Seeing the World Through Science: Conference Experiences

Martin Pool at Jukkasjärvi

Kemer and Antalya

Richard Lemert

About 15 years ago I attended a small NATO ASI near the village of Kemer, Turkey, which is about 20 miles from Antalya. It was held at a small hotel owned by one of the Turkish universities--who marketed it for events like this--in an area that was becoming a significant resort center. Many of the attendees brought their spouses, and a few even brought their small children with them.

The conference had a morning/evening format, with afternoons (and the middle weekend) free for site-seeing; the site-seeing was fascinating. Tours were arranged to see the coliseum in Aspendos, the mountain ruins of Thermesos, and the original church of St. Nicholas, the real saint that's the inspiration for the St. Nicholas of Christmas. Transportation into Antalya was cheap and convenient, and there was plenty of shopping and tourism available.

Credit : Rainbow Demon

The Turks I met were very friendly, and we had very few problems communicating. There was always someone around who spoke English, and if there wasn’t, someone probably spoke German. They were also very tolerant--at least in the resorts--as they had no problem with women going topless at the beach or by the pool. One experience with topless women was a bit disconcerting for me. Here I was, a beginning assistant professor talking to a German "big name" in my field with his topless wife standing next to him. I survived the experience, however.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the trip for me was seeing how much Turkey represents a transition between East and West. I remember walking through the streets of Antalya and seeing the female members of a local family. Grandmama had on the traditional head-to-foot covering (but no veil), mother had a conservative western-style suit on, and the teenage granddaughter was wearing a halter-top and shorts.

Kemer and Antalya may be off the beaten path, but this was definitely an interesting place to visit, and I would not hesitate to go back.


Martin Pool

A few years ago while I was a postdoc, we had our annual network meeting at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi in the north of Sweden. What a great place for a meeting! The whole hotel is built completely of ice each year; apparently it melts in the summer.

By day, away from the talks and discussing your latest results, there's lots to do-- snowmobile trips, cross-country skiing, or if you're feeling brave, a sauna followed by a plunge through a hole in the ice into some pretty cold water.

Meeting at Jukkasjärvi (Courtesy, Martin Pool)

In the evening you can chill out, quite literally, in the vodka bar, where the tables and chairs and even the glasses are made of ice.

Warmed from the vodka, you can eventually retire to your bedroom. While we were there it was –4ºC in the rooms but apparently it never gets below –10ºC. Once you’re in your sleeping bag it's actually pretty warm and there are several layers of reindeer skins between you and the ice. To top it all you even get a cup of warm lingonberry juice--a Lapland specialty--to wake you up in the morning.

Definitely a cool place for a small meeting, and if you’re lucky, you may even get to see the northern lights as well.

Cô te d’Azur

Maria Bostenaru

The sea is just so blue in photos taken from the Côte d'Azur seaside that it seems unreal. But I’ve been there, and that turquoise is the color of the sea indeed. I think it is because of the fact that the beaches are not made out of sand, but out of white stone, which gives a different background to the deeper sea waters. The conference center in Nice is called "Acropolis" and features numerous conference rooms, poster tents, wireless Internet access, and everything else what the organizers of an international conference might dream of.

I come from Romania, and some of my ancestors came from Hungary, all in the middle of temperate European continental field, so I keep being impressed by the sea. The Black Sea is far from the magnificence of Mediterranean locations, with mountains rising to the sky just from the blue mirror of water. Thomas Mann, the great German novelist, reflected on the preference between the sea and the mountain, and connected it with personality and character development with age. On Côte d'Azur there are both, the turquoise waves and the Alps Maritimes. The heart of the mountains can be accessed by the romantic railways Chemins de Fer de Provence. Those impressed by the light at this location, as so many painters were, can do a trip to Venice, to visit the Matisse Chapel, or just the Matisse or Chagall museums in the city. Along the sea there are in easy reach Cannes, or Monaco, the latter showing a somehow different, cosmopolitan face of the same Mediterranean seaside, ideal for a day's trip.

