Most shocking conference experience?

Dec 02 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

Since I just got back, dealt with the things that had built up and am not quite ready to fully commit my head to work this morning (still waiting for coffee to set in) I thought I would follow up on something I posted in response to Professor Chaos' blog posting on scientific dress. I got thinking about some of the more interesting things that have happened at conferences and decided I would post two of the more memorable conference moments for me in the hopes of getting others to share theirs. The first I covered in abbreviated form in the above mentioned post but thought it worth elaborating on here. The second is from a massive conference a couple of years ago.
1. As a grad student I had the opportunity to go to a small conference, which is typically attended by a large number of heavy hitters in my field. As I read through the program it was like a who's who list of all the people who wrote the books, papers and programs I used the most. I was honored to have the opportunity to give a talk to this group, but felt rather strongly that my project was hardly worth their time. I am not the type that has a problem getting up and talking about my work, but this was a slightly more intimidating audience than I was used to. I was talking in the morning of the second day and spent the first day feeling even more inadequate after listening to talk after talk on some of the most significant research happening in my field. By the day of my talk all I wanted to do was get it over with.
The day started off with an hour-long talk by a renowned research from the UK giving a key note talk on his views of a particular subject on which he had written a book and many papers. The man looks VERY much like an elder Darwin, with one key exception - he wears a kilt and Doc Martin boots. No problem, I thought, not so unusual and scientists can be an odd lot sometimes. So, Darwin gets up to give his talk using overheads (again, not unusual at the time. Fuck, that makes me feel old), but I don't remember anything he spoke about because of one peculiarity that held my attention the entire talk. Every time Darwin approached the O/H projector the light revealed something odd through his white shirt. Specifically, he was wearing what appeared to be a lacy camisole under his shirt. On first glance I didn't believe that's what it could be, but every time he approached the glaring light I became more convinced that indeed, Darwin likes wearing ladies undergarments. By the time that it was my turn to speak I was a bit less nervous, having spent a decent amount of the morning having an internal debate as to whether I was correct in my observation. Nevertheless, I had a far more shocking discovery to make.
The auditorium was stadium seating with a decently steep incline and I stood in front of the room looking up at the audience and feeling a new wave of anxiety kick in. I got a couple of slides in before I scanned the crowd and got an unexpected sight. It turns out that Darwin conforms to tradition when it comes to kilt wearing and in panning the audience I found more than eyes staring down at me. I don't even remember going through the two slides subsequent to the sight of Darwin and his "boys" observing my talk and am still unclear whether I even said anything or just numbly flipped through, but no one mentioned it to me afterwards, so I assume that I was at least minimally coherent. However, I am pretty sure that I will forever remember that talk, not for the significance of the data, but because I now shiver whenever anyone gives the advice "picture the audience naked", because it aint pretty! As if to quell debate, this same man has now taken to wearing skirts, abandoning the ambiguity of the kilt, and what can really only be described as blouses. The Doc Martins remain, however.

2. My second memorable conference experience is a bit more tame. I was invited to speak at an enormous conference in Chicago when I was a post-doc. It was the kind of conference I would never normally attend because the abstract book was as big as the Chicago yellow pages and there were 15 parallel session running on most days. That kind of meeting is just not conducive to meeting anyone and not at all the kind of thing I look forward to, but they were paying my expenses so I thought, what the hell. The conference was being held at the downtown Hilton, which is a place I will never stay again. To my amazement, the hotel did it's very best to nickel and dime people staying there for every little amenity possible, whereas the Econo Lodge on the same block provided the same services for free, at a lower per night cost. One could argue that the rooms would be nicer in a Hilton, but these rooms were nothing special and barely fit the bed and a desk. In addition, the hotel was so massive that the line to check in was longer than those at the airport. It took 45 minutes to navigate the maze of velvet ropes to the front desk.
As if the over 3000 conference participants were not enough to make every common space in the hotel seem like a bee hive, on the second day of the conference group after group of middle-aged women started showing up. Apparently there was a "Pampered Chef" conference running concurrently with the one I was attending. It wasn't the added number of bodies that was a problem, however. Descending on the Hilton was about 1000 housewives who were out on the town without the husband or kids. Individually this might not be a problem, but in packs... Like some bizzaro Mardi Gras, after about 6:00 pm any young male had to move around the hotel quickly and without making eye contact, lest he hesitate long enough to be surrounded. I watched as the overwhelmed bar tender fended of multiple requests for him to remove various articles of clothing, a flurry of sexual innuendo and more offerings or "body shots" than anyone should have to endure. I even had my ass slapped walking through a crowded hallway as a group of giggling women scurried off behind me. The whole week was one of the more unusual conference experiences I have ever had, and memorable in many ways.

3 responses so far

  • River Tam says:

    I've been meaning to do this for a while, but I've just been too behind on everything!My most shocking conference experience wasn't traumatizing but surreal. ESA Baltimore, I'm a young grad student sitting outside a session room waiting for the talk to end. I'm paging through the program, making sure I'm not missing some big name's talk critical to my education when I look up and a Klingon walks by. Then a vulcan walks by. Then some bizarre creates from Babylon 5. Once I got over the shock, I thought I was going to bust a gut. Turns out there was some big sci-fi convention convening in the other half of the convention center. I really wish I had taken pictures....

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Conferences can be surreal by themselves, but it doesn't help to have klingons in the next room. I wonder how many people at ESA spent some time at the sci-fi convention while skipping out on talks.

  • Nat Blair says:

    Dude, how have I missed this blog! What a great post, combining genitals that appreciate science, and cougars accosting poor young grad students. Huzzah!

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