Friday, November 6, 2015

The AIChE Annual Meeting: A Primer

Once a year, the heavens part, and thousands of chemical engineers rain down upon a fortuitous city somewhere in the U.S.A., gathering for the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) meeting. That's pronounced A-I-C-H-E, not achy. My heart is neither achy nor breaky in the face of so many dimensionless parameters.

When we're in San Francisco, we get stuffed like sardines into a Hilton the size of my elementary school, where we get pressed against other suit-clad bodies in elevators, 15 - 14 - 13 - God help us why are there so many floors in this hotel??

When we're in Pittsburgh, there will be some kind of highly improbable weather event, like Frankenstorm, that will ruin plenary sessions left and right, filling the world of chemical engineering with utter CHAOS.

Lucky ducks, this year, next week (Nov. 8-13), we will convene in Salt Lake City, home of the 10 mile long city blocks and convention-center-provided beer no greater than 3.2% alcohol. No one should ever carp about free beer, that's what I say. But you know, academics love to complain.

The AIChE meeting is a bit of an anomaly compared to other conferences, and if you've never been there before, you undoubtedly have unanswered questions. Let me see if I can help.


1. What can I expect from scientific sessions?
This entirely depends on your field. AIChE is a major meeting for traditional chemical engineering fields of research, including fluid dynamics, chemical processes, etc. Some of the premiere groups in these areas will be presenting their work, and they take the conference very seriously from a scientific perspective.
Some of the "newer" disciplines within chemical engineering - including bioish areas like my own - do not necessarily enjoy the same scientific rigor at AIChE. Now, there are plenty of interesting talks, and the quality has improved greatly over the course of the past 10 years. However, this is just not the "it" conference for these interdisciplinary fields, in part, I would think, because many of the major players in these fields are not chemical engineers - they would not normally attend AIChE.
2. What can I expect by way of networking?
You can expect a lot! Networking is not as formalized as at some other conferences (e.g. Gordon Research Conferences, where attendees eat each meal together). But there are lots of opportunities to get to know other chemical engineers and to reconnect with former colleagues and friends.

The most important opportunities are at the evening receptions hosted by various chemical engineering departments from across the country. For example, the Tufts reception is typically held on Sunday nights, Carnegie Mellon on Monday nights, and Minnesota on Tuesday nights (among many, many others). At conference registration, there will be a stapled sheet of networking/"extra" events throughout the conference - all of the advertised receptions will be on this list. For 2015, there is also an online list here. There are also unadvertised receptions that you may receive invitations to if you are associated with or have friends at a particular school.

Receptions often feature free food and drinks (yes, including alcoholic beverages, sometimes even hard liquor). Chemical engineers become amazingly more fun in the presence of vodka. It's also way easier to network with a bit of social lubrication. Just make sure you don't overdo it if you're trying to make a good impression on someone (anyone). I've seen plenty of people consume too many glasses of wine and embarrass themselves mightily.

Make sure to meet new people, and don't just hang out in a corner stuffing your face with freshly carved roast beef. Most conference attendees are friendly, so feel free to approach people you don't know, introduce yourself, and ask them some questions. Remember, most people like to talk about themselves. If whoever you approach is not friendly, move on to the next engineer. Eventually, you will make a connection!
3. Do I need to be affiliated with a school in order to attend its reception?
No. But it's my personal recommendation that if you go to a random school's reception, make sure to network and not just eat their food. Because that's kind of tacky. (The individual departments, not AIChE, foot the bills for these receptions.)
4. What should I wear?
Chemical engineers are amazingly formal people. If you have a suit, break it out. Even if it's tweed or polyester, you probably won't be that out of place at this conference. Most engineers are hardly fashionable and rely heavily on wearing black and gray. This is not the time to take the phrase "orange is the new black" literally.

I, personally, do not wear a suit every day. But I always go with dress pants or a knee-length skirt, nice shoes, often a blazer. I'd recommend the same for men (swapping ties for skirts). Ladies, please leave your 4 inch heels and tight dresses at home. I wish people were non-judgmental enough for your to be able to wear this without issue, but we're not there yet. You want people at AIChE judging you for your scientific and professional merit, not for your perceived sexual availability.
4. Does the conference provide coffee? More specifically, WHERE WILL I GET COFFEE?
This is an especially excellent question. The AIChE meeting, despite its offensively high registration fees, does not provide anything other than water. There usually isn't even wi-fi available at the conference site. So, definitely no coffee. Therefore, you must get your own. Remember that there can be very long lines for coffee before the 8:30 am sessions, especially if the talks are being held in hotels (not the case in SLC). You will have better luck leaving the hotel/convention center for coffee if you need it in short order. Of course, it will also be less expensive for all of you frugal engineers out there.
 5. Given the high density of engineers, is this going to be the most boring meeting of all time?
Not in the slightest. AIChE is one of my favorite meetings of the year because of the networking. There is no other time that I get to see my friends and former colleagues who are spread all over the country working in fields very far outside of my own. Take advantage of the unique opportunity to connect with chemical engineers from every discipline, and you will not be bored at all.
See you in SLC! Feel free to join us and say hi at the CMU reception on Monday evening from 7-9 pm in the Salt Palace Convention Center, Room 155D. If anyone has other hot AIChE related tips, or more unanswered questions, please leave them in the comments.