Maria Bostenaru in Nice (credit: Michael Kauffmann)

"Spaces of Encounter" was a seminar by the world known architect Daniel Libeskind. I participated during the winter of 2000/2001. It was exactly before I started to attend the European Geophysical Society (later European Geosciences Union) General Assemblies, held for five years in Nice until the venue moved to Vienna in 2005. The seminar was a good opportunity to reflect on how much accent is put nowadays on visual reception. Sound and image can be reproduced, but tactile sense, taste, and smell cannot be so far. Entering the urban spaces of the city of Nice reminds us of just this: It is the Mediterranean climate, a story which cannot be told by any image. It is a delicate balance of wet and dry, of sunlight and powerful sun rays, which makes weather so enjoyable in spring, when the conferences I attended there were held.

And then there is the French kitchen. Close to the seaside, around the flower market and the fish market, numerous restaurants with excellent cuisine, from local to international cuisine array. I fell in love with French salads, cheese, and wine, and one is encouraged to take the price-worthy “menus,” to have a taste of all three plates which make a good meal, however scaled to what one can eat during the evening.

Acquafredda di Maratea

Crina Frincu-Mallos

Everybody's dream is to visit Europe in the early summer, when tourists are still rare and summer heat is yet to come. Your mind starts traveling without your body, visas, or luggage, and you find yourself by the Mediterranean Sea taking in the blasting sun, the scent coming from the green hills, and the soothing sound of the blue-green waves meeting the black (ouch!) pebbles. Your body relaxes and your mind feels clear and crisp. Orchards of luxurious orange and lemon trees are appearing on the back of your closed eyelids, and your hand grasps for that cool glass of limoncello. But wait--you are in a graduate program and your most beloved summers do not belong to you anymore; you are supposed to be in the lab, doing research.

Crina Frincu-Mallos at Acquafredda di Maratea

If you dream enough, however, something better than the dream will happen. There is a time to do research and there is a time to present your research. For me, that time came when my Ph.D. advisor suggested I present my research at an international conference on crystal engineering. Organized under the auspices of the European Union, it offered the chance of being "sequestered" in a charming, remote location with some of the best scientists in the field. Names you knew from papers would become real people you could talk science and life with, people that would inspire you to learn more, to understand more, to dare and to ask more from yourself and from life.

Since then, I will always be in love with the Amalfi Coast, with the food and the people of the region, with their insane way of driving on narrow roads bordered by the sea and the mountain while talking and looking you in the eyes. Since then, I am also a strong advocate of human-tailored conferences in remote places, where everybody wakes up early in the morning to hear the same talks, where a clear understanding of human nature makes the organizers insert breaks in the program, and where swimming in the same waters as Lia Addadi could happen to a simple graduate student.

Apart from the memory of the best limone gelato, the taste of limoncello, and the desire to retire to Capri--among lemon trees with ridiculously large and abundant fruit and a guaranteed view of the Adriatic Sea--I took with me friendships and a label: "the American girl." This American girl, born, raised and college-educated in Romania, with graduate studies in France and the United States, would always be grateful for what dreaming has helped her accomplish.

Hmmm, I wonder if my friends Mark (the Dutch) and Susana (the Portuguese) would allow me to disclose the precise location of this EURESCO conference. To paraphrase Zorba, I loved it too much not to say it: it's Acquafredda di Maratea, 200 km south of Napoli, a memorable route by train.


Constance Holden

I would certainly put Keystone, Colorado, on the list--sessions at the stem cell (and presumably other) meetings only in the morning and late afternoon so you can swim or go skiing in the p.m.--especially wonderful for people like me who find it very difficult to stay awake in afternoon conference rooms.

