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10/22/2014

What I learned from my first ASBH meeting

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

This past weekend, for the first time I attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH). I went with a lot of expectations and a lot of anxiety. I am a junior scholar and I am on the job market this year. I know the importance of connections and networking so I went to the meeting knowing that I needed to introduce myself to people on hiring committees, professors, and practitioners. But the thought of approaching people that I did not know and introducing myself was not met with warm, happy feelings. Being a social and loquacious person does not always translate into a person who networks well, but I was surprised to find that speaking to meeting attendees was easier than I had expected. Everyone was very friendly and very encouraging. Other than the few conversations that I regrettably ended very awkwardly, I think I did a good job. I received lots of cards and lots of “hey send me an email” and lots of “hey keep me updated on your work” comments. I have always been told the importance of networking but at the ASBH meeting I experienced the true value of networking and just how important it is in bioethics to know people and to let other people know you.

 

Be active
Before the meeting I submitted an abstract to the early career scholar’s program. Once my abstract was accepted, program coordinators paired me, a junior scholar, with two established bioethicists who then read my completed paper and were ready to give me verbal and written feedback during our designated meeting time at ASBH. The hope is that with feedback the paper will be edited and submitted for publication after the meeting. The feedback that I received from the scholars that I was paired with was great. They pushed me to think about my topic in new ways, gave me advice on how to make my paper more likely to be accepted at the particular journal I hope to send it to. Their experience and knowledge and their willingness to impart that on me was greatly appreciated.

Also before the meeting, I requested to participate in “breakfast with a professor.” This event pairs a handful of students, junior scholars, practitioners, etc. with an experienced scholar or practitioner, and over breakfast we discuss topics in the field. This was also a very engaging event. It was great to hear the perspective of an experienced scholar and practitioner. It was particularly helpful to discuss what she looks for in job candidates.

Thinking about why I would describe my first ASBH meeting as very successful revolves around my level of activity. Other than these scheduled events, I went to as many talks and discussion groups as I could. I asked speakers questions. I followed up with presenters after their talks were done. I had lunch and dinner with new and past colleagues, and I had lunch and dinner with meeting attendees that I had never met before. The success of this meeting for me was directly proportionate to my level of activity before and during the meeting.

 

Mentors matter
There are three bioethicists who have been very influential in my career. The first bioethicist and I met a month before I was to begin a graduate program in education. (We met at a meeting called PIKSI held at Pennsylvania State University: http://rockethics.psu.edu/education/piksi). After asking about my academic interests, she told me that I was not meant to be in education, but in philosophy and bioethics. She may remember the story differently but I remember being ordered to leave the education program and study to become a bioethicist. And if you know this bioethicist you know that you just do as she says because she is probably right (and in my cases it was a life-changing order as she was absolutely right). After that discussion, she contacted a colleague of hers who was chair of a philosophy department at the time as well as a well-known bioethicist herself. This bioethicist found me university funding for my graduate studies and eventually became my dissertation advisor who guided me through the doctoral process. This is the second bioethicist who has had a large impact on my career. The third bioethicist helped me to find my area of interest and specialization during a lunch meeting to discuss the topic of a term paper that I had to write for one of her courses. During this meeting I discovered that I really like enhancement and issues of social inequality as related to enhancement.

All three of these bioethicists were at the ASBH meeting. We discussed my career, future projects, and most importantly they introduced me to other scholars at the meeting. They helped to facilitate conversations with heads of hiring committees and other scholars by starting conversations that I would not have started by myself. They helped ease some of the nervousness that could be heard in my cracking voice when asked to describe my project. All of these interactions were great practice for upcoming job interviews. More times than not I was able to give a clear and succinct description of my research and writing projects and a clear description of the kind of job that I hope to secure for next year. But I would not have gotten this practice if it were not for my mentors initiating these conversations on my behalf. From this experience I learned that mentors’ help at meetings like ASBH is the best way to practice selling yourself until you are able to do it without their prodding.

 

Inclusivity
The theme of this year’s ASBH meeting was “Interprofessional and Inclusive.” Since this was my first meeting, I was unaware of the kinds of topics that would be discussed in the individual sessions. I was told that this year’s schedule of topics was very different than previous years. In an effort to live up to the meeting’s theme, I suppose, there were many sessions concerning African American and Latino patients, disability issues, issues of racism and sexism in health care, and LGBTQ issues in health care. I appreciate the range of topics and applaud ASBH for recognizing that bioethics consists of diverse topics for diverse populations. As these topics show, the field is changing and it’s great to have a platform to display these fluctuating interests. I encourage ASBH to make the inclusion of these topics a goal at every meeting to encourage the junior scholars like myself who want to research, write, and present on these topics but have not found a welcoming audience.

Overall, my experiences at my first ASBH meeting were positive. It gave me great practice for (hopefully) upcoming interviews, including how to talk about my projects and how to interact with bioethicists and practitioners who are much more experienced than myself. I would encourage other junior scholars in bioethics to attend more meetings like ASBH even if every bone in their body is holding them back because they are afraid of networking. In the end, it’s not as scary as we think it will be.

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