Going to a Conference

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The story of a graduate student’s first scientific conference

The land around the airport looked like a patchwork quilt from the plane. The square fields grew closer and more colorful as we descended. I snuck glances while filling out my customs form. It felt odd being abroad, even if it was just for a few days at a scientific conference.

“Chelsea!” someone called from the back of the plane. I turned around in surprise to see two dark-haired, twentysomething women waving at me with big smiles. Both were clutching poster tubes. I caught up to them as we disembarked. “Jess! Sara! I had no idea you guys were coming! How is everything? Is anyone else from the lab here?”

Jess laughed. “No, Mark couldn’t make it, so it’s just us. But everything is great! We miss you being our undergrad minion. Oh, and Sara’s almost done.” She elbowed Sara, who smiled knowingly.

“Seriously?” I asked Sara. “Do you have a dissertation defense date? And do you know what you’re going to do next?”

“I’ve got a postdoc position,” Sara replied. “Just another few months now.”

“That’s fantastic,” I told her. “Just tell me when I have to call you Dr. Sara.”

Sara laughed. “You’re a PhD student now. You don’t have to call people Dr. You’ll be a Dr. in not too long yourself.”

“Well, maybe in a few years. My project has to work first,” I replied.

(Does my smile look wry enough? Are they taking that as dry humor? Yes. Good.)

“Overrated!” proclaimed Jess.

We got separated on the shuttle to the conference center. As we rolled along the smooth roads, the plains and farmlands turned into rolling hills, which turned into craggy mountains. In September, the aspens were golden, but the air was only just cool. Our conference center was nestled in a valley with a river.

Two hours later, I’d unloaded my things in my hotel room. No one else from my lab had arrived yet. I sat for a moment on my bed.

I knew I needed to brave the opening reception. The room would be full of the world experts in my field. Names I’d been reading on papers since I was an undergrad. People I would need to know if I wanted to make it in science, as I hoped. But my stomach turned at the thought of venturing into the crowd alone. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to a third-year PhD student who looks like a high school girl. Especially a third-year PhD student with no scientific publications.

But I knew I had to go. I took a deep breath and stepped into my heels.

The room was full of unfamiliar scientists talking and laughing in small groups. Most were at least ten years older than me. After pacing around the room awkwardly and not seeing any way to break into a conversation, I snagged a glass of merlot to calm my nerves and pretended to read a program description leaflet. Then I noticed a thirty-ish, neatly dressed man stepping out of his circle and smiling at me.

“James!” I exclaimed, dropping the leaflet. “I had no clue you’d be here!”

James had been my grad student supervisor when I was an undergrad in Mark’s lab. He’d taught me the basics of research, and he’d encouraged me to go to grad school. He’d gone on to a prestigious postdoc position and had just been hired as a new professor.

“How is it being all important now, Professor?” I asked him, laughing.

James grinned and shook his head in amazement. He spoke very fast. “You wouldn’t believe it. It’s wild. They just gave me some retired guy’s old lab space, and he didn’t even clean out his fridge. So I spent my first day as a faculty member throwing out mystery animal parts. Now I’m recruiting grad students, and my wife and I are still trying to get the new apartment set up. There’s so much stuff they don’t teach you about. I’m emailing Mark all the time, asking him how he did this or that. But what’s up with you? How’s the grad life?”

“Oh, it’s coming along,” I said vaguely. (Am I smiling? Yes.)

“Are you still liking it?”

Shoot. How can I be honest while still keeping it positive? It’s not like I’m the only student in the history of science whose experiments haven’t worked. And I did still like research. In fact, I loved it. It just didn’t seem to like me yet.

“Oh, absolutely! It’s just…well, you know research. It can take a long time to get going. But yes, I definitely like it still.”

James smiled. “If you’re not bitter by year three of a PhD, it’s a good sign. I wish I could catch your talk, but my flight leaves too early. You’ll have to tell me about it sometime.”

***

The opening presentation that night was delivered by a famous biologist from a leading institution. You know you’re watching a top-tier scientist when each slide contains a month of work. It was clear he was old friends with most people in the room.

By the time his hour was over, I was thoroughly overwhelmed. I hurried out of the lecture hall and back to my hotel room, buried my head in the pillow, and cried. I had to go up in front of these amazing people in a few days and present data on an experiment that hadn’t worked. Could anything I had to say interest them?

***

I woke up the morning later to an email and two missed calls from my PhD advisor.

did you bring your hiking gear

Yes, I typed back. I dressed quietly. My sister Emily was still asleep. She hadn’t wanted to pass up the mountains and had flown out to meet me, arriving late the night before. His response came a few minutes later.

Good. I don’t know about you but I can only pay attention to so many talks in one day. Do you want to go hiking this afternoon? Chan-woo already made other plans

“Emily,” I said, and nudged her shoulder. She grunted. “Gan wants to go hiking today. Do you want to? You can say no.”