Pacific Grove

Colin Norman

My vote for the best conference location is the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California. It's on the Monterrey Peninsula, in a forested area overlooking the Pacific. Accommodations and meeting rooms are rustic, "Arts and Crafts" style wooden buildings in a campuslike setting. It's a great location for relatively small, intense gatherings. It's also a wonderful area for running. A big plus, in my view: no televisions in the rooms.

My impression of the facility may be colored by the one meeting I attended there as a young science reporter--the famous "Asilomar Conference" in 1975 in which 140 scientists, mostly biologists, debated the risks associated with gene splicing--recombinant DNA--which had just burst on the scene. Leading scientists had called for a moratorium on the use of the powerful technique until the potential risks were better understood, and participants arrived at the meeting divided on whether to recommend going ahead. Attendees included Paul Berg, James Watson, Sidney Brenner, Maxine Singer, Michael Bishop, and other leading lights of molecular biology from around the world.

The meeting was widely viewed as an example of self-restraint and social responsibility by scientists--which indeed it was. But it came close to reaching an impasse. What finally bridged the gap between those urging restraint and those who wanted to press ahead with this new technology was the suggestion that some gene-splicing research should be done using organisms carrying mutations that would render them unable to survive outside the lab. And with that recommendation, the notion of biological containment was born. Once that idea took hold, the scientists held workshops and impromptu discussion sessions, some stretching late into the night, to swap ideas about how to develop such experimental organisms using what Sidney Brenner colorfully described as "steam-age genetic engineering." Asilomar was a perfect setting for those sessions.

It turned out that the enthusiasts were overly optimistic about how long it would take to develop those lab strains. But those sessions in the Asilomar conference center paved the way for the revolution in genetics research that has followed over the past 30 years. I haven't been back since. I'm told it's a little less rustic now. They even have free wireless access in parts of the campus.


Jon Cohen

The 1991 international AIDS conference was held in Florence, Italy, in the most beautiful venue I've ever seen: The Fortezza da Basso, which connects to the Palazzo dei Congressi and the Palazzo degli Affari. The conference also had posters everyday from 12 to 3, which meant that people really had a chance to meet over lunch.

Steamboat Springs

Elaine Lidington

The best for me was a Keystone conference in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which was organized around the skiing. The meeting was small, giving you a chance to meet some of the bigwigs and the talks were kept to the morning and evening, leaving the afternoons free to hit the slopes. The snow was not as great as it was at the end of the season, but as an addition to the science it was fantastic.

The worst venue for me was New Orleans, where the conference center was huge, in a long-and-thin type of way, and the sessions I was interested always seemed to be at opposite ends of the building. By the time I had taken the 10 minute walk there, I had missed the talk I was most interested in. As a city, New Orleans was okay to visit once but it didn't have enough to make me ever want to go back (once you have seen one swamp ... ). I also had the most scary taxi rides in clearly unsafe 1970s cars (it seems to be the place where old American cars go to end their days).

The second worse conference was in Birmingham here in the United Kingdom. We were given a list of recommended restaurants where the best of Birmingham's famous Balti curries were to be had. The most highly recommended restaurant was a long taxi ride away, but we thought it had to be worth it. It turned out to be a not so great neighborhood; the restaurant was a complete dive with no alcohol license. To add to this the food was really dreadful (complete with the odd stray hair from the chef) and the large number of well-spoken/foreign scientists who had also made the trip were attracting rather too much attention from the less-than-impressed locals.


Richard Léveillé

The French exobiology short-course ExoBio is held at a beachside resort in Propriano, Corsica. While the talks and posters start early and finish late, there is a "lunch break" from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. to encourage discussions amongst attendees. Generally these meetings take place on the beach, in the water, under the water (SCUBA!), on kayaks, or while hiking up in the surrounding rugged hills. Of course, lunch includes abundant French wine: a great catalyst for lively discussions.

Bordeaux and Toronto

John Fetzer

Having been to many, many conferences this is not a simple decision. Out of the forty or so places I have been to for a conference, I would have to say that the most memorable for the locale and non-scientific amenities were Bordeaux for a small conference (two or three hundred) and Toronto for a large one (well over a thousand).

