There’s a scene in that ridiculous film The Day After Tomorrow when a climatologist returns to his research lab in Scotland from a scientific meeting in India. His colleagues ask him how the conference went, and he replies “Oh, you know what these scientific gatherings are like: All dancing girls, wine and parties.”
He is, of course, joking – I’m pretty sure climate conferences are boring now Al Gore isn’t popping in as often. But in other areas of science, Conference-Land is an exciting place, and attending meetings is definitely one of the perks of the job for young researchers. They are a vitally important forum for science, where a scientific field’s top class work is presented to everyone and anyone who’s interested. They are also a brilliant place to meet new people with which to have conversations about science and other things, potentially as a means to keeping in touch in the future – an important skill which most normal people call “making friends” but is called in Conference-Land “networking” (you can even take courses in “networking”, and trust me – nothing makes you feel more like a social retard).
Anyway, this year, I attended the UK National Stem Cell Network (UKNSCN) Conference, which, as it happened, was held in York. As expected, there was some brilliant work being presented, in talks and posters alike. However, we both know that you didn’t come to Coffee & Cake, Pizza & Beer for a bone-dry meeting report – God help you if you did – so instead, here’s a run-down of what my lab colleagues (Matt & Patty) and I got up to between the talks.
Wednesday – Mid-morning, we sauntered over from our office to be greeted by some friends of ours, who had volunteered to help out with the running of the conference – possibly tempted by the prospect of free registration, but who now seemed to be regretting that decision after they’d been setting out the delegates’ name badges since 7am. They seemed well practised with all the information they gave us – rattling off conference room locations and start times each day with the same efficiency and confidence (with a slight undertone of weariness and comtempt) you hear in the voice of a customer services call-centre worker. Of course, being from the University, we didn’t need the detailed directions, but hats off to them all for ploughing on for the benefit of a well-organised meeting.
One of the many bonuses of meetings is free food and drink. Coffee was plentiful and accompanied by none other than Grandma Wild’s Biscuits – a University caterering institution if there ever was one. Lunch was good, a buffet type affair, but with a lack of places to sit, it became a balancing act – a plate with sandwiches in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other, with a fork wedged between two non-opposing digits and UKNSCN-branded satchell over the sholder. Great care was taken to avoid spilling anything over the nice ironed shirts and blouses we donned specially for the first day of the conference, and luckily we remained unscathed.
After the final talk session, we had a “bowl supper” (specially designed to be eaten stood up with one hand! Brilliant!) and small drinks reception. We took it upon ourselves, after a glass or two of wine, to say hello to the Reps (Sales Representatives) from various companies, in an attempt to get free stuff – really cool and important stuff like pens, cuddly toys, tote bags with “I LOVE CELLS” written on, and “firkins” (those balls of fluff with googly eyes and stickers for over-sized feet, definitiely not to be confused with merkins). I did manage to get all these things (not a merkin), and in addition, some free lab reagent samples, which would’ve normally cost in the hundreds of pounds, and a voucher code for a free antibody (again, with a RRP of ~£200). A friend of ours Fiona, who works with developmental mutants of frogs, won – appropriately – a cuddly toy frog in a competition. She lamented “I’ve forgotten what normal frogs look like”, which seems somewhat more poetic in hindsight than it did at the time.
We were on a roll, so armed with another drink, we went along to the stall with the most expensive looking equipment on offer and tried to get a free demo of it, but instead managed to get laughed out of the building after the Rep invited us to guess how much it cost – I forget how much exactly, but we were definitely underestimating it by a factor of 100. Patty got her own back by claiming she could make one of her own, since it was basically measuring impedence over a petri-dish. We still await the results of this DIY project, so I might offer to drive her to the nearest Maplin to speed things along.
I wandered off to try and see some of the 150-ish posters, but failed miserably after I realised I couldn’t make much sense of even the clearest layouts after a couple of glasses of wine. We bumped into our boss, who commented on our drinking habits, and then went our separate ways, glad that – unlike most of the delegates – we wouldn’t be sleeping in the student halls of residence that night.
Thursday – Somehow I’d managed to be convinced to go early to the conference attend a “Meet The Expert Breakfast”, which started at 7.30am. About 20 of us sat in a lecture theature eating a continental breakfast in the company of Prof Gail Martin – one of the very first people to derive mouse embryonic stem cells and who actually coined the phrase; a true pioneer of the field. It was really worth the early start, and when the allocated time was up I wished that we could have stayed chatting for longer. One of the most surprising things about her career (that she had touched on in her keynote lecture the previous day) was how she ended up working on mESCs almost by accident, which gave me some encouragement in my slightly meandering research project.
As I had contributed a poster to the meeting, I had to present my poster during one of the long coffee breaks. I, like seemingly many others around me, took “present” to mean “stand by your poster with a friendly yet slightly desperate look on your face whilst other delegates glanced casually at your poster before walking off in disinterest or in distaste”. Nevertheless, something must’ve worked, as I got some positive comments from people who stopped to chat.
I also managed to win an iPod Shuffle from one of the company stalls, for the small cost of handing over my email address. It does have “STEMCELL TECHNOLOGIES” engraved on the back, but on the downside, as I already happened to own an iPod I was forced to give it away to my fiancée, who was less than impressed with the ‘graffiti’.
After a talk given by our very own Matt (we were as proud as doting parents at a school’s Nativity), the day was rounded off nicely with the highlight of any conference – the conference dinner, which was being held at the National Railway Museum. Much food eating and wine drinking ensued (both were excellent), and we met some nice people, from Nottingham, Belfast and beyond. As the evening drew to a close, and the coaches to take delegates back to their student rooms were starting to arrive, the remaining 15 or so (us 3 from York and the rest from elsewhere) drunkenly deflected the venue staff’s suggestions that we might think about leaving some time soon. Eventually, we were thrown out at about 11.30pm, after consuming most of the left over wine from the other tables. As we were the remaining York based contigent, it was then our responsibility to direct our visitors into town, where they hit the bar Dusk, pretty much the only decent place left open at midnight on a Thursday. The phrase ‘herding cats’ was used quite a bit.
Friday – Last night, we had made an absurd pact to attend the 8.30am lecture as a show of solidarity to some unknown cause. Naturally, after the previous night’s adventure, we almost immediately regretted that decision. A few bashful exchanges of “hello” and “remember me?” to people that we’d met the night before, and come the first break, we hit the coffee like we hadn’t had a drop to drink in months. Unfortunately the conference for me ended prematurely just after lunch as I had to get a train over to Manchester to see Kylie Minogue – tough life, hey?
So there you have it – a dancing girl to round off a conference party peppered with free wine. Maybe Al Gore should come visit us some day…