Friday, October 5, 2012

Four weddings and a conference (aka life as a grad student)

First of all, I have to credit my husband, Pete, with the initial inspiration for this title. He has long remarked that he would like to write a satire on grad school life with the above title (likely an intertwining of rom-com and dark satire). However, that being said, this title has been a very apt description of my life over the past few summers. We just attended two beautiful weddings over the past two weekends, in one of which Pete acted as officiant and married the couple. (Back-up grad school plans now updated to Pete (officiant) and me (baker)?) Luckily, academic conferences offer almost as much interest and entertainment—if not joy— as weddings. They are an odd, intense microcosm of academic life, acting as a social outlet, a wonderful venue for building connections in your field, and an intense overload of scientific stimulation and information, which can be both exciting and overwhelming as you dash from room to room across the conference center. Trying to negotiate the many concurrent sessions can feel a little like a feeding frenzy—you dart in and out, trying to snatch up the most valuable pieces of information, always keeping half an eye out for what other morsels might be available.

One of my favorite conferences thus far in my academic career was the AFS (American Fisheries Society) conference that I attended in Seattle last summer (2011). It comes to mind now primarily because Pete and I just moved to Seattle for the fall for his last field season, and in a weird twist of fate, our daily ride to the University of Washington campus takes us along a beautiful bike path by the lake, and also happens to pass right by the car impoundment lot where I got my government truck impounded during AFS. An ironic reminder of a wonderful conference. Our move up to Seattle warrants a brief aside, since our powers of creativity and problem-solving were called upon during the drive. The situation: a heat wave in California with temperatures reaching 100F, broken AC in our car, and two panting cats. The solution? Drive the longer (but much more scenic) route up the coast… and ice the cats.

Cheesie being iced
The Humboldt coast
In any event, the AFS conference was the first large scientific conference I had ever attended, and I was not sure what to expect. It was a somewhat similar moment to the first time I went to Vegas, which was on our way back from a hiking/birding trip in Guadalupe National Park. Since my only knowledge of Vegas was based on movies such as Ocean’s 11 and the gambling drama 21, I worried that I was not dressed nicely enough in my t-shirt and jeans. Pete just laughed at me. However, in the case of an academic conference, my preconceptions of what it would be like were much more accurate. Dress code was what you might expect from a group of outdoorsy people hitting the city—fleece was prevalent, and the male uniform seemed to be a plaid short-sleeve dress shirt and khakis/jeans. What I love most about academic conferences is the buzz of excitement that pervades the air, which comes from, I think, the exchange of interesting ideas and the fun of gathering with so many like-minded people.

Given the large number of engaged friends we currently have, I expect the summer trend to continue. I’m not sure yet which conference I’ll attend next summer, but I am sure (and am daily reminded) that I will look carefully for any faded red paint on the curbsides of the city. Suffice it to say, it’s embarrassing to get a government truck towed. New proverb: red paint at night, not a conference-goers delight. 

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