If You Give a Grad Student a Conference


A day and a half after returning to greater Montreal, my lab group hopped in a McGill branded mini-van and drove to Ottawa for a joint conference between Canada’s fishery scientists and limnologists. Although I presented a poster at a small conference last February, this was my first time giving a talk at a conference. This was also my first trip to Ottawa, and I was looking forward to ice-skating down the famous Rideau Canal and gawking at the stone-covered Parliament building.

The door to my lab’s office space

Instead I spent 12 hours each day sitting inside a cold hotel conference center and eating at the local mall food court. To be fair to the Rideau Centre, it was the nicest mall food court I have ever seen. Kudos. However, I expected the life of a professor to be romantically exotic: traveling around the world to parts unknown to speak at conferences while tasting the local cuisine and sight-seeing, all while on someone else’s bill. The reality burst my bubble, so to speak.

Conference SWAG: name tag, information booklet, and a cool tote bag

My talk was also less rose-colored than I originally envisioned. Instead of my calm practiced speech, my typically absent fear of public speaking got the better of me; both the words coming out of my mouth and the rate of my heartbeat were too fast for my liking.

Conference highlights included drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee and listening to great presentations, like the influence of climate change on the distribution of Lake Cisco in Ontario or the biology of salmon sneaker males and their impact on the aquaculture industry. Sneakers are small males that “sneak in” or steal egg fertilizations from larger, dominant males of the same species. The mechanisms for developing into a sneaker male are partially genetic and partially environmental. I learned that the aquaculture industry cannot sell sneaker male flesh, so figuring out how to avoid the development of eggs into sneaker males can increase efficiency and output. Pretty cool, right?

Jake and I were lucky enough to make the cover The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter’s annual report. How cool is that?

One of the most interesting conference aspects was a chat that originated afterwards among a few young female graduate students about the challenges faced by women in academia. Areas of discussion ranged from the difficulty of having children during an academic career, to unequal representation among tenured professors, to specific instances of unequal treatment in a work environment. If you are interested in learning more, this topic is continually touched upon and associated with a myriad of great articles, such as Dr. Stavrakopoulou’s Female academics: don't power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed.

The point I am trying to make is that instigating discussions like this are exactly what conferences are for; conferences allow researchers to network, collaborate, discuss, and bounce ideas around.

Soaking up the sun on a winter time trip to Santa Catalina Island, part of California’s Channel Island Chain

I thought that two years of graduate school would somehow make my life path clear. Five hundred and forty-five days after walking out the door of Montreal’s Elliot Trudeau airport with suitcase in tow, all I know for sure is that my career plan involves living in a warmer climate. Strapping ice crampons onto your boots to buy groceries is not nearly as exotic as it sounds (true story). Then again, an inch of frozen rain seems mild compared to Sarah’s field work traversing wind-swept mudflats before sunrise in freezing temperatures.

My study permit and funding expires in 232 days, otherwise known as the end of August (cue dramatic music). That means I have approximately 8 months to finish the analysis on both of my lake trout related projects, write and submit my thesis, publish two manuscripts, attend at least one more conference, give two seminars, and find a job in the Boston area. Eight months is not so long when you consider the expense reports, server updates, chemical inventories, equipment purchasing, etc., that every graduate student must continually deal with to keep the lab running.

What I am trying to say is that its crunch time, or the beginning of the end of this Canadian adventure.

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