Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Science and "Le Chateau"

I frequently see complaints on twitter about how awful academia can be: the grant-writing, the stress, the long hours, unappreciative undergraduates, faculty meetings, etc.  I'll acknowledge it can be rough at times (*see disclaimer below), and there are things I'd love to see changed. But I also don't want aspiring academics to get the wrong impression that it is all a horrible grind. As a counter-point, this post is meant to highlight some of the joys of academic science.

Last week I attended the Evolution meeting in Montpellier, France (** see second disclaimer below). While at the meeting, I stayed at a 200 year old Chateau. With gardens. On a winery.  It had turrets. It evoked a sense of grand history. The AirBnB Chateau was surprisingly cost-effective, by the way (just so you don't think I'm spendthrift): split among 7 of us, it was far cheaper than any of the hotels.

This isn't the first time I've had work trips that also included some sheer "this is awesome fun" elements. The "First European Speciation Conference" a few years back was at an imperial summer palace outside of Vienna, and they put us up at a 14th century castle of the Teutonic knights.  I've walked the beaches and rainforests of Brazil while at a conference, hiked in the mountains outside Banff, gone sea kayaking in Monterey Bay, hiked in the Rocky Mountains, and stayed at a Californian winery for a week with colleagues to write a grant proposal.  I've been to the concert halls of Vienna, and bicycled through the countryside of Sweden and Finland, walked around islands in northern France, went bird-watching in Okinawa. The list could go on... and Andrew Hendry could best me by miles, since he travels way more than I do (my kids are younger than his so I tend to say no to a lot of invitations to keep the family happy).
Mark Kirkpatrick checking out a dead penguin on a tropical Brazilian beach; Evolution 2015
Doug Futuyma catches a lizard while birding, Evolution 2015

The Schloss we stayed in for the First European Conference on Speciation in Vienna
Emperess Maria Teresa's bedroom and portrait in the Hapsburg's summer palace, now IIASA
Sushi with Jun Kitano's lab in Mishima Japan

All of which is to say, if you enjoy travel with friends to cool places, whether wild places outdoors, or places with rich culture or history,  then academia has amazing opportunities for adventure, travel, and exploration of new places you haven't been to. It is amazing fun, and a great perk of the job (*** see disclaimer 3).

Perhaps the most important point to make here, however, is that this isn't just about having fun. It's not a junket vacation at taxpayer's expense. The vast majority of the time on these trips is spent in intensive pursuit of science: seeing talks, planning projects, networking. These turn out to be perhaps the most scientifically productive and intense moments in one's academic year. And that's not just a coincidence. The setting of these meetings is itself a catalyst. As biologists, we are more creative and productive when we talk shop while strolling the beaches of Monterey or Brazil, than we could be sitting in a sterile hotel conference center.

So what exactly are the benefits of these long-distance academic trips?

First, you meet more new people the farther you travel from home. At the Montpellier Evolution meeting, for example, I got to network with European colleagues who I rarely if ever see on our own side of the pond. So right away the cost and hassle of the intercontinental flight has academic advantages. I talked about projects with people like Blake Matthews, Tobias Lenz, Daniel Berner, Katie Peichel,  and others who I rarely see. There may be papers or grants that emerge from that interaction, and hence from the travel. This is not just speculation on my part: a recent study quantified the value-added of going to conferences, as measured in collaborations and publications

Second, you encounter new biology that is the focus of our work and inspiration. At the Asilomar meeting of the American Society of Naturalists in 2018, Steve Brady and I spent a long time contemplating the behavior of kelp flies, something I'd never looked closely at before. Some day there may be a project to emerge from those observations. Here's a video of the kelp flies, in slow motion, scattering as you approach their shelter. They vary in when they fly away, and how quickly they return:

Third, you establish time in an inspiring place to have detailed conversations. Let's consider two examples:

In 2008, I had a 2-day meeting with Andrew Hendry, Katie Peichel, and Renaud Kaeuffler at the Hendry vineyard in California. We ran together in the mornings, workshopped our ideas and wrote during the day, and ate and drank good wine in the evenings. We had a definite goal, but also had great fun together, much like the recent Chateau picnic. In retrospect, that vineyard gathering was one of the more productive of my career: it led to two NSF grants (so far) and numerous exciting papers.

At the Montpellier meeting we had a picnic at the Chateau for a group of collaborators. Everyone brought some food: cheese, bread, fruit (the figs and plums were astonishing!), charcuterie (goose sausage!), apple tart, quiches, and of course wine from the winery we were on. A dozen people came. We brought the food out onto a table in the garden of the Chateau, set out chairs, and we sat around and ate and drank and planned a decade-long experiment that we are soon to start. Conversation was relaxed and good-humored.  The inspiring environment and food and wine were catalysts that stimulated thought, discussion, and helped bond together a group of people who would be working together intensively for years to come. If all goes to plan, in years to come when we celebrate a Science or Nature or American Naturalist paper emerging from our long slog of work ahead, we can raise a toast to the Chateau where the plans began to take a more definite shape, just as they had at the winery 10 years earlier.
The Chateau picnic

Wine from the Chateau winery. Its good.

Some of the collaborative team at the Chateau we rented
Talking science late into the night in the Chateau garden

All this travel, you see, can be both enjoyable and scientifically productive. In fact, I'd argue that the two go hand-in-hand. They are scientifically productive precisely because they are enjoyable. They help us let our hair down, so to speak, turn colleagues into friends, and free our minds from daily tasks to wander through though more creative spaces.

How to get the most out of a conference, according to Science:

* Disclaimer: I realize I am privileged to have avoided some of the rougher sides of academia, and some of that privilege is probably attributable to my gender, ethnicity, college experiences, and secure upbringing in an academic family that traveled the world (among other things).  

** Disclaimer 2: I realize I am also privileged to have been able to attend the meeting, whose attendance was capped and which is also not cheap especially for those of us coming from across the big pond. I organized a symposium (actually 3, all of which were accepted and I had to withdraw from being co-organizer on 2) and was chosen to talk, so that got me a guaranteed place in the queue to register. I'm at a career stage where I can afford to pay for this either from faculty travel grants (I used mine up for Asilomar back in January), grant funds (I prefer to use this to pay people or do science), or out of pocket (which is where this conference is making its dent, as I am between faculty jobs)

*** Disclaimer 3: Not everyone can partake equally of these perks. You need to get invited to many things, so you need to get to the stage where you are recognized enough to get the invitations. You need to have access to funds in one way or another to cover the costs, if they are not always paid (some are, some aren't). You need to be able to wait to get reimbursed for many things even when costs are covered. And you need to be in a personal position (health, family, etc) to travel. I am very lucky, for instance, to have an academic spouse who get the idea, and somewhat tolerant kids (stress on somewhat). I trade off a fair bit with my spouse when we each travel, though I do tend to travel more. But, there were periods when I couldn't travel because our kids were younger, and even now I follow a rule of no more than a trip per month, half that if possible.

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