Summers are for conferences, conferences are for broadening the mind

by Cheyenne Tait –  Group_Photo_ICTP_Frontiers_2017.jpgAt the end of July, Srishti and I represented the NICE lab at the Conference on Frontiers in Olfaction in Trieste, Italy. She presented a poster and I gave a talk. It was a great week – we met students and PIs, and got to see what was going on in the larger, but still quite small, world of scientists concentrating on the mysteries and mechanisms of the sense of smell in insects, mammals, and even humans.

view from conference center in Trieste

Conferences are always a whirlwind of emotions for me: I’m excited to hear about new science, anxious about presenting my own research, curious about what others will think about my work, exhausted from meeting so many new faces and trying to listen and take in everything. I took a lot of notes. I drank a ton of coffee.

But conferences are valuable, in that they force you to step away from your research. I don’t mean that literally, although, yes, I could not take my apple flies and the electrophysiology rig with me on the flight to Italy. But, for me at least, one thing I’m noticing as I have somehow become a “senior graduate student” is that my mind is on my project all the time, even when I’m not actively doing experiments in the lab. I can’t stop thinking about my extremely specific project (olfaction in apple maggot flies). And that’s a very narrow-minded way to think.

cheyenne speaking at conferenceI wake up and wonder if recording neurons will go well that day. I eat breakfast and wonder which of my fly’s olfactory neurons respond to masala dosa. I reach lab, switch on the rig, throw the electrodes in bleach, check on the flies (also known as choosing my subject/victim), and run to the canteen to gulp scalding coffee. I run back to begin the prep, finish the prep, and start the experiment, only pulled away if my labmate decides to drag me to lunch (where I complain about how things aren’t going well, or, if they’re going well, that it’s not going fast enough), or if the fly dies and I have to start over. Somehow I make it to dinner, where I talk MORE about my flies and my project (I don’t know how people put up with me actually), and only get myself an ice cream if the day went well, then after dinner I read papers. About insect olfaction. Or else I clean and feed the flies. Or organize my lab notes. Or play with my data in R, or my other data in ImageJ. Or do the immunohistochemistry from the experiment of the day, if it went well. Then I go home to dream about Rhagoletis olfaction. Seriously, I dreamt about the sweet sound of projection neurons spiking last week. It was the only time I heard it last week.

Even at the conference, at least at first, I was trying to put everything in the frame of my own project, even mammal and human olfaction. But eventually contorting all of the diverse ideas of my colleagues into such a rigid mold no longer worked, and rather than trying to fit things in with Rhagoletis olfaction, I just listened. And absorbed ideas.

smelly venice fishAnd wow, did I absorb! I didn’t realize it until I was briefly sightseeing in Venice, while waiting for my flight back to India. Instead of forcing everything into the frame of my own project, I was relating everything I saw to the talks from the conference! When I got lost, I was like a mouse navigating a maze, though by sight, not olfaction. I never would’ve gotten out of Venice’s twisting alleys if I had to rely on my nose! However, rounding a corner blindly, I was suddenly assaulted by the smell of fish, overwhelming in the heat… why hadn’t I been warned of it sooner? Plume dynamics, how an odor travels on the wind! And why did I have such a visceral reaction to it? Because out of all the words humans use to describe odors, those that belong to the odorants that we are most sensitive to and most easily recognize, are those that are extremely pleasant or extremely unpleasant. And those were some truly unpleasant fish!

Now, though, I’m back at the NICE lab, and my own project once again has its claws in me… at least until the next conference!

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