Bordeaux is France, but not Paris. It has the charm and history, but is a smaller city where you can walk to see many things. The people are very friendly and helpful, and it is easy to get to (riding the high-speed train in itself was a treat). The area had lots of great places to eat and conference arrangements for activities. The formal meeting banquet, held in the town of Ste. Emillion, had a very medieval feeling and great food. All events were done so well that the social part was as memorable as the meeting. I was told that local tourism and governmental bodies participated in some planning and funding. There was even a welcoming speech by the mayor of Bordeaux. Visiting chateaus for the wine-tastings was a very nice way to meet other attendees. The banquets were multicourse exposures to great wine, great cheese, great seafood, and so on.

I attended a large meeting in Toronto. This city has the facilities and hotels to deal with larger meetings. I found the city to be very easy and safe to walk around, with much nightlife: cafes, clubs, bars, and restaurants. I spent several late evenings with friends eating and talking without worry about the areas being deserted or unsafe. The atmosphere and people are friendly and relaxed. There are a variety of things to do, as in any large city, but they seemed accessible. Museums to sporting events were all possible. Toronto is a diverse city, yet seems like a small-town in the way you are treated.


Richard Kerr

The quaintest meeting facility would have to go to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas. Started in 1970 or so when the first moon rocks came back, it was held in the employee recreation center on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center. The large meeting room was the gym. A couple of other meeting rooms holding maybe 100 each were elsewhere in the building; one required a curtain along the hall to cut out sights, but not sounds, from below. Attendance grew toward 1000, as I recall, until post 9/11 security at JSC, in particular with respect to foreigners, kicked the meeting off the grounds.


Jonathan Wingo

Indianapolis, Indiana, is a great place to have a conference. I've attended two meetings there, and both were very enjoyable, not just because of the conference but because of Indianapolis. Indianapolis is a very clean, nice city for a metropolitan area. The convention center is near plenty of restaurants and shopping, as well as lodging. Indianapolis is also home to the National Institute for Fitness and Sport, which is a great place to work out and get some activity. The reason I enjoyed the area around the conference so much was because the city has a waterway with sidewalks for running, walking, and biking. I enjoyed jogs with colleagues and friends there. The waterway and Institute provided great places to exercise and relax away from the hustle and bustle of the conference.

There's also a minor league baseball park just down the street from the convention center. Tickets to games are only $5 or so, and seating in the small stadium is great. We sat (with plenty of room) right behind the bullpen. For that small amount of money, how often do you get to sit right next to professional ballplayers (albeit minor leaguers)? Going to a game provided a nice extracurricular evening. Finally, depending on the time of year of the conference, the Pacers may still be playing, so attending one of their games provides yet another extracurricular activity. If sports activities are your thing, Indianapolis provides plenty of space and opportunities.


Gretchen Vogel

My nomination for worst location/hottest science combination: The oncogene meeting used to be famous for its lack of creature comforts. It was held every year at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, in June, with people staying in unair-conditioned dorms and eating in the cafeteria. But they would always say the science was even hotter than the weather. They eventually began alternating with San Diego, which appeased people for awhile. I only went once, ages ago.

I've never managed to make it there, but I hear that meetings on Santorini in Greece are quite nice--and very quickly oversubscribed.

Budapest , Hungary

Elisabeth Pain

I remember so little of the trip that took us from Budapest to our conference location that I would be unable to point at it on the Hungarian map. I don't remember much more about the scientific content of the conference--other than it was about all things immunoglobulin like--that was hammered into our brains for nearly a whole week. But I still have vivid memories of how beautiful the place was and how warmly our Hungarian hosts welcomed us.

