Last week, I went to a conference with three of my labmates (Adam, Peter, and Wenhan) and we had a blast. It was a Gordon Conference called Bioanalytical Sensors and lasted 6 days. It was held at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island so not exactly an extremely exotic location but I had never been there (or even heard of Salve Regina) before, so it was a new experience.
^The above picture was taken by Andy at MIT, which I realize isn’t at our conference site, but I don’t have any other pictures of all four of us together.
The format of the conference was unlike any I had ever been to previously. It started out with a Gordon Research Seminar (GRS), which was basically like a mini conference specifically geared toward students and post-docs (i.e. young investigators). The Gordon Research Conference (GRC) itself then followed, with presentations by professors and leading scientists in the field. The entire conference was a small, intimate affair, focusing on unpublished new research and interpersonal interactions, promoting networking and social activities. I learned a lot, thought of some new ideas for my own project, was inspired by other people’s work, and just found out a few things about fields and techniques I didn’t know anything about. It was also a ton of fun!
Day of departure! We had an 8:00 am flight and so had to wake up super early to get to the airport for 6:00. Adam, Wenhan, and I all live near each other, with me about halfway between the other two, so we met up at my apartment at 5:00 to get picked up by a taxi before heading off to pick up Peter (who coincidentally lives near Sunnyside). Adam actually managed to get up on time, which is a very impressive feat seeing as he’s recently been in the habit of coming into the lab around lunchtime. We’re fairly sure that our taxi driver was drunk as the car had a tendency to swerve and he drove very close to the lane lines, but we didn’t die so that was a good start to the trip.
At the airport, security went smoothly. We didn’t even have to take off our shoes or isolate our liquids. I had four free passes to the Plaza Premium Lounge at the airport, so once past security, we made a beeline for the lounge (the boys were such freeloaders). I had never been in one before so it was pretty cool. Free food and drinks! We had breakfast at the lounge, though I didn’t eat much since I get airsick and didn’t want to throw up. The sausages were really good (Adam had seven), but the clam chowder sucked. Peter hardcore judged me for getting clam chowder at a Toronto airport when we were headed to New England, but he doesn’t even like seafood so I ignored him.
We had checked in early the day before so we all go seats near each other, with Peter and Wenhan in front and Adam and I behind them. Peter and I are needy people, so we both claimed the window seats. My idea of a successful flight is one where I fall asleep before takeoff, which is what I promptly proceeded to do, so I don’t really have much recollection of the actual flight.
Upon arrival in Boston, we got our rental car (the guy at Dollar called Wenhan “Wennin” and we made fun of him), failed to get our GPS to work, and headed to Rhode Island. At one of the tolls, Wenhan used a hundred dollar bill to pay for the $3.50 toll (Peter felt very bad about that, being the driver and having to ask the toll booth operator to break the bill). The agent also asked for our licence plate number, which none of us had had the foresight to record, so Adam had to exit the car to go check, and basically we just held up the entire line behind us.
I had done some research on restaurants before we left so I had a few ideas on where to go. We picked Busker’s Pub because they had stuffed clams, otherwise known as stuffies or quahogs (I don’t know how to pronounce that), which is apparently a Rhode Island specialty. It was situated on a quaint little shopping street with a bunch of pubs and cute shops that were way too expensive. I had the lamb burger and a stuffie, which was good but slightly bland without much clam taste. Wenhan had a regular burger with an egg on it, while Peter had a smoked meat sandwich, and Adam had fish and chips. We all had severe ketchup struggles as the ketchup refused to exit its glass bottle (glass bottles are so difficult to use, I don’t understand them).
After walking around for a bit and going into shops and not buying anything, we headed to the university to check in, getting our conference badges and room key cards and codes. We were all in Walgreen, which was fortunately air conditioned (it was hot!). Along the hallways were outer doors leading to smaller hallways containing more doors leading to individual rooms. Each suite, meaning the smaller hallway and individual rooms, contained four rooms and a shared bathroom. Wenhan and I shared a room in 252A (Wen Club!) in one suite, while Peter had the suite next to us (253A) and Adam had the suite above Peter (353A). Wenhan and I played rock paper scissors for the top pick for beds and he won, picking the further bed, sticking me with the bed closer to the door. I had wanted the further bed because if an axe murderer came into the room, I’d have had more time to escape and wouldn’t be the first to die, but oh, well. I rationalized that since the door was directly facing my bed, if an axe murderer did enter, he’d probably see Wenhan’s bed first since the opening door would temporarily block the view of my bed.
