rabbitsnore
When you say "problems and solutions" what do you mean? Like, problems in society? Or more scientific kinds of problems (e.g., how do we measure X variable)?

Gabriela Rico
Actually, a bit of both. From my own (limited) experience thinking of research questions, I have noticed that it's really easy to get stuck thinking about the same problems in society in ways that are not creative or innovative. I was hoping to hear about some new paradigms, for instance a new cheating paradigm*, to measure some of the same problems from different perspectives.

Will Crozier 🐙
How did reality measure up?

Gabriela Rico
In general, I think APLS did measure up to what I was expecting, but there was a lot of overlap in research topics, which I was not expecting. In part, that could be because I chose to go to sessions that seemed interesting to me, and I have a set bunch of interests that I was hoping to learn more about. It’s a bit of a catch-22 because you can choose to go to talks about topics you’re less familiar with and are more likely to learn something from, but that means potentially missing out on new information about something you’re currently working on or thinking about researching.

Will Crozier 🐙
Figuring out a strategy for "which talk should I go to now?" is a skill that can sometimes take years to master

rabbitsnore
I don't think I've mastered that yet. Heh.

Was there anything in particular you missed that you wished you had gone to?

That might be a really difficult question, if you don't know what you missed.

Gabriela Rico
One thing that's coming to mind right now is a session on the death penalty. That's something I haven't encountered much in my research, but is definitely interesting to me. Also, I'm realizing now that I didn't end up attending any data blitzes [rapid-fire, 5-minute presentations of research], but I would like to next time.

Will Crozier 🐙
I'll have to do some checking, but I think data-blitzes are a relatively new thing for APLS

rabbitsnore
This was the first year they did them.

Gabriela Rico
They seem like a great way to be introduced to a lot of information very quickly.

Will Crozier 🐙
And actually a great way to practice your research pitches

Any researcher can talk for an hour about their project - narrowing it down to 5 minutes seems really tough

rabbitsnore
Yeah, I like the format in general. Admittedly, I didn't really like the way the blitz sessions were organized at this conference, but I think there are going to be some growing pains.

Will Crozier 🐙
Gabi, did anything surprise you about APLS?

Gabriela Rico
Actually, a few things surprised me. Something less significant that was that I didn’t actually encounter many topics or concepts that I wasn’t at least partially comfortable with. I didn’t run home with a list of terms I needed to look up. This is a good thing, because it means that the information is accessible to undergraduates or other professionals—lawyers or law enforcement—who are not researchers but might be interested in attending.

For me the most surprising thing was actually some of the presentations themselves. At the risk of sounding overly critical, some presentation slides actually detracted from the talks because they either contained too much text or large tables with more information than anyone would have time to really effectively understand. Some people had really great talks, but their slides overshadowed them. One of the benefits of attending a conference like APLS is that it’s an efficient way to learn about current problems in the field, and the research draws on very real situations. I would say that APLS is unique in that it’s interdisciplinary. There were a few lawyers at the conference, which is great because what’s the point in doing the research if those who would benefit from it the most don’t have access to the results, right? But if the presentations are overly technical or the presentation methods are contrary to learning, the information they contain will not be easily digestible to someone outside of the field.

rabbitsnore
At the risk of sounding vicariously arrogant (if that's a thing) -- you might have been spoiled by being part of a research group that really cares about high-quality presentation slides.

But I tend to agree with you that a lot of presentations could use some simplification and clarification.

Putting yourself in the perspective of a lawyer or a law enforcement officer, do you think you would have been able to get something worthwhile out of most of the presentations? Were most of them presented in a hard-to-digest format? Or was it a really mixed bag?

Will Crozier 🐙
You could also answer from your perspective as well, haha - many presenters get really in the weeds on stats and design that it can be difficult to decipher if you're unfamiliar (either as an early scientist, like you are, or someone who isn't familiar with that type of work)

Gabriela Rico
It definitely varied, but I think one of the greatest challenges I faced was large tables of statistical data and results. It's difficult to figure out where to look first, and that information can likely be conveyed more effectively in a graph of some sort. Aside from being an early scientist and being unfamiliar with that type of information, it's also a matter of timing--if you're quickly passing through slides, it's probably best that they have the most important information on them.
I appreciate that it's a balancing act though, and you have to make some difficult decisions about what makes the presentation, especially doing so in a way that doesn't over-simplify the results.

rabbitsnore
Totally agree with you.

What did you enjoy most about this conference?

Gabriela Rico
I found the conference to be very inspiring and motivating. I left wanting to start a new project. I also really enjoy hearing people talk about their own research as opposed to simply reading it myself, in part because I am an auditory learner, but also because it’s awesome to see people who are excited about their work. That kind of enthusiasm really rubs off on me, and it’s a good reminder that the research truly is important. Something else I really enjoyed was something that may be unique to my position as an undergraduate who will be continuing her graduate career at the same institution, but I think a lot of other students can relate to this: it was a great bonding experience. The current graduate students and I spent a lot of our free time between sessions talking about the research, throwing ideas around, discussing possible methodological flaws and strengths, and I learned a lot during those conversations too.

Will Crozier 🐙
Being inspired/motivated by conferences is really helpful - I find i get a nice productivity boost right after going, haha.

