IN[SCI]TE is Oxford’s own Interdisciplinary Science, Technology and Engineering Conference. Co-founded by Andy and I. What makes IN[SCI]TE special is that it’s a student event (undergraduates specifically). All the speakers and attendees are students (except for a couple of inspiring keynotes to kick off and wrap up the event and a panel to answer the audience’s questions about Scientific careers). IN[SCI]TE tackles two important problems, interdisciplinary sciences are not doing so well - something I only discovered halfway through setting up for it. And as every science student who has ever been to a lecture knows: a lot of scientists are very bad at public speaking.
Ughhhhhh, where do I start? It feels like it’s been so long since we made IN[SCI]TE happen, but I still remember the day it all started oh so clearly.
“Andy, you thinking what I’m thinking” I said to Andy as we were walking out from a conference we weren’t too impresseed with. “Uh, that we could put on a better conference than that?” he replies. “YAAAASSSSSS!!!” I calmly acknowledge. After some discussion we seemed to agree that what Oxford really needs wasn’t just another conference, but a student run conference with student speakers. This was near the end of April 2015, it wasn’t till the summer till we got to work.
We started off by recruiting committee members, we simply emailed key members at Oxford’s Science Societies. This got us a strong team of very enthusiastic and very capable committee members; unfortunately that’s not enough. It was during summer so nobody was free to do any work, and there was no shortage of work. We had to find sponsors to cover the cost of the conference to get started, without money we can’t do much. But to get sponsors we needed attendees, sponsors need to be sure that the events they sponsor are successful. To get attendees we needed something to advertise, good speakers, a venue, lunch, etc. 2 out of those three things need sponsors.
Speakers however, don’t need money, student speakers living on site are free! And there are a lot of very clever students in Oxford who - we hoped - would love to share their ideas at a conferene. So that was our entry point. We started off by designing the branding, then the website, a Facebook page, and promotional material for Oxford’s Freshers’ Fair. We made it look very professional; it looked as if we had been around for a while, at least 5 years. We got a lot of interest in Freshers’ Fair - but that’s always misleading, everyone is always interested in everything there, rarely do people follow up, and I would know!
There wasn’t much we could do other than soldier on, looking for venues, sponsors and now speakers. We managed to secure a venue, a lecture theatre at Merton - The TS Eliot. It wasn’t free, it was far from free; this was undoubtedly a defeat. We had no sponsors yet and we were about to commit to booking a £1400 lecture theatre for a conference that might just completely flop. It wasn’t upfront so we booked it - but we would still have to pay it at some point, from our own pockets if we failed.
Not too long later, when we opened up registration for speakers nobody was signing up. We had to beg our friends, spam as many Oxford Facebook groups as we could infiltrate, among many other morally dubious tactics. We had set over a month for speakers to sign up, and there we were, with one week left and barely enough speakers to fill up a day. We wanted to have two days, and we wanted either two or three talks in parallel. Miraculously, in the last two days, we had a surge of applications, 46 potential speakers! That’s a surplus, we were so excited, this was our first major milestone, our work was beginning to pay off. I can’t remember exactly when this was, It was definitely either in the end of Michaelmas or the beginning of Hilary.
Andy and I had the ingenious idea of going to a careers fair, yes a careers fair, and asking the companies there for money to run a conference. Here’s a few of the questions they asked and the answers that we replied with:
So, how many years has this been running for?
Ummm, this is the first time.
Which other compamies have sponsored this event?
You guys will be the first! :D
What do you guys study?
Physics! The both of us. :)
The first two illustrate a point, the third is just, well, nevermind. So although, it would seem absurd to get any funding this way, but we did it! ATASS Sports, agreed to sponsor us for £1.5k, and slowly but surely over time we got more sponsors! One of whom was Tessella, they sponsored us for £500. But it didn’t end there, I later applied for an internship at Tessella - which I got (I’ll post about that too at some point, maybe). Anyway, you know that point at the end of an interview where the interviewer asks if you have any questions - well I asked if he knows anyone who would like to be part of a panel at a conference that his company had already contributed to. And, well, a few weeks later we had a career panelist! This was pretty later on though; chronologically, this paragraph is messed up. Ed, our Tessella panelist was the last panelist actually.
Fast forward to mid-Hilary, in the pipelines were: finding keynote speakers, deciding if we even want to have a careers panel, finding sponsorship, a workshop to train the student speakers. By that time, we were becoming cocky, we had raised the ticket price from definitely single digit to £25, and were planning a dinner that was to cost more than the rest of the conference. We opened up ticket sales and waited, we were hopeful, having previously seen the surge in speakers, we were expecting a similar surge in attendees. Anyway, lets put that on hold for a sec because at this point in time we were focused mainly on the workshop: At the speakers’ workshop I saw the beginnings of some of the most amazing talks I would ever see. No joke, these speakers were filled with enthusiasm. And the ones who weren’t as good at the start improved imensely. Oxford Uni Careers Service at work folks.
So, back to the ticket sales fiasco: we were nearing the end of Hilary, and barely any tickets sold. I think they were 20, and we had two weeks left to sell 70 more. Im-fuckin-possible. An idea was to reduce the ticket prices, to £20, we did that, in a week we sold 3 more. I don’t like bragging, well maybe I do, but at that point I felt strongly that we should scrap the dinner. At first the whole committee was against it, but it would take our ticket prices all the way down to £5, which is definitely single digit. And in less than a week our ticket sales tripled, by the end of the week we had less than 20 unsold tickets left. We designated those for sale at the door.
We obviously had many more obstacles, technical problems like the website forms being vulnerable to attacks (all fixed now), keynote speakers ignoring us, sponsors ingnoring us. Juggling Uni work and IN[SCI]TE work, getting promotional materials made, pens bags etc. printing schedules. But are these really worth mentioning? All event organisers go through these things.
What I think is most worthy of mention is that we started out with nothing but an idea, a very uncertain idea. And from there we created a successful conference. Hopefully one to remain successful for years to come!
Here’s a link to an IOP article about IN[SCI]TE: https://www.iop.org/careers/working-life/articles/page_67935.html