This is a little bit of a longer post, as there's much to share from this weekend when I was away for a conference. Instead of a post about ergonomics (that will be the next one!), this post will be a reflection and recap from the conference these past few days, poster presentations, and my experience of helping organize CONFORWest 2014.
Probably one of the best things about being a grad student is the vastness of the possibilities that suddenly open for you, regarding extracurricular activities in grad school. Not that these aren't available to you as an undergrad student, but as a grad student you are actively encouraged to seek out conferences in your study area, network with other grad students, get involved in reviewing articles, giving presentations, and get involved in some of the organizational aspects of those projects (although, depending on your supervisor, perhaps less for the the organizing part, as it would take you away from getting your work done!!!). I fully support taking a break from one's own work in a productive way --- and for me, helping out with this project is one of those things.
I consider myself to be a very community oriented person, and work with a flexible concept of community: my department, my neighbourhood, my city, my discipline, my municipality, province, country... all depends on what's involved, but I generally like people, and I certainly am attracted to working with people who care to contribute meaningfully for the experiences of others. CONFORWest is one such project. A conference is one of those awesome places to meet like-minded and interested people, network professionally, practice presentation skills, and of course, to learn a little bit more about how the world works, including academia.
So, waaaay back in September now, I signed on to help out with CONFORWest, a graduate student planned conference for graduate students in environmental sciences/studies and related disciplines. True to the advertisement of the conference, CONFOR is meant to be a very friendly, open experience for grad students of all stripes - PhD students, and first, second, and upper year grad students. It's an awesome place to meet people, learn about their projects and the research they're undertaking, and have some really wonderful conversations and experiences together.
Let's talk briefly about the academic experience of the conference. There were three presentation types we offered to participants: 15 minute oral presentation, 5 minute oral Ignite (15 slides, each 20 seconds automatically timed) presentations, or a poster presentation. This was only my second ever conference. The first I went to was a fairly significant 1300 person conference in October of last year: the Society for Ecological Restoration's World Conference. There, I presented a poster that was designed to showcase where my research was at, the background/context, a bit about methods, and some preliminary findings. Mere months later, this poster was still relevant for this conference. I can't actually say too much about preparing for a conference presentation (having not yet given one), but from my experience of the students over the weekend, presenting at a grad-student conference would be awesome. You will have an engaged, caring, and understanding audience, generally interested in what you're doing, and certainly supportive of it.
The poster presentation was awesome, too, though, and I think the experience is different from an oral presentation. For posters, you need to do a lot of the work before the conference. Posters can take a while to design, layout, and they typically need to be printed with several days leeway before leaving for a conference. Poster costs can range from $40-100, depending on who you print with, and size specifications. On campus at UVic, we have two places to print posters: UVic Printing Services (where I had mine done), and ZAP! Printing Services, in the Student Union Building. You can also get your poster printed at Staples downtown.
So, posters take time, and certainly it's recommended that you practice presenting your posters. Anticipate that people who stop by want a quick run-down of what's on it. Alternately, if it's a bit busy and you're already engaged in conversation with someone, passersby may want to stand back and read it from a few feet away, so your poster will need to be legible from a short distance. (There are a number of awesome resources online for poster help). It's often a good idea to acknowledge everyone who stops by. I struggle with this a little bit, perhaps because I'm a bit of an introvert, or perhaps because it's challenging not to seem rude to break off one awesome conversation to start another. Crowd management... I certainly can practise those skills a bit more.
By the time the conference happens, and you hang your poster, you should anticipate some of the basic questions the people might have. There's also a balance to be struck with the content of your poster, and the key things that didn't fit that you will mention in more in-depth conversations that arise with those viewing your poster. An easy way to think of a poster is as a visual abstract: short, sweet, but making you want to know more -- the more being the conversation with the researcher.
I'm a big fan of the poster presentation, and was very happy with the poster session at this conference. It was really fun to field questions and have people interested in my work.
So, aside from a few hiccups on the organizing end of the conference (more on this shortly), the rundown of the conference was fantastic. The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre was a fantastic venue for the conference, and very-well suited for our 46 person group. Rooms with two bunk beds housed 4 people at a time, the food was AMAZING -- the chef a real stand-up fellow -- and the location was phenomenal. The beauty and quiet and simply stunning West Coast of Vancouver Island was very much the right place to have this conference.
My biggest treat, however, was getting to meet naturalist Andy MacKinnon. Many will recognize his last name from the covers of the Lone Pine fieldguides for Plants of Coastal BC, the alpine, the interior of the province, too. What fellow! He lead a nature walk before dinner and his keynote presentation on Friday, and the next morning I shyly asked him to sign my field guide, and he very generously did so. Full of heart, good humour, and endowed with a passion for teaching and sharing his knowledge, it was so wonderful to meet him!