Toward the end of my Ph.D., I finally made it to an international conference. On a small budget, the only conferences I had attended until then were the annual British Society for Immunology meetings organised one year in Brighton, the other year in Harrogate. Nice locations, but not so exciting when you are already based in the United Kingdom.

At that time I had never been to Eastern Europe either. The Ph.D. student of a group next door to mine, her supervisor, and myself set foot in Budapest on a sunny day of September. Because we had to take a bus to our final destination the next day, we had a whole evening to meander in the streets of Budapest. Beyond the cold looks of its austere yet impressive buildings, the city was exuding a charm that I have since taken as the hallmark of the Eastern Europe spirit.

A true geographical and historical jigsaw, Budapest is divided into two parts by the Danube River that runs through its center from North to South. On the west side, up the hills, are the two antique cities of Buda and Óbuda, with the Castle District, its narrow and romantic streets, and its amazing restaurants and terraces looking over the Danube. On the east side, in the plains, sits Pest, the buzzing commercial and social hub of Budapest. In the middle--across the Danube--are three small islands, along with many bridges that allow you to quickly walk from one side to the other. The place is so beautiful that the city, and the Buda Castle District and the banks of the Danube in particular, have been officially recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

I was already conquered by a glimpse of Budapest, but more was to come. The remote location we were transferred to the next day, a few hours by bus, was an old holiday resort for government officials converted into a conference center. We had a whole forest to walk around, and direct access to a lake that offered amazing sunsets. The accommodation, too, was a real luxury for a Ph.D. student--quiet, big, and well-equipped flats that we shared with three mates. We were fed like pedigree cats, with the most delicate food specialties the country had to offer and ever-changing dishes. There is just one thing I tried I wished I hadn't. One evening, unable to identify a particular dish, my roommates and I asked what sort of meat it was made of, only to be answered by giggling waiters that it was roosters' testicles.

Another peculiarity was the small glasses of spirits our waiters used to give us at the end of each scientific session. I always wondered if they believed us scientists could hold our drink that well, or simply thought we needed a little help to remain attentive through all these scientific presentations. This obsession with spirits continued during the bus tours the conference organizers often took us on to discover the wonders of the region. Many of these trips involved going to different vineyards and trying the wine spirit that was produced from it.

Even if I didn't have a scientific revelation during any of the talks I listened to, this conference proved very useful in my research career. I was going through a tough stage in my Ph.D., and I soon found a lot of support from other attendees who listened to me and offered all sorts of valuable advice.


Rachel Austin

The best location for a conference I ever attended was Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. I was there for EUORBIC 7 from 29 August to 2 September 2004. What made Garmisch-Partenkirchen such a great spot for a conference? Two things--it was stunningly beautiful, and there were so many lovely hikes of various lengths and intensities very close to the conference site. On those days when we had a little extra free time, we were able to hike up into the mountains. (Garmisch-Parternkirchen is the site of Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitze).

On days when we have meetings all day, it was still possible to go, at lunchtime, up in the hills to a hut (Almhutte) and watch people eating their sausages and drinking their beers. The towns themselves were lovely, and it was a joy to walk through the streets in the evenings. The area appears to be more oriented toward winter tourism. In the summer, things were not crowded. Restaurants were serving fresh mushrooms and, of course, plenty of good German beer. Because the towns are surrounded on three sides by mountains, one was treated to breathtakingly beautiful views even sitting outside the conference hall on a coffee break.


Amy C. Rowat

Corsica is renowned for its secluded beaches and rugged mountains, its fierce will for independence, and if you’re a scientist, the Cargèse Scientific Institute. I discovered this Corsican gem during a summer course on membrane biogenesis. Sun and sea, wine and cheese--the program was tantalizing.

