Tuesday, May 10, 2011

First conference--PWNED

As I mentioned in my last post, I left last week to go to my first conference, the annual meeting for an international vision research association.  I had an amazing time, and I'm glad that my boss decided that I was going.

I woke up nice and early on April 30th after not very much sleep.  That's what happens when you're nervous about a trip!  Or what happens when you finish packing and getting ready at 11:30 and after telling your friend that you need to go to bed now, you end up playing co-op Portal 2 with him for almost an hour.

Worth it.

My coworker and I both got to the airport pretty early, checked our bags, and got breakfast.  The first flight was fine, but the second flight was a pain.  I finished the one book I brought with me on the plane, with almost a full two hours left to go in the flight.  Additionally, I sat next to a crying baby.  Yep.  Crying baby, for real, on a flight.  Not just on the same flight, but in the seat next to me.  Somehow, I managed to nap, but I stayed pretty bored for the rest of the flight.

Upon arriving in Florida, we got our luggage and took a cab to the nearby hotel.  To our dismay, the hotel (where we had booked a room with TWO beds) would only give us a room with ONE bed.  My coworker is not single, and we didn't feel comfortable sharing the one bed, so after the manager insisted he couldn't switch our rooms, we got a cot.  The room was tiny and got no sunlight, and the only room for the cot was in the entryway to the room itself.  That meant that we could only set up the cot when we were using it, since otherwise we couldn't leave the room.

To top it all off, of course, the TV remote didn't work, the WiFi in the room was too weak to use, and I didn't get any cell phone reception.  It was shaping up to be a lousy week.

We headed out to find food for a late lunch, which we had at a dive bar.  We picked up some snacks and booze for the hotel room on the way back.  We also had some nice pool time, which cheered me up.  That evening, we headed out to another restaurant for dinner, which was pretty fun.  I felt much better, and ready to start the conference the next day.

I was super nervous on Sunday, which my coworker found amusing (he especially thought it was hilarious that I was nervous about getting my poster up by 8:30am exactly.  "What, did you think they wouldn't let you put it up if you were even a minute late?"  YES).  We got our badges and he helped me put my poster up.  I didn't have to be at the poster until 10:15, so we went in search of (overpriced) food.  I only ate half of my plain bagel, so I put the other half in my bag and totally forgot about it.  I was pretty surprised that night to find a stale bagel half underneath my notebook.

We went to a couple of talks, and I tried to take notes.  I took bad notes.  I don't know, it's just that there's so much going on, and there's only so much information you can cram into 10 minute talks.  And unless you're very talented, you're probably going to be so focused on cramming in that information that the only people who get your talk are people doing very similar work.  Then, I headed downstairs to the main exhibit hall to stand in front of my poster.

I didn't really know what to expect from the poster sessions.  I've never presented a poster before, so I assumed (based on the number of posters, the presence of a chair in front of each poster, and my own lack of interest in other people's work) that I would probably be sitting most of the hour, waiting for people to come by and read the poster, and then maybe answer questions if they had any.  I was totally wrong.

At 10:15, I arrived at my poster to find a bunch of people already in front of it, reading it.  From then on, I did nothing except walk various folks through my project, answer their questions, explain the intricacies of the project.  I didn't need a chair.  I only had trouble once, when a young woman kept insisting that she be allowed to take pictures of my poster.  Photography and recording is actually prohibited at the meeting, and my boss had additionally forbidden me to allow photography, so I constantly told her no.  She finally relented to just asking for a photo of my email address.  I told her no, but wrote it down for her.  She STILL insisted on taking a photo.  I was a bit miffed.

At the end of the hour-long session, one more person was still at my poster.  I talked her through the project, and she actually gave me some tips on isolating some primary cells we were having trouble with.  Awesome!  So, I finished at 11:45, just when my coworker came to look for me.

We went and got lunch at a steakhouse with another coworker (who accidentally stole my steak--I ended up with his medium-rare one, and was bummed out) before walking back to the convention center for some more talks.  At 3:15, I headed back to my poster for the afternoon poster session.  I again made some assumptions.  I assumed that since this poster session was taking place during the afternoon session, when lots of people would be at other talks or have gone to their hotels for the afternoon, I would have fewer people asking questions (the first session was the all-poster session, during which there are no talks or meetings).  I also assumed that since there was a longer amount of time for this second session, people would be more spread out in terms of how many folks would come along at once.

My coworkers all came by at the beginning, but before we could even chat, I started having visitors.  My boss had told me that she was sending a woman to see my poster, but I was so busy talking with other people, my boss had to explain the project to the woman instead.  I ended up staying another 15 minutes after time was called at 5pm, since there were some other folks who had questions.  I was beginning to lose my voice, too (I lost it completely by that evening, but it slowly came back over the course of the week and was normal by Thursday).

We then hit up the keynote, but just because they had made a video using clips that organization members had filmed.  A ton of clips were of the folks in our labs, so we were psyched.  Then we skipped out because we don't care about genomics, and there was a pool beckoning us.  Pooooool.  Plus, I was exhausted!!

