Monday, August 11, 2014

Of Conferences, and King (cobras).

The time has come”, the walrus said, “To talk of many things. Of shoes, and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages, and kings. And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings”.

For the last several years, I’ve been down a rabbit hole, or maybe a snake den or a gopher tortoise burrow. See, my now 9 yr old has been into things with scales since she was tiny. And I mean from a few months old, when, instead of latching onto the adorable little elephant blanket or the stuffed cat as her lovey, she latched onto a Folkmanis sea serpent puppet, christened it “Draggy”, and made it her constant companion. By age 2, she’d demand to go to the “mini-zoo” (aka pet store) and spend a lot of time watching the “ ‘nake!!”. (Oh, and the real zoo, too-but the “mini-zoo” was a lot closer to home). As she’s gotten older, in keeping with my “follow the child” homeschooling philosophy, this has led us to meet snake keepers and breeders, to plan vacations around places like the Kentucky reptile zoo, and to spend a lot of time outside, attempting to see snakes in the wild, and usually failing. Plus multiple scaled housemates and dead rodents in the freezer.

Which helps to explain why, on a late July Wednesday, I found myself checking in for the 2014 Joint Meeting of Icthyologists and Herpetologists in Chattanooga. While I’ve gone to a lot of conferences, I can’t say I’d ever expected to be in a group of Herpetology and Ichthyology grad students and working professionals, especially not as the “accompanying person” for the actual conference attendee, my 9 yr old daughter, who, by the good graces of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, with the help of a wonderful friend and mentor, had been granted a pre-baccalaureate scholarship to attend said meeting.

Anyway, the first day seemed almost too easy at first, mostly because it was a day of professional meetings for the boards of the various professional organizations participating. That night, though, it started to become real. SSAR runs a mentoring program for first-time attendees of the meeting to help them navigate the rather large conference, because it can be overwhelming even for graduate students. I could tell my daughter felt that way, as we went around the table and introduced ourselves, and both the mentors and the first-time grad student attendees all were talking about their primary research topic. I’ll forever be grateful to the other pre-baccalaureate student and mom at that initial meeting, who introduced themselves as “Hi, I’m Zack, and I haven’t done much yet, but I want to learn more” and “Hi, I’m Pam-I’m just here because Zack needed a ride”. That was more my speed, and I could see Alli visibly relax a bit, although she was still pretty shy. Her official mentor wasn’t there yet, but she had a chance to talk 1-1 with Andrew Durso, who definitely got her attention when she realized that he writes one of her favorite blogs about snakes ( She shared her blog link, although her blog is about half snakes and about half neopets fan writings, and they started discussing reciprocal links, plug ins, and twitter feeds. Definitely heading down that rabbit hole, Alice! Watch out for giant caterpillars…. That was followed by the SSAR travelogue, focused on African amphibians, and it set the stage for the many sessions we’d attend the following four days. Alli was focused and paying close attention, taking notes in sketches and words, noting things to look up later. I’d been worried that she’d have trouble, especially since, as a homeschooled student, she has a lot of flexibility to get up, move around, bounce, talk, and structure her learning to fit her, but she had no trouble in that lecture hall. She was an excited kid that night.

The next day started off bright and early, with a session on 50 years of herpetology. We ended up sitting at the back of the room, and again, she was taking notes. It was much, much more crowded than the day before, and that grew as the day progressed. What surprised me was how well my 9 yr old was following content that often got quite deep. There were a few places, here and there, which went over her head (and mine), especially when the content got into biochemistry or into molecular genetics, but especially in the ecology and ethology sessions, she was right with it. However, Thursday she was also pretty shy and definitely felt uncomfortable outside the sessions. That really showed at the student reception. She got to meet several of her heroes, people she’s read papers and books by and recognized their names, including collecting several autographs (which, I gather based on reaction, isn’t something that you usually get as a working biologist). However, being in a group of mostly graduate students was definitely uncomfortable, and even when the mentoring program students gathered together, she faded into the background. I realized, then, how much she was doing what she’d learned-that when adults are together, kids stay in the background and don’t talk much unless asked direct questions. Except that, at this point, we were there for her, not for me. It was definitely a sign of how young she really is. She relaxed quite a bit when one of her best friends-the daughter of her herpetology mentor who was responsible for us being here in the first place showed up. Being one of two 9 yr olds is much easier than being the only one. The opening reception at the Tennessee aquarium followed. The dinner and conversation, again, were a bit on the hard side, where she really didn’t know what to say, but the aquarium met with her definite approval. It didn’t hurt any that all the other “accompanying persons” were there-including a lot of children of conference attendees.