Most conference participants opt to stay in village apartments; I choose to pitch my tent on a cliff facing the Mediterranean, and awake each morning to the sun stretching its rays across the azure sea. Our day begins with a series of morning lectures, but at noon my learning really begins. Under the shelter of olive trees, we feast on local delicacies and then enjoy après-lunch lounging on the beach. But the active minds of scientists never stop: we sketch ideas in the sand and continue our discussions while bobbing in the waves. The beach is the perfect dry-erase board; the scent of salty sea air a welcome substitute for toxic marker fumes. More lectures follow our siesta, then comes the next round of culinary treats: fresh, grilled seafood and game accompanied by local wine, all in the good company of new scientific friends against the sun-setting-over-the-sea backdrop.

I adapt quickly to life at the Cargèse Scientific Institute, soaking in my newfound knowledge of membrane biogenesis, fostering scientific collaborations, and reveling in the high-quality cheese. The Institute's chefs, Pierre and his two assistants, proudly present a sampling of regional cheeses with each meal they serve, and I begin to discover why Corsican cheese is a pinnacle of French cuisine. The chefs delight in my culinary curiosity and take it upon themselves to broaden my palate. Each day, I delve further into the depths of the kitchen as they teach me the subtle differences between varieties of goat's and sheep's milk cheeses. Soon I have eaten my way through the in-house collection, and Pierre declares that we must venture further afield: Tomorrow, after the chefs have completed their lunchtime duties, we will make an excursion to visit their fromagier (cheesemaker) friend.

The next day, the three chefs and I pile into an open-air jeep and the adventure begins. Cigarette in one hand, steering wheel in the other, Pierre navigates the serpentine roads that nestle the mountainside, all the while lecturing me on the native herbs of Corsica. I learn how the essence of the island’s fragrant herbs permeates the goat’s and sheep’s milk, lending the cheese its unique flavor. The fromagier-friend is equally dedicated to my cheese education, and proceeds to instruct me on the art of culturing goats to curds to cheese. Triumphantly at the end of this intense two-hour tutorial, I sample the end product. Although I return late for the afternoon lectures that day, my education on Corsica is now complete: the chefs unanimously declare me an expert Corsican cheese connoisseur. As I fall asleep to the lull of the waves breaking against the shore below, I rank conferencing at Cargèse among my richest learning experiences.

Heron Island

Stephen Simpson

At the Southern tip of Australia's Great Barrier Reef lies Heron Island: A small cay that has taken thousands of years to emerge from living coral. Every 3 years or so, Heron becomes host to a group of immunologists who gather to discuss the thymus; also small, but important as an immunological organ. “ThymOz,” as the conference has affectionately become known, is an intimate (it has to be!), workshop-style meeting that combines a magical week of scientific discussion, social interaction, discovery, and even adventure.

Aerial view of Heron Island (credit: )

From the moment I stepped from the transfer boat with my fellow conferees, the island's tranquillity started to seep in (a sense of calm, incidentally, that would be interrupted only once that week, when the dive boat I was on became wedged on a coral shelf in a storm!). From the island's shore, one can swim straight from one of the white beaches into a shallow blue-green coral grove that seems to stretch to the horizon. Even this near to shore the marine life teams, but it is when you venture out on one of the organized snorkel or diving expeditions that you move through another world of bright corals and deep canyons occupied by anemones, sea-cucumbers, reef sharks, and fish of every color and shape imaginable.

On land, too, Heron is an important home to protected species and is one of principle nesting sites for the sea turtle, where, from March to April, young turtle hatchlings can be seen to emerge from the sand, waddling their way on autopilot to the sea. Yet it is the coral that lies at the heart of Heron's unique habitat, and it is difficult to contemplate that even this distant paradise is being altered by the all too familiar effects of climate change, made all the more pressing by the fact that whatever affects the coral affects everything else in the reef. For me, it was the profound sense of privilege at being immersed in this wonderful yet fragile place that made Heron such a unique location for a scientific meeting. Of course, it can be breathtaking to ski in the Colorado mountains at a Keystone conference and wondrous to attend a meeting in one of Europe's historic cities, but Heron Island offers the perfect setting in which to discuss science and consider nature.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet.

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