Registered for the meeting? Check Remembered to get a hotel reservation? Check. Don't laugh. I forgot this once. Now I set a Microsoft Outlook reminder for the day housing registration opens. Okay, you can laugh at that.
Cleared your clinic during the meeting dates? Check.
Remembered to tell your husband/wife/life partner you'll be away for five days? Check. True story: In my house, this is such a big deal that one night recently I was reading a book to my three-year-old son about baseball—one of those heavy cardboard books that show a colorful picture of an object and has a short description underneath. For example, "This is a baseball. It is white with red stitching. This is a baseball glove. It is made out of leather." I flipped the page and showed my son the photo of a bat. "This is a bat. It is made out of a wood called Ash." He looked up at me like I was four kinds of idiot (common, in my house) and said, "Dad, Ash isn't a wood. It's a meeting."
Great, so now you're ready to attend the big annual meeting. The problem is, these have swelled to such a size (last year, approximately 32,000 people attended ASCO, and 20,000 went to ASH), they can quickly become seriously overwhelming, and you may leave Chicago or Atlanta feeling as if you've just squandered your time. I hereby humbly offer my suggestions on how to get the most out of these conferences.
Prior to the moment I walk up to the registration desk, my annual ritual involves first going to the meeting websites and either downloading the "schedule at a glance," or going through it and putting specific talks or scientific sessions on my Blackberry calendar for every day. Don't forget to include room numbers, and flag sessions where you are an author on a talk or poster, or someone in your department (or a fellow) is—it's always nice to show support.
During the flight to the meeting, I bring along the abstract book (or the electronic equivalent) and read over the presentations in my disease areas. Conflicting sessions, conveniently scheduled on opposite ends of the convention hall, may prevent you from seeing everything you're interested in, as may a driving rainstorm in Orlando. At least you can say you read the abstract.
The World Is Not Your Oyster
To me, these conferences are like Disneyland, but without the Fast Passes. There's so much cool, interesting, innovative science, and studies that directly impact how we care for our patients, you feel like you need to see everything. You can't. And as much as we like to believe we're changing the face of cancer therapy rapidly, unfortunately it doesn't evolve that much year-to-year. So, go to the Magic Kingdom one day, Epcot the next. At ASCO, maybe you make this year your "breast cancer" year, and next year focus on lung or GI.
I had the pleasure of co-chairing the official ASH Highlights series this year, and one attendee/colleague of mine made the comment that he felt like he got more out of the Highlights than he did the annual meeting. I totally see his point, and think these sanctioned Highlights meetings are a great supplement to the annual meeting, though not a replacement: While they excel at giving you a CliffsNotes on important presentations within a variety of topics, they may not provide the granularity you want, and ultimately represent someone else's opinion of what was important science at the conference.
Posters Are the Hidden Gem
Psst. I'll let you in on a secret. By the time someone's lab or clinical research gets selected as an oral presentation, it's probably old news. Some of the most cutting-edge science gets laid out on those 4 x 8 laminated heavy stock pieces of paper, and you have the option of lingering over it, and taking your time in critically appraising its relevance and impact. Now, you will have to separate more wheat from chaff here than you might in the oral sessions, but it's well worth your time.
And, speaking of time, though technically these posters exhibits are "open" during a two-hour period, this tends to be a busy, crowded event during which (at the evening poster sessions at ASH) you're more likely to get sloshed by someone's beer or besmirched by an innocent brush of their mustard-covered pretzel than have a moment to contemplate science. Go during off-hours – my favorite time at ASH is around 11 am, far removed from the official evening poster session.
It's Not About the Bike
Apologies to Lance Armstrong. Some of the most important aspects of these big annual conferences involve what occurs around the conference: investigator meetings, advisory boards, consortium meetings, grant-planning sessions, networking get-togethers, etc. The ASH and ASCO conferences often are the best opportunity for researchers worldwide to actually be in the same place at the same time. They also give you a great chance to ask someone who is a thought leader a clinical management question about one of your patients.
And probably most importantly, they allow you impromptu reunions with people from your past. I have to admit, my favorite part of ASH is when I blow-off some of the plenary session to meet up with a buddy of mine from fellowship. And that hour we spend in the exhibit hall having coffee is always the highlight of the meeting for me.
More ‘Second Thoughts’!
Check out all the previous articles in Mikkael Sekeres' award-winning column in this collection on the OT website: http://bit.ly/OT-SekeresCollection