Did you get any specific research ideas? Or was it a more general motivation?

Gabriela Rico
It was more of a general motivation, possibly because I was a little bit frustrated that I didn't hear about as many new problems or different paradigms as I had expected. That got me thinking about what I could be researching that hasn't been looked at yet. That being said, I do have a few ideas that I've come up with since the conference that were inspired by the different talks I heard.

rabbitsnore
Was there a particular topic you wanted to see a new approach to?

Gabriela Rico
Attorney questioning and behavior. From what I've seen, a lot of research about how attorneys ask questions focuses on the credibility and believability of the victim, defendant, attorney, but as someone who is interested in memory, I want to know about how attorney's questions affect juror memory.

rabbitsnore
...I actually haven't thought about that at all myself. That's an awesome idea.

Will Crozier 🐙
It is!

Gabriela Rico
I think it's a really valuable question, and hopefully I'll be able to fill that gap somehow!

Will Crozier 🐙
You mentioned socializing with other grad students...socializing is an important part of conferences as well. Both professional, but also, it's nice to make friends to collaborate and commiserate with

Can you say a bit more about how you felt with the social atmosphere at the conference?

Gabriela Rico
I found it to be welcoming. There's something comforting about knowing everyone attending is interested in the same kinds of issues you care about, and that definitely makes it easier to approach people and talk to them. I think the poster sessions are particularly conducive to this because you can find people whose research interests align with your own quite easily, ask them questions about their work, and bounce around ideas about new directions for research. As an undergraduate and someone who is generally more introverted, it's still intimidating for me to approach people who are well-established in the field, but I'm confident that that will wear off, especially since I did find the atmosphere to be causal and welcoming overall.

rabbitsnore
That's really heartening. I remember being pretty intimidated by the social scene at my first few conferences, so I'm glad to hear you found it welcoming.

We've talked a lot about your experience at this conference. Looking to the future, do you think you'll go next year? If so, what are you hoping to get out of it?

Gabriela Rico
I actually mentioned to a few people that it was such a positive experience for me that I'm trying to figure out when the soonest conference is that I can attend. I will definitely be at APLS next year, and hopefully I'll have some research of my own that I can present in some way--either in a poster or as a talk. It's something I'm looking forward to.

Will Crozier 🐙
What kind of conference would you be interested in attending?

Another psych law, more cognitive, broad psychology?

Gabriela Rico
I'd like to attend another psych law, but also I'm interested in seeing what a cognitive conference would be like. I think it would expose me to more theoretical research that I could apply to psych law issues.

rabbitsnore
Will and I have both been to more general cognitive conferences (e.g., International Confernce on Memory [ICOM], Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition [SARMAC]), and I think we'd agree that they're excellent for exactly that reason: You learn more general stuff you can apply to topics you're interested in.

Will Crozier 🐙
Big conferences can be good for that too

Particularly poster sessions at general conferences such as APS or Psychonomics, where there's just a million different research projects and topics.

You never know where you'll get inspiration!

Gabriela Rico
It's a good opportunity to get a glimpse of what's going on beyond psych and law, and I have a feeling a more general conference would inspire me simply because there's research I'm less familiar with.

Will Crozier 🐙

(although, I don't think I got much inspiration from a hamster behavior poster I saw at aps a few years ago)

🐹

rabbitsnore
Don't hate on hamsters.

Given your enthusiasm about conferences, I suspect I know how you're going to answer this next question... Would you recommend APLS to someone else in a similar position -- perhaps another graduating student interested in psychology? If so, would you give them any particular advice?

Gabriela Rico
I would definitely recommend someone in my situation go to APLS. It’s an excellent opportunity to hear about what’s being studied in the field, what new questions are popping up, and some of the challenges and limitations of current research. If you’re new to research, it’s a good way to see some different methodologies, and also, it’s good exercise in being critical. Everyone talks about their research with conviction, so it can be easy to get caught up in their confidence, but to really take something away from a conference, I think you have to have a healthy dose of skepticism. It opens the door for new questions and better research. What’s really nice about the conference structure as a whole is that you receive a lot of information that is already summarized for you, and if you want to learn more, you have access to the researchers that are doing the work, which doesn’t happen as easily if you’re reading an article. Take notes and talk to people, whether it's the researchers themselves or fellow students, about what you're learning.

Will Crozier 🐙
I think that's great advice!

rabbitsnore
Agreed! One of the best parts about conferences is the direct access to people doing the work you're interested in.

This has been terrifically informative. Like Will said at the start of this chat, it's been a while since either of us has been new at this, so it can be hard for us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone like you. Again, we really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us and to share your thoughts and insights. Thanks, Gabi!

Will Crozier 🐙
Definitely - thanks for coming on and sharing your experiences with us

Gabriela Rico
Thanks for having me! I'm happy to share my experience, and I hope my perspective is helpful to both seasoned and potential conference-goers.

Notes
*The "cheating paradigm" is common laboratory method for interrogation research. In the typical version, students come into the lab and complete some paper-and-pencil tests. During the tests, a researcher pretending to be another participant sometimes gets the student to cheat on the tests. The researchers can then confront the students about the cheating and interrogate them with a variety of different tactics.

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