Emily shifted and sighed. “Noooooo…” she moaned softly, and fell back asleep.

Oh yes – we had already signed up for a bus tour of the area that afternoon anyways. I wrote Gan to tell him my sister was here, and we had already signed up for an activity, but he could certainly join the group. My phone buzzed again.

Ok. I’ll not intrude.

Aaargh. I’d already missed a dinner invitation from him the night before because I’d had my phone on airplane mode. It sounds like my labmate Chan-woo was busy too. I’d have to find some other time to catch up with him.  

No one I knew was at breakfast yet, and I wasn’t feeling up to breaking into one of the small groups scattered around the cafeteria. So I sat down alone and checked emails. After a few minutes, two women joined me at the table. Both were dressed like Europeans, and one looked about ten years older than the other. They introduced themselves, and I promptly forgot their names.

I tried my best to make small talk on half a cup of coffee. They were French, so I mentioned I’d always wanted to see Provence. The younger woman seemed to work for the older one. So I asked about how PhD programs and research labs were structured in Europe. This kept the conversation moving along, until someone mentioned a Jacques. The older woman’s name suddenly floated up again in my mind’s eye, emblazoned on a research paper alongside a Jacques. She was our lab’s competitor. Her work was five years ahead of mine. She had already spun out a startup based on it. An electric jolt went up my spine. I instantly realized our conversation had wandered into science.

“–so, what do you work on?” the younger woman was asking.

I took a sip of coffee to stabilize myself. Use science words. Real researchers use the correct science words. I told her about the new medical device I was developing, and that I was Gan’s student.

“Ah,” said the older woman, with a slight twinkle in her eye. “And do you have a poster?”

“A talk. On Saturday morning.”

“That’s interesting,” she said, examining her coffee mug. “You know, we’ve been trying out a new design, and we’ve been having a problem getting it strong enough. Have you been having any problems with that?”

My stomach churned uneasily. She had asked a fair question – for all she knew, my talk was going to be about that problem. But I couldn’t share unpublished data unless Gan authorized it. “Well, I don’t have any personal experience with that test,” I said, which was true. “You should talk to our postdoc, Chan-woo. He’s got a poster, maybe that could help you.”

As breakfast finished, I pointed out Chan-woo’s poster. I’d need to warn him she was coming by. I wasn’t sure what to make of her. I could have sworn I saw her watching me, still with that odd twinkle in her eye, as we split up to enter the presentation hall.

***

By that afternoon, I wholly agreed with Gan that you can only pay attention to so many talks in a day. My head hurt from trying to follow all the names of the different proteins. And I was getting very anxious about my own upcoming talk. The presentations had been just as high-quality as the first. Even the talks from the other students had contained some positive results. And to top it all off, now the mysterious French woman would be watching.

My sister Emily met me in the line for the bus tour. She was clutching her good camera and smiling broadly. “This place is beautiful,” she gushed, as I passed her her bag lunch. “I went exploring and found a trail down by the river. We’ll have to go if we have some free time.” Jess, Sara, James, and a set of other scientists got into line behind us, chattering happily.

Between my mental exhaustion, my growing apprehension, and the overwhelming physical beauty of the landscape, I didn’t have much energy for talking with Emily. But Emily didn’t mind me being quiet. She was too busy taking pictures of everything; the alpine lakes, the glaciers, the mountains, the trees, the sign that said “Beware of Wolves”, me. We stopped at a bend in the road that provided a panoramic view of a valley. “This is a famous shot,” the bus driver told us. A few intrepid souls climbed over the low fence to get a better angle and perched on the edge of a small cliff. “I haven’t done anything like this since the kids,” a young professor exclaimed happily as she clambered back over. “God, I miss climbing.” Her husband laughed and helped her back up the slope.

As we boarded the bus, Jess and Sara were talking excitedly. “Don’t you love getting dressed up? I hope we make it back in time!” Jess said to me as Emily and I fell into line behind her.

“Dressed up for what?”

“The gala tonight! Aren’t you going?”

I felt my face turn red. “I – I didn’t know the gala was…for grad students. It sounded too fancy for to be for grad students.”

“Ah, no!” Jess cried. “It’s supposed to be so much fun. Sorry you can’t come.”

We couldn’t come. It was too late to buy a ticket, and we hadn’t brought gala-worthy clothes. “Sorry,” I told Emily. “I guess we could have gone to a gala, but I didn’t know we were allowed.”

“That’s OK,” Emily said reassuringly. “We can get dinner and look at the stars.”

***

I woke up the morning of my talk with lead in my stomach. Leaving Emily asleep, I dressed and made my way down to breakfast. I saw James sitting with a group of people from his postdoc lab and asked if I could join them. But they were making extremely science-y inside jokes and sharing stories of old labmates. I didn’t have much to add. I poked at my muesli.

