The first few days of any conference can be extremely overwhelming. The last conference I went to was a Gordon Research Conference - much smaller, and catered to a very specific audience. Almost by default, we were able to interact with celebrity professors on a very informal basis. Coming to a conference like this one, with thousands of people, can be a lot for a young graduate student. How do you really use a conference like this to network and build connections?
As part of the ACS Travel Initiative, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Madeleine Jacobs for an hour and a half breakfast. She made an extremely good point while we were discussing personality types (she's a Meyers-Briggs ENTJ). You have to work against your predispositions. I'm an ENFJ, but definitely border on I/E - meaning I struggle between being an extrovert and being an introvert. In situations like this conference, I really have to make an effort to tap into my 'inner extrovert'. There are so many amazing people that if you don't take personal initiative, you'll miss a chance to have an amazing conversation. So far we have had the opportunity to meet with not only Madeleine Jacobs, but Peter Stang (ACS Editor) and Peter Goelitz (Angewante Editor). Both are incredibly outgoing and love talking with students. I have definitely found that for the most part, initiating a conversation is about as far as you have to go. Most professors are more than willing to talk with you, especially if you ask them questions about how they see the field developing, or what the role of our generation is in the future of academic research. Though these are professors whose names we see on published papers on almost a daily basis, and to us are celebrities in our fields, it's worth getting out of your comfort zone and introducing yourself.
I've found so far that poster sessions make it extremely difficult to talk to people since there are so many people in small, crowded areas. The best places to talk are receptions. A lot of students tend to leave early or stay in groups amongst themselves, so the number of people decreases by a good bit. The best place to start a conversation is definitely in a more intimate environment, especially over good food and beer!