Friday was really where it started to turn a corner. She enjoyed her morning sessions, but the point at which I realized she had found her niche happened when she got into a conversation with two people right before a session-which turned out to be the presenter and his PhD adviser. Not only did she relax as she talked to them and shared what she was doing, but she felt confident enough to ask her question at the end of the session, and basically floored everyone, very much including me. I’ve been through more than a few conference talks, plus thesis and dissertation defenses. Questions are carefully weighed, carefully thought out, and designed to probe. And Alli showed she could play that game quite clearly-that she’d understood the project completely, and was thinking about the next step. Before then, everyone seemed to want her to be there and want to feed her interest, but at that point in the conference, things started to shift. Suddenly, my 9 yr old was not just an interested kid and part of the future, but honestly belonged there. I could see that she felt that way, too. This was her world.

The poster session was something I’d thought would be a good fit for Alli. Honestly, I’d thought the posters would work better than the talks, since they tend, in my experience, to be a lower level of research and smaller scale studies, and you can talk 1-1 with the research team much more casually. However, it didn’t work out that way. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the focus was going to be on impressing the faculty, and I hadn’t thought about the fact that a poster session at a big conference is a crowded place. We did get to talk to a group from Austin Peay State University, which is fairly close to us geographically and has a strong herpetology school, and found out about the regional conference in September, which we’re planning to attend, but that was about it.

Saturday was more of the same. Alli had found her flow, found her niche, and was happy. It was smooth sailing. We were both getting tired, me more than her, but she was comfortable. We went to lunch with her conference mentor, 17 yr old Shelby Miller, who had paved the path for Alli when she’d started attending at age 12, years before, and I only wish we’d done that early. Shelby reassured Alli that some of what she was experiencing (like the fact that the people at the poster session didn’t want to talk to her) was typical, that it was indeed true that in most cases the professionals were more accepting than the students, and that it would come with time. Alli won a book in the grad student book raffle, which thrilled her, and she got some 9 yr old time with a friend, which was even better.

Sunday was a bit frustrating, in that several sessions she’d planned to attend ended up getting cancelled. However, she loved the sessions she did attend, got to talk to more people, and had really relaxed. She was comfortable, she was happy, and she’d had a great time. She also got more friend time, as the conference wound down.

All told, it was an amazing experience, even for someone who got dragged into snakes by my child and who took her last biology class over 20 years ago. Watching Alli grow even over a 5 day time and watching her flourish, from the kid who didn’t know what to say when asked what she wanted to do on Wednesday to the child who could confidently tell a Penn State professor that she was most interested in ecology and herp diversity in the wild by the end of the week was nothing short of amazing.

I’m probably going to forget someone, but I really need to thank all the people at SSAR who made this happen, especially Ann Paterson, who got the ball rolling, the SSAR board who gave Alli the scholarship this year, Kris Kaiser and Andrew Durso, who ran the mentoring program, Shelby Miller, who gave of her time to support Alli through the conference, the ASIH grad students who ran the book raffle (and applauded when Alli got her book on Saturday, after seeing her enthusiasm all week), and the professors and conference attendees who reached out and talked to her directly, especially early in the week when she was shy, especially Stan Trauth and Robert Aldridge, who took over introducing her to people and helped make her relax at the student reception, Gad Perry, who talked to us and was supportive at the opening reception, Jim Spotila and Dane Ward, who were responsible, more than anyone else, for Alli coming out of her shell and feeling comfortable and that her thoughts were valid in the sessions, and Tracy Langkilde, who, at the end of the week, validated the whole experience. Thank you for making this so special for my child, and I look forward to seeing you next year in Kansas.

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