By Ana I. Velázquez Mañana, MD, MSc, Erick Saldanha, MD, Joshua E. Reuss, MD, and Dionisia Quiroga, DO, PhD
The ASCO Annual Meeting is the largest oncology scientific conference, at which thousands of oncologists meet in Chicago year after year. The conference agenda is packed with high-quality educational and research sessions at which the latest and most exciting data will be presented. With hundreds of sessions and thousands of attendees, the meeting can often feel overwhelming for new—and even the most seasoned—attendees. Here we provide some tips on how to tailor your ASCO Annual Meeting experience.
What practical advice do you have for trainee and early-career members, as well as first-time attendees at any career stage, on navigating the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting?
ES: Planning your time through ASCO23 is key. Navigating yourself through the meeting program beforehand will help you not only define what sessions are most suitable for you to participate in but also optimize your time and experience. If you are a first-time attendee from outside the U.S., checking the time zone differences is paramount to ensure your planning schedule is safe. Ultimately, reach out to your colleagues and friends to be with you during the meeting. Are you traveling alone? You can always use Twitter to find colleagues who will love to know your plans and navigate the meeting with you. From my personal experience, making time to attend social events and friendly gatherings is an excellent way to make new friends and discover new, exciting opportunities.
JR: Plan ahead. With thousands of people coming to Chicago for the meeting, hotels and restaurants book up early. I would recommend booking your lodgings as soon as you know you will attend the meeting, as you usually can modify/cancel your reservation up until a certain date before the meeting. If you want ease of access to the meeting, try to book a hotel near McCormick (these usually book up first). If you want to be near most receptions, restaurants, and evening events, try to book a hotel near the Michigan Ave/Chicago River area. For transportation, take advantage of the free shuttle routes. These come frequently and will usually get you to the conference quicker than an Uber or taxi, which can be expensive.
Also, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. McCormick Place is massive and this is not the place to break in those new dress shoes you just bought (I speak from experience). I would also try to bring some snacks and a water bottle, as food lines can be long if you don’t hit them at the right time.
AVM: Carve out time on your schedule to plan your meeting. Leverage meeting and mentorship opportunities in the different lounges (Trainee and Early-Career Oncologist Member Lounge, Women’s Networking Center, Publications Lounge) to meet with potential mentors and faculty from different institutions—also, the lounges are great places to get free coffee, water, and snacks! Reach out early to people who you may want to meet with to set up time for coffee. Review the agenda ahead of time and decide which sessions would be most interesting to you. It is impossible to attend all of them, so prioritize key oral and poster sessions on topics of your interest.
Do not underestimate traffic, taxi lines at the airport and venue, lines at food vendors, and all the walking you will do! Bringing comfortable shoes is key!
Finally, take time to have fun and meet your peers—so many friendships and collaborations come out of the ASCO Annual Meetings!
DQ: I can still clearly remember the first time I went to McCormick Place for an ASCO Annual Meeting, the summer after I graduated medical school; I felt like a deer in the headlights! Even now, after going for several years, I have my moments where I get turned around during the conference and overwhelmed by the amount of people present. My best advice would be to get to McCormick Place about 30 minutes early on the first day to make sure you have time to get well oriented before having to rush over to your planned events. If you are not within walking distance to the conference center, the shuttle system is a free, fantastic option with pick-up spots at hotels all over the city. Whichever way you travel, remember traffic from other ongoing Chicago events can slow down your transit time considerably, so make sure to factor this in as well.
In addition to making notes about which halls/rooms you’ll plan on going to for presentations and meetings, be sure to scope out the amenities that are available to you prior to leaving for Chicago. Parent of infants or young children? Find the breastfeeding stations/rooms and register for onsite childcare. Accessibility needs? You can pre-register for wheelchairs and scooters to save time. And finally, the staff at McCormick Place are amazing and plentiful, so don’t feel shy about asking for directions!
Takeaway 1: Planning ahead is key! Before you arrive, make time to look over the schedule and onsite services. When you get to McCormick Place, give yourself time to get oriented, and wear comfortable shoes.
With so many sessions and activities, how do you prioritize your time and energy at the Annual Meeting?
Pre-conference, I start a list of the abstracts and presentations that will deliver important/interesting research in my specialty area by looking through the ASCO Annual Meeting website and adding them to “My Agenda”. If you need help figuring out which presentations may be most high yield in your topic of interest, and you’re a social media user, you can often find researchers dropping their “Top 10” lists shortly after the ASCO abstracts are announced (search for #ASCO23
). During the conference, I take notes and save presentation slides and posters that I think will be impactful (easily obtained on the ASCO Annual Meeting website
Going to presentations back-to-back from breakfast to dinner every night is a great way to ensure you’ll be mentally exhausted by the end of the meeting. Find somewhere in the conference center where you’re able to take a breather… might I recommend the Trainee and Early-Career Oncologist Member Lounge? This and the other lounge spaces give you a chance to escape to a quieter place to take a break between events.
