RSNA 2017 presentation, and thoughts on taking students to conferences

 Our presentation during RSNA. The room wasn't *that* empty, but indeed there were not 4200 people interested in the talk. (photo credit: Allen Newton. Hurrah for grad school friends who will come and sit through a long session on research that doesn't really relate to their own work.)

Our presentation during RSNA. The room wasn't *that* empty, but indeed there were not 4200 people interested in the talk. (photo credit: Allen Newton. Hurrah for grad school friends who will come and sit through a long session on research that doesn't really relate to their own work.)

Yesterday I gave a talk at the 2017 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, IL on some research that I have done with my sabbatical lab. The work itself actually started before my sabbatical officially began. In January 2017, one of my physics students (the first author on the abstract) was in a mathematical modeling course and the instructor solicited faculty to see if they had projects the students might work on for their course. I was wanting to work on a project to jumpstart my sabbatical research, and the Giger lab had the data ready to go for this assessment, so it was a good fit. Nathan worked on the project from January-May 2017, going to the University of Chicago occasionally to talk with the collaborators. I joined in a few times but was limited due to my course schedule (and then my foot injury), and we also called in to some conference calls. We submitted the abstract to RSNA in April and then I took over the project, reviewing, revising, and finalizing our research, preparing the poster and the slides for the talk, and writing a manuscript for publishing our results. 

I've attended RSNA most years since starting at Wheaton -- I mean, there's a world-class medical imaging conference every year within driving distance, why not? -- but it is the first time I have presented at it. When I applied to and interviewed at Wheaton, it was clear that I would have to give up doing (magnetic resonance) imaging at my home institution, as it is just not a good fit for a liberal arts institution to have magnetic resonance imaging on campus. It was a tradeoff I was willing to make, because I think there are interesting quantitative imaging questions to ask at the spectrometer level, as you can get out the factors related to the imaging itself and focus on factors that affect magnetic resonance of the substance in question. But I did miss imaging tremendously. Thankfully, I did find out about a colleague in our Applied Health Science department who does ultrasound imaging, and we formed a collaboration and published. But I've been really glad for the sabbatical work and the connection to clinical questions and methods as part of a bigger research endeavor. 

So, giving the talk and presenting our poster was great, but get this: every year I invite my students (broadly - I'm talking every physics and engineering student in our department) to attend RSNA. They can go for free, which is an amazing opportunity. They don't even need to go every day; I ask them to seriously consider going just one day. But in my eight years at Wheaton, only three students have gone without it being required as part of a course (I require my Introduction to Medical Physics students to attend the conference). This year, no one came at all. It baffles me. I've asked some students about this, and the reason is almost always that they feel pressure to understand through and through every single talk they attend, that they are afraid a vendor will ask them a question they don't understand - which sounds to me like it boils down to imposter syndrome. Then, I try to explain to them that I don't always completely understand the ins and outs of every single talk I go to, that the posture of a physicist (or really anyone in research) is to constantly be learning, and that's good. And they seem totally unconvinced.

I've been thinking about this: it's a weird dynamic that students experience, to be in classes where they are graded on mastery of topics, and then be thrown into the research world and be told that the professionals are always learning. That must be very confusing to college students! So I don't quite know how to bridge this gap. (Throw in there gender issues about how students perceive female faculty saying they don't know something versus male faculty saying the same thing, and it gets even stickier.) 

Friends, how do you encourage conference participation by your students, even just attendance if that opportunity comes up? How do you coach them into balancing pursuit of excellence versus taking on the posture of a learner?