Hilariously, at some point after we all left the rooms, some stranger had entered Peter’s room and deposited their luggage on the second bed. The problem? Peter had reserved a single room and the conference organizers had no idea who this stranger was as nobody else was supposed to be there. Peter even checked the name on the stranger’s suitcase with the conference organizers and it wasn’t a name that belonged there. It was a mystery! The conference organizers ended up giving Peter a different room across campus, where he was isolated but got his own private bathroom. He was pretty okay with that.
The first conference activity involved welcoming remarks and a keynote presentation by an invited speaker. We don’t know what was said during the welcoming remarks because we got lost and couldn’t find the building in which the presentations were taking place and were therefore late. When we finally found the place, we snuck in through the back door and sat in the back row, trying to be inconspicuous.
After the presentation, it was time for the poster session. Half the presenters (sorted alphabetically) would go on the first day and the other half would go on the second day. Adam, Wenhan, and I were all on the second day, but Peter was scheduled for the first. There were a lot of interesting posters but it was often difficult to speak to the presenter as they would usually already be talking to someone else so one would have to time it just right to get in a word. I made a round to look at all the posters quickly to see which ones I was interested in and then make a second round to read the abstracts of the interesting posters to see which ones I wanted to make an effort for to speak to their owner. At one point I was reading an abstract and the owner came along and asked if I had any questions, but at the time I really didn’t want to be bothered so I said I was just reading, but I kind of felt bad and later just avoided that area entirely because I felt awkward.
Before dinner, Wenhan and I played some pool in the common room, which was located in the dining hall building. We both very much suck, but I am slightly luckier than he is and won 2-0. Interestingly, during one of our games, another conference attendee approached us and asked us if either of us were by any chance in 253A. Aha, the mystery stranger appears! Turns out this guy (Westley) had the room next to Peter’s but hadn’t really take a good look at the room numbers and just went into Peter’s room instead, which coincidentally happened to not be closed properly (or had a funny handle, we’re not quite sure), which was why he was able to get in. Upon going to the bathroom and then returning, he found that he had then been locked out, discovering his mistake and he was now on a quest to find the rightful room owner to a) apologize for his intrusion and b) get his stuff back.
After this incident, it was dinner time. Having never lived in a student residence or used a meal plan before, I was completely new to this experience and oh my goodness, all I could think of was no wonder the freshman 15 is a thing. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach and I went a little overboard with the food. Huge, thick sirloin steaks, large grilled herbed turkey cutlets, creamy twice baked potatoes, glazed roasted beets and parsnips, and spinach and feta ravioli stood steaming in big metal trays. I took something of everything. There was also a drink station with pretty much any beverage you could imagine: sodas and fountain drinks, milk (regular and chocolate), juice, water, iced tea, and even Gatorade. There was also a salad station with essentially every possible regular salad ingredient such as spinach leaves, chicken salad, tuna, and cheese, and several ingredients that I’m not even sure were salad components, including stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and canned peaches. Lastly, there was a stocked dessert station, with a variety of desserts, such as salted caramel crunch cake and French silk pie, in addition to cookies, brownies, pudding, and Jell-O. Yeah, um, I was defeated. I got way too excited and took too much food. I suffered my way through what I could manage to eat and had to get Adam to help me finish. It would turn out that this sequence of events would turn out to be a pattern for the rest of the week.
After dinner was the first round of student presentations, for which we were not late (because we followed the crowd). I can’t discuss them because the GRS and GRC are full of unpublished research. Post-presentations, though, was social time! The campus bar was open until midnight and students milled around somewhat timidly, trying out the local beers and making tentative attempts at conversation. The bartender had set up a game of cornhole outside, which involves two pairs of people facing off against each other to throw bean bags at a board with a hole in it. A bean bag in the hole is worth three points and a bean bag on the board is worth one point. I was abysmally bad at the game and Wenhan and I lost 0-21 against Westley and Andreas (Wenhan wasn’t very good either, while Wes was a pro). Nevertheless, it was a really fun start to the conference!