About this time last year, I wrote a post about what I do in my day job as a marine biologist. In this post, I want to revisit my day job again, and specifically one aspect of it: the academic conference. This is because I’m going to be spending the next week or so at one of these supposedly auspicious events. For those not familiar with academic conferences, these are events, usually held annually and somewhere exotic, where academics from around the world, all specialists in a particular field, come together to share ideas and so help to advance the very science which is their daily bread and butter.
At any rate, that’s what they are meant to be. In practice, they are quite different creatures, and are a mix of academic one-upmanship, back-stabbing, gossip, drinking and debauchery. In other words, they’re just like pretty much any other gathering of humans anywhere on the planet. Yes, ideas are discussed, advances made, but these won’t be in the rarefied atmosphere of the seminar room. Rather, it will be more likely to happen late at night in a dimly lit hotel bar, with half a dozen people crowded around a table, peering blearily at a paper napkin covered in scrawls and doodles that seem to make sense at the time, but which, in the cold light of day the following morning, when heads are pounding, will mean nothing.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that academic conferences are nothing but thinly disguised week-long parties which can be charged to expense accounts. They are serious events, it’s just that they are not necessarily always taken with the seriousness that most people associate with both science and scientists. Nonetheless, friendships are made and connections are forged, and although this may result in nothing more than hangovers in the short-term, in the long-term, they do lead to greater collaboration and real scientific advances.
The locations of these events can be almost anywhere in the world (places like Maui, the Canary Islands and Monaco to name some of the more exotic ones I’ve been to over the years). However, despite this, most of the time will be spent in stuffy, darkened conference halls, far from the reach of the beaming sun and blue skies outside, listening to dry and, to be frankly honest, quite boring talks outlining the latest advances. Worse, if you happen to be staying in the same hotel as the conference is taking place, there’s a good chance the only time you’ll catch a glimpse the locations exoticness will be from the cab as it travels from and to the airport. Yet, there will always be that one presentation which lights a spark deep inside your brain and sends you scurrying for the nearest bar napkin to start sketching out a new idea which might change your career in ways you never thought possible. These are the moments which make sitting through the rest of the talks worth it, even if you are continually reminded that scientists are rarely the best public speakers.
Still, when all finally finished, hair is let down and when this happens scientists can party with the best of them. This usually happens at the closing banquet, or to be more accurately after it, when all the business of the conference is out of the way and everyone can finally relax. This is when things can get messy. One memorable conference, the final night started with a drag queen cabaret show and an open bar (never a good thing to offer scientists!), and ended with the conference organiser being led away in handcuffs while several vans full of Spanish police in full riot gear waited outside for the order to move in because of all the noise we were making at what was by then some ungodly hour of the morning. Needless to say, that was the point at which I decided to leave, unclear as to whether the departmental finance officer at my university would find a bail payment an acceptable conference expense or not.
Of course, that was back when I was a grad student, and these days I am older and wiser (well, at least I like to think I am, but maybe I just lack the energy of my youth to stay up all night). This means that the conference I’ll be attending next week will probably not involve too much drunken debauchery (at least not for me), but it will be fun watching the latest in-take of grad students acting the same as we did many years ago, while they look at us old timers and think of us as boring party-poopers for not getting involved in their antics. If only they knew the truth, they’d probably have a lot less respect for their supervisors, their bosses and, indeed, the heroes of their field.
So that’s academic conferences for you and while my mind will primarily be focussed on that for the next week or so, you can be assured that during the more boring moments, my mind will be drifting towards my other career as a novelist. Story ideas will be thought of, zombie set pieces imagined, and possibly even rough drafts polished, as I wait for that one talk to inspire me, and remind me why I love doing science so much.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.