This is part 2 of my experiences at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference. Part 1 can be found here.
Day 2: Food, Talks, and the Sinister Side of Science
A quick update, because the first talks start in 20 minutes. The food here is merely “edible,” meaning it’s better than your standard cafeteria, but actually putting effort into the food would simply be too much work because there are over 100 people eating at each meal. One thing about the meals is that they are much more casual than the actual talks, so people are much freer to discuss which aspects of their projects are frustrating, annoying, or confusing. I bet that about 70% of the actual science that’s done at these conferences is done over a burger and beer (although, since WHOI is in Massachusetts, it’s more likely to be a bowl of chowder and a Sam Adams). One observation I made is that the people here (especially the professors) seem to enjoy wine. A lot. Most meals resulted in enough bottles of wine being emptied that there’s probably a vineyard or two near Wooster that’s scrambling to replenish their inventory. Either way, there’s a lot of interesting discussion happening over meals that are really useful to doing science. The talks and posters are for telling everyone what you’ve done, but the meals are for talking about what you’re going to do.
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
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.
Prologue – Why is there a conference about sea urchins?
This year I went to my first multi-day conference as a graduate student, the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference at the Marine Biology Laboratory, located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I was a little nervous, because I didn’t feel like I knew all that much about the field, and also because I had no idea how it was possible to spend four days talking about sea urchins. Then I realized that every researcher will have to attend their first conference at some point, so I decided to write about the experience for all of you who want to know what happens when you get 100 scientists together who all work on the same problems.
Safety first: scientists always wear gloves before high-fiving. At least in stock photography.
I’m taking a group picture with my lab, and we look like an advertisement for cultural diversity. We line up like those models of different skin tones, a rainbow row of smiling faces, only we have a little less sleep and a few more pairs of glasses. A Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim walk into a lab – must be another Monday. Or a Sunday. We’re not the best at work/life separation. In between experiments and cleaning the beakers, we take turns cooking different cuisine for each other from India, Iran, Israel, Korea, China, and the frozen food section of Costco. We talk about which countries our families are in, what life is like there, and try to understand the impact our governments have on each other. One thing we rarely talk about is our different religions. But when we have to sacrifice a mouse, I found that we each said a different prayer.
My life as a Ph.D. student is in some ways similar to life on a small isolated country. I have (perhaps foolishly) moved there willingly, and I intimately know a number of the residents. I have come to share with the inhabitants their remarkably common lifestyles, similar viewpoints, and a love for bar trivia.
It is often believed that we natives of this isolated country are innately taciturn, with a breeding that renders us paralyzed in the face of normal social interaction. In reality, we are mainly trained to make our chaotic stew of scientific thought into something useful to the public. Any Ph.D. student who has defended a qualifying exam, a dissertation, or received harsh comments from publication reviewers has experienced those challenging, aggravating, and all around exciting moments as we dexterously communicate blips of our academic thinking.
It might be surprising, then, that once I leave my isolated country of academia, a few simple questions I get from friends, family, strangers, and foes can be difficult to answer. How can just a couple of words render me speechless when my isolated country fixates on the art of scholarly communication? The answer lies in the silent thought process.
Here is a list of the 3 most common things people say to me when they hear I’m an engineering Ph.D.