Then I caught a glimpse of my advisor, Gan, standing near the buffet. It’s hard to not notice a 6’ Chinese man dressed entirely in khaki. He was talking animatedly to a white-haired professor whose default expression seemed to be “pleasantly surprised”. This must be Ed, who was technically another competitor, but whom Gan had always spoken of as a friend. I should meet Ed. I picked up my coffee and made my way over.

“This is my student, Chelsea,” Gan told Ed happily as I joined them. “She’s working on our large animal testing.”

Ed smiled kindly at me. “Any luck? Do I get to hear today?”

“Well…” I said tiredly, smiling back. Something about Ed’s smile made it harder to fake the cheerful imperviousness I’d tried to convey to everyone else. “Luck in some aspects, not much yet in others. My talk’s right after yours.”

“Ah, that’s too bad,” Ed said. “But it’ll come. And I’ll be an easy act to follow. You know, Gan, we were having real trouble with our baboon implants for a long time. I don’t often lose sleep over research, but I lost sleep over that one for weeks. Until finally, our surgeon figured out the trick.”

“Trick? What’s the trick?” Gan was practically bobbing up and down in his white sneakers.

Ed suddenly looked sheepish. “Sorry, that slipped out. He’s writing the paper up now. I really shouldn’t share until he publishes. It might not work in anything but baboons anyways.”

“Oh,” said Gan, deflating. “Of course, that’s fair. Well, Chelsea, you’ll have to tell me about Ed’s data. The only flight I could get out of here leaves right before either of your talks.”

Crap again. I’d wanted him in the audience. Gan never seemed afraid of anything. During my qualifying exam, I’d imagined that there was no one else in the room, and I was talking only to him, just telling him about science. “That’s fine,” I said. “Did you have a good hike yesterday?”

“It was great!” Gan replied, grinning and adjusting his backpack straps. “I wandered around in the woods for hours. There’s not enough nature at home for me; I get tired of the city. Looks like it’s time to start, let’s go in.”

I tried to listen to the other talks. But I couldn’t seem to concentrate. Two hours passed. Gan whispered good luck before slipping out to catch his flight. James was already gone. I felt alone and exposed.

Ed was introduced. He had a lapel mic that let him walk around the stage, and he spoke like he was used to being in front of crowds. The data was impressive. He was probably five years ahead of us. He was almost ready to try clinical trials.

It was my turn. I felt dazed while they loaded up my Powerpoint. It was strange hearing myself announced in the same way as all the tenured, established researchers who’d stood at the same podium before me. For the first two seconds of my talk, my tongue caught in my throat. I’d practiced too many beginnings, and they were all swirling in my head at once. I seized one.

“So at breakfast this morning, Ed told me he’d be an easy act to follow. I appreciate the sentiment, but I think he lied.” The room laughed.

My voice shook for the first minute, while I told them about the medical problem we were trying to solve. But as I got into the design of the device I’d built, I felt myself stabilize. The pictures and graphs I was showing were friendly. I’d made them myself, and I knew every data point. When I got to how our collaborators had implanted the device in pigs, I thought I saw the French woman lean forward in her chair. It suddenly hit me that she may view me as a threat. Then I put up the pictures of the failed device and explained the failure mode. I discussed how we planned to modify the next iteration and closed the presentation. The French woman seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and sit back, watching me with an inscrutable twinkle in her eye.

There were a few audience questions. I was surprised how easy they were. Even more surprisingly, there was no hint of disdain or pity. No one seemed to think Gan and I were less competent because the device had failed. The moment I’d feared most had slipped by almost unnoticed. Jess and Sara smiled at me from the crowd. I hadn’t realized they were still here.

When the session was over, the handful of other PhD students at the conference swarmed me with congratulations. “You did great!” a guy I’d met two lunches ago told me enthusiastically. “You talk like a professor! I bet you win best oral presentation!”

My smile was easy this time. “I’m definitely not going to win,” I said. “Not in this crowd. But thanks, that’s really kind.”

My talk had been one of the last. After they announced the best poster and oral presentation awards (I didn’t win), the group dispersed to collect their bags and catch shuttles.

Emily and I had a late flight and didn’t need to leave for a few hours. So I changed out of my suit, and we left our bags at the hotel desk. We walked the river trail and took pictures of the birds in the meadows. We found our way to the local tourist town and bought coffee mugs. We listened to the roar of the waterfall and the whisper of the aspens.

As we wandered, I wondered whether Gan had gone this way the day before. It had always amazed me how such an accomplished researcher could keep his humility and joie de vivre. I knew how hard he must have worked and how often he must have failed to get where he was. But, as I thought about it, I realized almost everyone I’d met at the conference had shown the same self-forgetful sense of wonder.

On the walk back, a man with white hair and a ridiculously oversized reflective vest crested a hill power-walking towards us. Ed looked pleasantly surprised to see me. As he continued on to the town, he called back to us, “Good job, and better luck next time with those pigs!”

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