Saturday, March 8, 2008

I survive a conference

JenniferLast week, I attended a two-day bioinformatics conference that was held at the Evolutionary Biology Centre. The conference was jointly sponsored by my department, another department at my university (The Linnaeus Centre for Bioinformatics), and another university in town that I haven't mentioned yet, which is Sweden's agricultural university (Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet, or SLU for short—if you can imagine UM and MSU sharing the same town, you pretty much have the idea). 

I'm sure you would all be fascinated to learn more about the topics covered (such as "Position-resolved free energy of amino acid solvation in membranes from molecular dynamics simulations")... but let's just skip that for now. Participation was restricted to students and post-docs, with a couple of keynote talks given by early-career professors, so it was a young-ish crowd of almost 100 registered participants, who came mostly but not entirely from Scandinavian institutions. The two grueling and rigorous days were organized thusly: an outrageously early starting time (10am), two talks, a coffee break, two talks, lunch break, two talks, a coffee break, two talks. Oh, the humanity! The coffee breaks included snacks, although perhaps the reverse order of what you might expect back home: morning snacks were cheese sandwiches with cucumbers and tomato, while the afternoon break featured pastries and fruit; the pitchers of water all had several cucumber slices floating in them. 

Our conference badges all had one or two colored spots on them; these identified us as a group (in a strange coincidence, I was blue and yellow). To force social interactions, during the first day's coffee break, we were instructed to find others with the same colored badges and talk to them.  Then we were supposed to eat lunch with them. Then at the afternoon coffee break we were supposed to introduce someone from our color group to someone from our institution. Then, in a final blow to our egos, we had to... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

On Thursday, after the second set of afternoon talks, we also had wine and snacks, and then the conference banquet, which was held at Gästrike-Hälsinge Nation. I was greatly looking forward to dinner at G-H Nation, because the student nations are one of the famous ancient traditions of this university. The Nations' buildings are some of the most attractive in Uppsala, with G-H Nation being a good example of a more recent one, having been built in 1880. And indeed, the banquet was impressive, held in a high-ceilinged, wooden-floored room with large windows, and oil portraits of noteworthy (and now presumably long dead) G-Hers staring down at us from the walls. It was formal enough that there was a seating chart and our names at our places (which led to some confusion and milling about, because it they had accidently reversed the order of the tables on the chart), but it was much less formal than a Disputationsfest. The food was simple but very good—pinot grigio from France, salmon in a mustard sauce with potatoes, a chocolate flourless cake with mango and passionfruit slices for dessert. 
In between dinner and dessert, our color groups had one more team-building task: we were given 50 plastic bendy straws, 6 pieces of A4 paper, 1 roll of scotch tape, and told to make the longest span bridge we could out of these materials in 5 minutes. The best Team Blue and Yellow could come up with was to use as much tape and as many straws as possible, and we came in second to Team Green, which built an elegant arching device reminiscent of a suspension bridge. I spent far too much of the rest of the evening thinking about our bridge, and where we went wrong. (Several other people confessed the next morning that the bridge building exercise, while fun, had haunted their dreams also! I suppose this sort of behavior is to be expected from a gathering of technically-minded analytical types. Some of you [you know who you are] may be inclined to read more into Team Green beating Team Blue and Yellow than is really necessary.)

After coffee, we were shagged out of the room temporarily while the tables were cleared and put away, and the room was turned into a lounge, complete with soft music, candlelit tables, a multicolored flashing disco ball, and a cash bar in the next room. The G-H Nation choir, which had been practicing downstairs, decided to serenade our party from the stairway, first with a Swedish song that sounded quite fierce, then a gospel tune that I feel that I should know but didn't. Everyone else did, though, judging by their toe-tapping and humming along. I spent about an hour after dinner talking with a fellow from Göteborg about freshwater bacteria and their strange ways, and then left about midnight. I took the scenic route, walking home over the wooden footbridge, lingering to admire the view of the river and lights of the city (see Riverwalk). Apparently some people stayed much later; the opening remarks the next morning included the fact that some people were having so much fun that they had missed the last trains and busses home.

All in all in was a good conference. I met several potential collaborators, as well as hearing about some really interesting work that's not in my field, such as the fellow working on growing artificial hearts and modeling arhythmia. It was a rough two days, with all the coffee breaks and good food and socializing and so forth, but somehow we all made it. Next year, the conference will be held 'way up north, at Umeå University.

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