Keep in mind which things will be recorded (e.g., most oral presentations) and which you won’t be able to replicate after you get home, like speaking with someone one-on-one during their poster presentation session. Lastly, just as you would put a talk or meeting on your calendar, intentionally book time for fun activities and rest every day. The ASCO Annual Meeting is a great time to reconnect with those you trained with or want to get to know better over a deep-dish pizza and your beverage of choice.
ES: Prioritizing your time and energy during ASCO23 must be in your agenda. Navigating a five-day international meeting with such a stellar program will demand time and dedication. What works best for me when in a conference is to have a nice run in the early morning, which is a great way to get to know the city and recharge ahead of busy conference days. Dedicate time to rest and do the activities that you like the most, and try to keep some of your personal habits/routine.
I always find it helpful to share your thoughts with your friends and staff regarding your experience during the Annual Meeting. Learning from experienced colleagues to improve your time during the conference is an excellent opportunity to enhance your experience.
JR: Plan ahead (a theme here). Do not go into the meeting thinking you will just walk around checking things out as you go, or that you will “see it all.” This is not possible, so I wouldn’t try to pack every day to the fullest extent.
For a trainee still very early in their oncology journey, try to see a mix of primary research sessions and education sessions that provide nice overviews on certain subjects. I would also consider attending the Plenary Session, where typically the most impactful work of the conference will be presented. Also, spend some time at the poster sessions, especially if there is a topic that interests you.
For early-career attendees who specialize in a particular area, I would try to be more focused on your field. As a thoracic oncologist, I make sure to attend all thoracic oncology research oral and poster sessions. I typically only attend the Plenary Session if an abstract relevant to my field is being presented. When viewing the posters, try to review the abstracts ahead of time to locate particular posters you are interested in seeing, as it can be difficult to walk up and down every aisle trying to review each poster.
AVM: I create an agenda based on the topic tracks that are relevant to my clinical practice and research interests, thoracic oncology and health disparities/health services research. I then add to my calendar sessions from the Trainee and Early-Career Oncologist Member Lounge and Women’s Networking Center that are important for my professional development. There often will be scheduling conflicts, and to resolve these I weigh the importance/relevance of the topic and whether the sessions will be available online later or not (talks in the lounges, for example, are not recorded).
The schedule and many activities can be overwhelming and tiring, so I always try to find time to meet with friends and have conversations about life outside of oncology—these can be over a coffee, enjoying the view on one of the meeting’s outdoor terraces, during lunch, or in the evenings outside of the conference venue. Finally, when my schedule allows, I try to arrive early on the Thursday prior to the start of the meeting. This gives me time to settle in Chicago and meet with friends, adapt to time zone changes, and feel less rushed as I walk into a day full of lectures and meetings.
Takeaway 2: Plan ahead (so important it bears repeating!). Know what presentations will be available online to review later. Be as deliberate about scheduling time for rest and fun as you are about scheduling sessions and meetings to attend.
Can you think of a connection, collaboration, or opportunity that started out of an ASCO Annual Meeting? What tips do you have for trainee and early-career members looking to establish new connections with other oncology community members?
AVM: I have so many friendships, collaborations, and connections that started out of the ASCO Annual Meeting and ASCO trainee activities. For example, I often get asked how I met my mentor and friend, Dr. Narjust Florez. Well… guess what? It was at the ASCO Annual Meeting! I had seen her work on Twitter and reached out to introduce myself, express interest in her research, and request a meeting. We met during the first day of the ASCO Annual Meeting, prior to a Trainee and Early-Career Advisory Group meeting. She introduced me to other peers (and future collaborators), and we were able to later reconnect at one of the lounges to brainstorm research ideas. From that initial meeting, we have developed multiple collaborations and, most importantly, a strong friendship.
I would encourage trainees and early-career members to leverage the meeting for networking and getting to know people. Introduce yourself to peers and faculty who do research that is interesting to you, bring your contact card, ask them for their email, and contact them afterwards to set up a time to talk about your shared interests.
Finally, don’t underestimate the value of getting to know your peers. Other trainee and early-career members can be key future collaborators, sponsors, peer mentors, and can also introduce you to senior oncologists whom you wish to meet.
ES: The ASCO Annual Meeting is a great networking opportunity—it is one of your best chances to reach out to potential new mentors and create lifetime connections. My solid advice for trainees and early-career members looking to establish new relationships is to connect with speakers and key experts; do not hesitate to share your thoughts and present your work. From my personal experience, I have made meaningful connections and lifetime friendships during past meetings, which helped me collaborate on new projects and shaped my ideas.
After the conference, send a friendly follow-up to your new connections sharing your experience and ideas; that’s also a great opportunity to set up a virtual or personal meeting.
JR: Some of my most meaningful friendships and budding collaborations began or were reinforced at the ASCO Annual Meeting. Doing this, though, takes more than sitting in a lecture hall. If you are a trainee, spend time at the Trainee and Early-Career Oncologist Member Lounge, where you can meet other trainees like yourself. The lounge also has a whole schedule of roundtable discussions where you can ask questions of faculty and experts in a friendly setting.
If you are invited to a reception or event, go to it! Even if you are attending the meeting by yourself, you likely aren’t the only one and receptions are a great way to meet others in a relaxed environment.
