Part 5: Lessons Learned and Coming Home
All we have to do now is wait for our shuttle back to the airport. Around me there are all sorts of scientists who look just how I feel: Tired and ready to go home for some relaxation, but also anxious and ready to get back into the lab and work on some of the ideas that they got from the conference. A number of them also look like they have hangovers that could slay the most alcohol-tolerant of English dockworkers. So, you know, a pretty successful week, overall. I had a great time at the conference. It was very interesting, but also quite a bit of work for me. Even after two years of working on this system, there is just so much more to know about how sea urchins grow and develop. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I know that if other people here can understand it, then in the future I can too. I hope that next time I have a talk to give, because it really seems like talking to these people about my work would be extremely exciting and rewarding.
What I found most surprising about the meeting was how inspiring it was. Not in a self-help conference, “you can do it!” sort of way, but in a more down to earth & practical sense. For example, I saw a lot of talks, and heard a lot of questions. Going in, from my experience of school presentations most likely, I expected the questions to be of the “gotcha” variety: Hard questions designed to trip up or discredit the speaker. While that happened occasionally, most questions were more positive. They started with words like, “Have you considered…” or, my favorite, “What if?” That meant to me that the scientists here were really digesting and understanding the information they were being given and thinking of intelligent and logical continuations of the work they just witnessed. That’s good news – scientists can understand each other. But what was truly great, and what I found the most inspirational, was the most common response to those questions: “I don’t know.”
I can’t tell you how amazing it is to hear that. There are so many people in our lives that are simply unwilling to admit when they don’t know something. It took a lot of training for me personally to say when I don’t know the answer to a question. I think that people want to seem like they know things – something, anything, or everything. There’s a fear of losing respect or credibility because you don’t know something that you probably should. I know I felt that way for a long time (“I have to know this, because if I don’t then everyone will think I don’t know what I’m doing.”), but this simply isn’t the case. I’ve found that, in general, people are happy to help. Everyone wants to feel smart, and the easiest way to do that is to share knowledge with someone who knows less than you do. You may not know how the mouth of a sea urchin embryo is specified, and I could tell you that. But I have no idea how to read music, and maybe you could teach me that. This means that we would each gain knowledge from the other person, which is good, and we would each get to demonstrate our expertise in our fields, which is fun. I think this is the basic reasoning behind a conference like this, too. We at the conference all have our own little niches of knowledge about the sea urchin, or about evolution, or about biological techniques, and for the field to advance we need to share that knowledge. Reading papers is not enough, because there is no back-and-forth with a paper. The questions and discussion help focus thinking on problems that are important. The best outcome is that you hadn’t thought of that problem before. This means that the area of inquiry will get researched better, because suddenly there’s something new to research that may be incredibly interesting, which in turn benefits all of science.
We’re about to land in Pittsburgh, which means that I have to switch focus from what I think about the conference to what I think about not losing my lunch. I hate air travel.