My coworker and I were too tired to go find food that night, so we ordered a pizza.  It was pretty chill.  Thanks to the lack of internet, I was switching back and forth from reading a book about cancer (The Emperor of Maladies, just won the Pulitzer!  READ IT) and frantically waving my cell phone in the air to try to keep my IM client connected to the 3G (mixed results).  Before calling it a night around 10:30, I checked my social networking app and found a slew of tweets regarding Osama bin Laden, so then I turned on the news until Obama had finished his speech over an hour later.  I wish I had gotten more sleep, but glad I watched the speech.  By the way, pundits?  Shut up, you are SO annoying!

The next few days of the conference consisted of a lot of talks and poster sessions.  I didn't have as much fun, since I prefer to present my own work and really don't care that much about everyone else's.  Some posters were pretty interesting, though, although unsurprisingly, the better posters were the ones with first authors who were 1) actually at their posters, and 2) eager to explain their research.  Some folks just sat in chairs, bored, watching others go by, and other folks would just stand by their posters, not even asking viewers if they had any questions.  I'm not going to judge everyone's behavior and claim that they're lazy or rotten or anything.  Some people have bad days, some people are shy, and some people don't speak English and might be nervous about being at a meeting in the US.  But it definitely influenced which posters I liked and made sense to me, and which ones didn't.

I also noticed a lot of people weren't standing at their posters.  I noticed it on the first day only because some of the people who were at my poster asked me to come see theirs, and then pointed over to it because they were on the same day as me (this happened a lot during the all-posters session).  Not that I had a chance to leave my poster, but I had no idea the number of people who just didn't go to their posters when they were supposed to.  Even my boss was frequently not at her poster!

In the afternoons, my coworker and I would relax and tan by the pool and read, which was nice.  I started bringing my computer with me to the convention center on the last few days of the meeting, enabling me to take better notes, and to get my internet fix during the day so I wasn't killing my phone battery or going batty in the evening without a connection.  Our whole lab went out for dinner one evening, which was fun, and then I went out with two of my good friends, who were local, another night (for expensive, DELICIOUS steak, and even better quality time and conversation).

Thursday, my coworker finally got to give his talk, which went very well.  The strange thing, though, was that he was in a weird section.  He was talking about induced pluripotent stem cells and regenerating Bruch's membrane.  But the rest of the session was about anti-angiogenic treatments for AMD, clinically.  Clinical stuff and wet lab stuff are VERY different.  Plus, his was the only talk without reference to VEGF.  Weird.  Then we had beer to celebrate.  And internet.

Heading home was uneventful but stressful.  Continental proved that they could be almost as annoying as United, which is funny because they're merging.  We were unable to check in using our United confirmation number, our Continental confirmation number, our e-ticket numbers, or even our credit cards.  Finally, the representatives helped us, but then informed us that because our first flight was delayed, they were putting us on a later flight to Boston in case we missed our connection.  I expressed surprise, since I thought we were already on the latest flight to Boston.  It turns out, the "later" flight they were referring to was the flight we had actually booked!  The flight he claimed we were on, which United TOLD me we were NOT on, was scheduled to leave before we had even landed in Newark.  That's something that United told me they cleared up for me, and it was reflected in the final confirmation email and the reservation on the website.  Grrr!

But fine, he said he booked us on both flights.  Then he had to run and get my luggage because he had accidentally tagged it to just go to Newark, not Boston.  I noticed that he had only given me one boarding pass and had to point this out to him (this is what happened to me when I tried to go to Iowa--they gave me one boarding pass, and my luggage was only tagged for Chicago, not Cedar Rapids).  Fine.  Then we waited for 40 minutes to get through security, only to find out flight was delayed 45 minutes.

That flight was actually all right because we had free movies, TV, and music.  Plus, I had a window seat and the person in front of me didn't recline their seat.  Yay!  We arrived in Newark similarly delayed, so we just went to the gate for our original flight so we could get boarding passes.  But then we were told that we weren't on the flight.

So, let's get something straight here.  When we booked the trip, we booked this flight.  Then United called me because they changed the flight.  Then I called and they changed it back, and sent me confirmation that they changed it back.  We were on that flight, no other flight.  Then we get to check in and they tell us we're NOT booked on the flight, that we're on an earlier one we couldn't possibly catch.  Don't worry, they tell us, you're booked on BOTH flights.  But then, as it turns out, we were not booked on the later flight.


Fortunately, the flight was only half-booked, and they got us on it easily.  It was a short flight, delayed about 30 minutes, so we got into Boston around 11:15.  There was enough space that we had a row to ourselves and didn't have to sit with strangers.  Finally, we took a cab back to our neck of the woods, I drove my coworker home, and then I went home and passed out.

All in all, it was a great trip.  I learned a lot, made my boss SUPER proud with how well I handled the poster sessions with the millions of adoring fans, got a tan, and had a lot of fun.  I hope that my next conference is at least half as great.

But I also hope that the flight situation is at least twice as good.

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