Scientific lubricant

Remember me writing about how stressful life as a last-year grad student was? How many of us walk around sleep deprived, nervous and pale in the face? Forget about all that, life as a final year grad student rocks!

Climbing peaks in Aspen: single-molecule biophysicists in the Rockies. (Steve Block’s Single-Molecule Biophysics meeting, Aspen, CO)

Let me tell you why. For the better part of 3 years you have spent an innumerable amount of time trying to figure out why you are the right (wo)man for the job, messing up, experimenting with flexible working hours, procrastinating, doing useful and less useful experiments, isolating yourself from family/friends/daylight, feeling insecure about your future and ignoring important e-mails from department secretaries. You may even have contemplated quitting, or at least pondered what life would be like as a diving instructor, mountaineering guide or Buddhist monk. But now all of a sudden the mist that clouded you so hopelessly has cleared up as if being burnt away by the morning sun: now you have a story to tell. This means it’s conference time!

And some more in the Alps (Kavli institute Delft retreat, Courchevel, France). 

Those outside academia might now be wondering whether the clearing of the above-mentioned mist also took away my last bit of sanity, but those in science know better. For scientists may not earn six-figure salaries, they will not find themselves surrounded by groupies on a regular basis, and they may have to spend days on end measuring in a basement, but I have to say: they sure know how to treat themselves to a proper intellectual retreat.

So it happened that last summer I spent a week in an idyllic Tuscan hillside resort with the most fantastic, luscious all-you-can-eat Italian buffets I ever had. A twist of fate at the beginning of this year took me to the most unforgettable skiing-filled week in Aspen, Colorado. And, as soon as I finish this column, I have to start packing for my next adventure: a conference in Whistler, Canada.

Yours truly suavely staring into the distance at the Whistler olympic site (Keystone DNA replication, Whistler, BC).

Why spend precious research money on flights, hotels and conferences in far-off places? I hear some ask. Well, while I agree there is definitely a limit to what can be considered reasonable and I know I have been quite the lucky grad student location-wise, I do think conference calls cannot make up for the full-blown conference experience with face-to-face meetings. Throughout the past couple of years I have gotten to know, appreciate and admire my scientific field – for a large part by seeing its constituents in action at conferences.

Besides the science I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know many great scientists informally during dinners, at 6 am runs through Italian forests, or during afternoons of skiing Rocky Mountain powder. If curiosity is the fuel that keeps the community going forward, it’s the conferences – and in particular its activities not related to science – that keeps the engine lubricated.

So what is the last-year Ph.D.? Stress and insomnia-filled, or an absolute blast? I guess one doesn’t come without the other: exactly why I’m having the time of my life.

So you mean skiing has risks?
The SMB gang.
Highland bowl.
The BN gang.

Published in the 12th Kavli newsletter of April 2015.




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