|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: