Small conferences are great for graduate students. Especially, when they're in Japan.
Estimated reading time: 7 mins (1289 words)
I was at a conference in Kobe, Japan.
And it was AWESOME!
Funny thing is I only found out I was going to this conference about two weeks before it started.
How did that happen? Well, I’m glad you asked…
So, at the moment, I’m in the process of putting together my doctoral committee. Basically, I’m asking a bunch of professors if they would kindly agree to evaluate my work and be the judges at my defense when I finish up this Ph.D.
In September, I met a professor who was potentially going to be on my committee (he has since agreed, yay!). This professor, Larry Kenney, is a professor in Kinesiology & Physiology. (This may not immediately seem like a logical choice of committee member for an anthropologist studying hair, but Dr. Kenney knows a lot about thermoregulation which is handy if you want to figure out whether human hair morphology affects our ability to stay cool in the sun.)
Towards the end of October, Dr. Kenney introduced me to a collaborator of his who would be able to help me with designing the experiments for my research, Dr. George Havenith.
Since Dr. George Havenith was based at Loughborough University in the UK, our first conversation was over Skype.
Our virtual meeting went very well! We talked about some ideas for experiments and simulations, I even had the chance to flex my Dutch language skills as both Dr. Havenith and I are from the Netherlands.
This is where things got interesting.
Dr. Havenith and Dr. Kenney mentioned they were going to a conference in Japan in three weeks.
Then they suggested that I should come along.
At first, I thought they were joking, but they insisted that this would be a great opportunity for me to present my ideas to a crowd of experts who could give me feedback and ideas on how to test my hypotheses.
Needless to say, I did not need a lot of convincing. When someone asks you “Do you want to go to Japan?” you say “How long do I have to pack my bags?”
But realistically, this conference was in 3 weeks and I did not have the kind of spare cash lying around to go on a trip like this.
I didn’t think this was going to happen, but Dr. Kenney and Dr. Havenith encouraged me to ask my advisor about it.
In the Netherlands, we have this great saying:
‘Nee’ heb je al, ‘ja’ kun je krijgen.
Which translates to:
You already have ‘no’, but you could get a ‘yes’.
Basically, this is the Dutch version of “it never hurts to ask”. And boy was this true. I asked my advisor (Dr. Nina Jablonski) and she immediately said: “Yes, this is a great idea, let’s get it sorted out ASAP.”
Then, in about one week I had to throw together an abstract + a poster to send to the conference organizers.
I thought I was real slick for getting myself into this conference, but when I was writing the 5th version of the abstract and the 245th draft of the poster I definitely was slightly less enthused about the whole thing.
But luckily it all worked out in the end and I had my poster and I was going to JAPAN!!!!
And yes, you read that correctly this was the first poster presentation of my academic career!
I’ve noticed that in the U.S. presenting posters and going to conferences is strongly encouraged for graduate students (and even undergraduates!). But since I did my undergrad in the U.K., this wasn’t an opportunity I’d had before. And since the first two years of grad school were so full of coursework for me here, I didn’t have the time to present before.
I find it kind of funny that my first poster presentation ever is not even at an anthropology conference, but some things just work out that way, I guess ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The conference I went to is the International Conference on Environmental Ergonomics (ICEE for short). This is a conference that happens every other year and it’s incredibly interdisciplinary with researchers who do mathematical modeling, to experimental physiologists and everything in between.
And it’s a very small conference!
In total, I think there were only about 200 people attending, and there was only one session at a time.
This is a huge contrast to the annual meeting for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists where you have thousands of people and 20 things going on at once.
Having been to both a big and a small conference now, I can say with confidence that there are some clear benefits to going to a smaller conference!
For the first time in my conferencing life (which consists of a grand total of 3 conferences), I was able to actually have meaningful conversations with multiple senior and junior academics.
Usually, at a big conference, it’s just so overwhelmingly crowded that it’s intimidating to talk to people you don’t know (especially as a graduate student).
But by the end of this conference, I pretty much knew all the students, professors and other researchers who were there.
This was in no small way facilitated by the fact that Dr. Kenney introduced me to everyone he knew there. Apparently, this is his M.O. for mentoring students. What can I say? I have been very lucky with the advisors that have come into my life.
Thanks to Dr. Kenney and Dr. Havenith (and Dr. Jablonski!) my poster session went really well and I managed to get a lot of excellent feedback on my ideas. All of the conversations I had with people that day will definitely help me in putting together the best plan of action for tackling my research questions.
Another awesome thing about this conference is that I got to meet with a lot of amazing students who are doing really exciting research.
A really important piece of advice that I’ve heard is: don’t just ‘network’ with professors, talk to other students.
I couldn’t agree with this more. When you go to a conference, it’s a great opportunity to meet famous professors, yes, but the students you are seeing there are your future colleagues and collaborators, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet them too!
I feel so incredibly lucky to have had my advisor’s support in going to this conference. Not only was it a great learning experience allowing me to meet Dr. Havenith in real life, but it was also in JAPAN!!!
It was my first time in Japan and, given that I have wanted to go there since I was about 14 years old, this was kind of a dream come true for me and I had to try really hard not to spend the whole week running around screaming “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M IN JAPAN ASDFJKLF!”
Let me tell you, I took in as much of Kobe as I possibly could during that week and it was fantastic!
The only glitch in the whole thing was that I struggled with some of the customs a bit more than expected:
I didn’t realize it would be so hard to do this polite Japanese bow thing properly 😭
Do you hinge from the hips like a deadlift?? And where should my eyes be looking???
I should’ve googled this before landing *panic*
— Tina Lasisi (@TinaLasisi) November 11, 2017
But luckily no one seemed to mind, although my attempts to bow clearly made them laugh!