Nature Walk with Andy MacKinnon, deep in the West Coast forest!
I met with a few other committee members who were coming in from the airport pick-up. I'd already rounded together a couple people and sent them the street over to the bus. Eventually I gave up my signs and that duty to go count heads on the bus. We had everyone together in what seemed like record time! After a final head count, and realizing that we had one more person than expected, we set off for Nanaimo. It took me a bit to figure out why there was one extra person, and basically, they had changed their pick-up location from Nanaimo to downtown, and that worked.
About 45 minutes later, one of the committee members came back on the bus, chatting on her cell phone. She was intensely in conversation, but it was clear to me it had something to do with me, too, and she shortly said, "I'll pass you to our logistics coordinator." I held the phone to one side and asked who it was. "A person we left behind in Victoria," she said. I'm pretty sure my eyes bugged, as they have a tendency to do when I'm really surprised. I spoke with the person, and sure enough, we'd left them behind!! I'm still not sure how we missed them, but I also didn't know what to suggest! Good thing for me, they already had a plan and were standing at a bus rental company. She was essentially calling to make sure that it would be okay for the conference to cover the cost of the rental. I check with two other committee members, and said Yes! (How else we'd have met up with her, I had no idea...) So, they finalized that, and drove to Nanaimo to meet us with the bus there. Timing-wise, it was perfect for the situation. We'd finished loading-up in Nanaimo, and stopped at the car rental company on our way out. The participant had just arrived there a few minutes earlier and was ready for us. They were greeted by applause and jubilation on the bus. Phew. I could relax a bit after that.
Second, that night, we arrived in Bamfield early, as the logging road leading to this little town was in fantastic shape. Extremely dusty at times, but otherwise, very good. We passed our fair share of loaded trucks and "crummies" at they're known locally -- the Fords and other loggers' trucks that whizz along the roads, sometimes a little recklessly, out of familiarity. Registration sent us to our assigned rooms, and dinner was planned for shortly after. About 20 minutes after arrival, someone comes up to me to ask about blankets -- were there going to be any? I crinkled my forehead. While Bamfield had provided a top and bottom sheet and towels, there were no blankets on the beds, and I did not know why. When I'd been planning with Bamfield's conference organizer, I thought I'd discussed that we wanted Bamfield to set us up with bedding materials so we didn't need to tell our participants to bring sleeping bags. But at this point that conversation was from months ago, and I could stare at 46 bunk beds that were blanket-less. This is in February, on the wet West Coast. Temperatures were around 3-5 degrees, but felt much much colder, and while there were thermostats in each of the rooms, this was extremely worrisome. Later that evening we had a safety talk planned with one of the Bamfield staff, and myself and another committee member would ask that person what was going on.
Long story short, they had blankets, but those hadn't been put out. We weren't really given an explanation for why, but I will follow-up on this with Bamfield in a few days or so. We weren't sure exactly how many we needed (was one blanket enough, or were 2 needed?), so we put out a whole bunch and guessed. Everyone got at least one blanket, and the next day we sorted out who needed a second one because one wasn't quite enough on the first night. All in all, it worked out, but it was a bit scary at first.
Lastly, I woke Sunday morning to a nightmare about the bag lunches for our departure day. I should have checked on Saturday with the chef, including to ask where people could pick them up, and when. When I headed to breakfast just before 8AM, I checked-in with the chef, and as soon as I asked my question, I could see from his wide eyes that our request for lunches hadn't gone through. I don't know why that happened, either, but I panicked for a minute. He said to give him 20 minutes so he could see if he could do it. What he had planned I did not know. I mentioned this to another committee member, very worried, although we could have stopped at a Tim Hortons in Nanaimo or something like that, but it would have been around 2PM. The drive from Bamfield to Nanaimo is about 4 hours, and we weren't leaving until 10. However, he came to me minutes later and said he could figure something out, and that they'd be ready just before 10. Turns out that he and his staff made a sandwich making station out of the cafeteria space, and it couldn't have worked more perfectly. Brown paper bags were ready with juice boxes, cookies, and a stick of fruit leather, and then bread was set out, all sorts of options for innards, and mayo, several kinds of mustard, and other goodies. It was fantastic, and no one was the wiser. I am so grateful for the chef and his fast-on-his-feet attitude. He'd spent a minute reassuring me that it was going to be great after he'd made his plan, and it really was.
So, it's good to double and triple check the details. Everything worked out, and the Bamfield staff was great to work with. That I only had these few things that came up was fantastic.
So, that concludes Bamfield and my organizing experience. I'm still startled by how quickly the weekend went, but I feel very warm-hearted towards the students I got to meet, some from as far away as the University of Saskatchewan, and the Evergreen State University in Washington. Thank you to everyone, and especially the hardworking committee members, too. Thank you for sharing your ideas, your passions, your research. It was a pleasure.