How to start small talk and break the ice with peers and professors at your school and conferences
While scientists can talk at lengths about their research, establishing that connection with a person is daunting.
I initiate a conversation by asking a question related to our current situation. It is my way to gauge how willing a person is to talk as well as invite them to a conversation. For example, asking a fellow colleague how they liked the topic discussed after a seminar. You can even ask someone what they think about the food and drinks offered at a social gathering. I find that asking a question pertaining to them starts a conversation.
The questions I ask are broad because it allows for a wide range of responses. While the goal is to start a conversation, it also allows them to exit if they need to do so. It is important to understand that it is not solely your fault if your conversation does not last more than a few seconds: the other person may not be ready to talk as they may be preoccupied with other things or just uncomfortable.