Conferences are the supposed high points in the life of a research scientist. They represent a chance to share your work with people who will appreciate it, develop friendships and useful collaborations, have some fun, and if you’re lucky, explore somewhere new and interesting. It seemed like I hit the jackpot then when I was told that I’d be going to the Centennial meeting of the American Association of Immunologists in Honolulu. There was many a jealous look directed my way from the other PhD students in the lab. I, on the other hand, was less thrilled by the idea of 16 hours of flying, 11 hours of time difference, and the prospect of 7 days completely on my own. I know, ever the pessimist.
So the filghts were better than I expected. I got upgraded on the way out, which was pretty exciting. The last thing I won was third prize in a colouring competition when I was 6, so needless to say this felt like I’d hit the jackpot. The extra leg room was rather lovely, but I think it might have spoiled me for the return leg.
Things went pretty smoothly the first day. I successfully managed to negotiate the streets of Honolulu to find MAC 24/7, home of the MAC Daddy pancake challenge. I decided to abstain, having seen the hubcap-sized stacks wheeled past me. Not even my hollow legs could do that justice. I also somehow managed to avoid getting sunburned, despite being the fairest of them all, and only had a brief afternoon nap. It was all looking rosy.
Then came the start of the conference. The opening talk was good if very American, but I suppose that comes with the territory. Next up was the drinks reception. Now, scientists by nature tend towards the shy and awkward, so approaching each other randomly isn’t really an option. Needless to say I have never felt quite so out of place in my life. I felt like Catherine Morland in my favourite adaptation of Northanger Abbey, when she arrives at the assembly rooms and doesn’t know anyone.
“How disagreeable it is not to knows anyone.”
“Yes, I wish we had a large acquaintance here.”
“I wish we had any.”
Regency etiquette was definitely in place. If you can only talk to someone once you’ve been introduced, but you don’t know anyone that will introduce you to people, you end up lonely in a crowd of people. By the way, Northanger Abbey is probably my favourite Austen novel. It mocks the hammed-up gothic literature of the time (think Twilight) really well.
Anyway, after retreating from the disagreeable situation caused by a lack of acquaintance, the evening picked up. Hopefully the next day will bring a little more conversation. Scientists are always more willing to talk if it’s about work. Fingers crossed. If not there are always my new penguin friends …