Thoughts From a Sea Urchin Meeting: Part 1

This is the first article in a series about my experience at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. For an introduction, click here.

Day 1: Travel and First Impressions

8:00 AM

Because it was the cheapest flight, my plane from Pittsburgh to Boston leaves at 8:45 AM today. Because I’m an anxious guy who assumes that everything at the airport will take as long as possible, I had to wake up at 5:30 AM, to carpool to the airport at 6:00 AM, so I can get through security by 8 AM, so I can get some breakfast before boarding at 8:30 AM. It would have been more expensive, but I would have had a lot more fun driving to New York or Philadelphia on Tuesday, staying the night in a hotel, then finishing the trip Wednesday. But I’m paying for the trip with a grant, so I have to do the trip on the cheap. I hate air travel. I get awful motion sickness from both takeoff and landing, so I spend the entire lead-up to takeoff anxious about getting sick, then I spend the whole flight anxious about getting sick when we land. That’s why I avoid planes whenever possible. I don’t get too sick from cars, trains, or even boats – it’s just airplanes that have my number. I think it’s because my body is wholly aware that humans were never meant to enter parabolic trajectories above an altitude of about two feet.

4:00 PM

I’m in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) now, in the dormitory area. The dorms are very college-style, which means they’re terrible and scratchy.

Inside the dorm area.

Inside the dorm area.

Looking out the windows at the small lake the dorm is built next to.

Looking out the windows at the small lake the dorm is built next to.

Woods Hole (the town) sits almost on Cape Cod, so there’s ocean all around. It makes sense that it’s one of the premiere ocean research institutes in the world, but it’s a little hard to get excited about it when I’m still a bit sick from travel. Currently it’s raining here; otherwise I would probably be out for a walk. I would love to find out more about the area. I may be a biologist, but a scientific mind never rests, and right now mine is focused on what kind of town I’m in. The first dinner starts at 6 PM, and the first set of talks begins at 7:30, so there’s not much science to report on yet.

9:30 PM

The first 3 talks finished up at 9 PM. Each speaker got 30 minutes of talking & questions, but they all invariably went over. I thought the talks were really well put together, but because it’s such a specialized field, it’s easy to see that none of them would be understandable to anyone other than a sea urchin biologist. I don’t even think other biology researchers could have gotten much out of these talks. Honestly, it would be like trying to explain, well, just about anything to a sea urchin – entirely meaningless except to hear yourself talk. In keeping with my original mission, I will discuss the ideas and thoughts I have about the talks I’ve seen.

Probably the most noticeable difference between an ordinary presentation and a scientific one is that nobody claps at the beginning. The speaker is introduced, and then they begin their presentation. I don’t know about most conferences, but in my experience with going to see people speak, there is generally a welcome round of applause, then another round when the talk finishes, and perhaps a third round when the questions are over. Here, there was just applause after the talk and sometimes after the questions. I don’t know where this convention came from, but my hypothesis is that, until the talk is concluded, this room of scientists does not have enough evidence to suggest that this talk will be worthy of clapping for. They want the speaker to say something meaningful before they give them any sort of praise.

Scientific speakers, more so than any others I’ve encountered, are incapable of keeping their talks down to a set time limit. Scientific speaking is like a warm gas – it expands to fill the space it’s given, even if that is not the intent of the scheduler. For many of the talks at this conference, there’s supposed to be 20 minutes of talking and 10 of questions. A scientist at a conference will see that and just think, “sweet, I’ve got a 30 minute slot!” They will then talk for 30 minutes (bordering on 40) and take 15-20 minutes of questions. In general, scientists will keep talking about their subject practically until you force them to stop. There’s a certain nobility in being able to talk about your work for literally any length of time given to you, but I feel like it’s just as important to know when to shut up and let someone else have a turn, and many scientists are not comfortable with that second point.

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