Lastly, if there is a particular faculty or investigator you are hoping to meet to discuss collaborations, job opportunities, or simply introduce yourself to, review the accepted abstracts to see if they are presenting a poster and seek them out! If they are not presenting a poster, spend as much time in the relevant poster session as possible, as it is quite likely that they too want to review the research that is relevant to their field. I typically “bump into” to the majority of my colleagues during the poster sessions.
DQ: If you’re looking for opportunities to network, I strongly recommend the Trainee and Early-Career Oncologist Member Lounge. I really have enjoyed the conversations I’ve struck up here with others in my same career stage, and the environment can be a little less intimidating than a large presentation setting. This lounge also offers a ton of opportunities to join in on small-group guided poster walks and panel sessions led by experts in their areas of research and practice. For mentoring experiences, I would strongly recommend signing up for one-on-one or group mentoring sessions offered in the lounge spaces as well.
When approaching opportunities for networking or mentoring, ask yourself ahead of time what you’re hoping to get out of the experience. Research guidance/collaboration? Career advice, funding, or job opportunities? Just getting to know others with similar interests? Nailing your goals down prior to attendance will allow you to use your time more productively when most of these interactions will be short. When handing out business cards or adding contacts in your phone, make sure to write/type notes about your interaction with the person and how you plan to follow up. Finally, send follow-up emails soon after arriving home from the conference while you are still fresh in their minds.
Takeaway 3: Be proactive about reaching out to potential mentors, collaborators, and colleagues ahead of the ASCO Annual Meeting. Know what you hope to get out of the interaction, since it may be brief. Set aside time after the meeting to follow up via email to build your connection.
How will you apply what you learned at ASCO23 on your first day back in the clinic?
JR: I wouldn’t worry about applying what you learned immediately on the first day back. With so much information, it can be helpful to take some time at home to review and digest presentation slides and posters at your own pace. When ready, there are several ways to apply what you’ve learned, and one of the best is through teaching. If you work at a teaching institution with other fellows/residents/medical students, review one of your favorite presentations with them. Also, if a specific topic is relevant to a particular patient, teach the patient what you’ve learned. Most patients will be happy that you are keeping up-to-date in the field and appreciate learning what is new and relevant to their care!
AVM: Attending the ASCO23 presentations and sessions provides you with an introduction to key issues and new developments in cancer care. After the meeting, I take time to find the relevant publications and digest the data in more detail, taking into account the context of previously published data and potential limitations of the study design. At my institution, faculty and fellows present key highlights from the ASCO Annual Meeting in their areas of interest during our division conference, which is a great way to discuss what you have learned during the meeting. Also, I often discuss new promising data from the meeting with patients in clinic so they are aware of potential future therapies or trial opportunities that are relevant to their cancer care.
DQ: I see attending/viewing ASCO Annual Meeting presentations as just the tip of the iceberg; personally engaging with the content is what will solidify it in my mind and practice. During and after the conference, I engage with others in person and through social media about the work presented. I think it is also important to get out of my own institutional bubble when considering the research. What is exciting and important for clinicians and researchers outside of academia, or outside of the U.S.? What do patient advocates and their loved ones think about the research, and which findings are most meaningful? If there is a specific patient who would benefit from something I learned during the meeting, I make notes to discuss these findings with them as well. Additionally, I typically prepare a short PowerPoint presentation with important findings that I share with my lab when I return; my hope is that it will spur future research ideas for our junior researchers as well.
ES: A great way to apply the knowledge you gain through the conference is to share the exciting data presented with your colleagues and patients. Meeting with your fellows and staff to give a lecture presenting the most compelling data is an excellent opportunity to solidify your learning and contribute to helping your colleagues apply the new findings in their practice. Another great tool to enhance your knowledge is to share your thoughts and engage in Twitter discussions regarding the topics you are most interested in and network with key experts worldwide.
Takeaway 4: After the ASCO Annual Meeting, take time to reflect on what you learned and put the new knowledge into context. Teaching colleagues and patients about the findings is a great way to start integrating meeting takeaways into practice.
Know Before You Go:
Dr. Velázquez Mañana is a thoracic oncologist and assistant director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility for training at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Division of Hematology/Oncology at Zuckerberg San Francisco General. She is a member of the ASCO Trainee & Early Career Advisory Group and trainee liaison for the ASCO Digital Education Editorial Board. Follow her on Twitter @AnaVManana.
Dr. Saldanha is a medical oncologist and a clinical research fellow at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Canada. He is keenly interested in education and career development and actively volunteers on several early-career boards, including the ASCO Trainee & Early Career Advisory Group. Follow him on Twitter @ESaldanhaMD.
Dr. Reuss is an assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University and a thoracic medical oncologist at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is a member of the ASCO Trainee & Early Career Advisory Group. Follow him on Twitter @Joshua_Reuss.
Dr. Quiroga is an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and a breast medical oncologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center - James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Institute. She is a member of the ASCO Trainee & Early Career Advisory Group. Follow her on Twitter @quirogad.