We Organized, We Came, We Conquered: A Conference Organizer’s Chronicle of Emotions

mtsnow1.jpgI’d like to start my closing remarks by telling you about a pleasant symmetry. In 1975, during winter break of my sophomore year of college, my friends in Pennsylvania took me skiing for the first time. I had much trepidation. It was here they took me: to Mount Snow, Vermont. Now near the other end of my career, I came here again, not with trepidation, but with excitement and anticipation.

I stood at ground level, microphone in hand. I didn’t want to be a silhouette up on the stage. I then asked the contributors, role by role, to stand to be thanked. Discussion Leaders and Panelist had fulfilled their nebulous roles. Speakers and Poster Presenters had risked all by sharing unpublished and personal ideas. The scientific team had coordinated and collaborated to put the conference together. The staffs of the conference organization and the hotel had anticipated our normal requests and then accommodated our quirky ones.

When I spoke again, I joined the presenters in their risk. I spoke from a place not yet revealed to my peers.

From Father’s Day to Summer Solstice, from the beginning of the World Cup soccer onward, from institutions in eighteen countries and from homelands of even greater reach, from undergrads and grad students to post-docs and research scientists at other levels, we have interrogated one another.

From scientists who work at different scales, in different systems, with different availability of resources, we have heard what they think is new. Then we have questioned them and questioned one another.

We have observed the formation of new, wild-flung hypotheses–that may actually hold up. We have benefited from hearing new scientists tell what they do know. We have benefited from hearing experts tell what they don’t know.

We discussed variability, and limits to variability in biological and physical systems. We discussed compensations and tipping points beyond which compensations can’t be made. We are far from a state of full understanding–but we leave this conference refreshed with new ideas and renewed confidence that our own work is useful, and valued.

We saw powerful technologies, but we also saw the power of low-tech research. We saw studies that census or model for inferences about function, plasticity, compensations, and tipping points. But we also saw studies that went more deeply into one system. We recognized the dual values of these deeper narrower studies, both in and of themselves, and for the day when they may feed into the censuses and larger models.

What else? We made art. We hiked, we ate and drank. We swam and rode horses. We made conversation. We shared about our hunches, our husbands or other partners, babies, dogs, children, hobbies, and careers.

But overall, we did more than all that.

Tonight, many of us anticipate a let-down when we walk away from this rich community–but we don’t actually walk away. We made connections, and friends; looking around, I have anecdotes for where I first met so many of you over the decades. Take it from us oldies, these connections will flourish. And even when you don’t contact someone for years, you will get strength from knowing these people are out there.

As our final Discussion Leader said, “The students and post-docs really raised the bar.” I would add, not only in the science, but in the breadth of ways that you are lively and engaged in the world. I hope you keep your interests and perspectives as you go forward into this changing world.

And now the bar is open.

Yesterday we concluded a conference that I had been organizing for several years. I want to share the emotional zones through which I swung.

Ours was a specialty conference that brought together people who work on similar questions but at different scales and in different systems. The official title was the 2018 Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on Plasticity in Plant Vascular Systems: Roles, Limits and Consequences. In 2014, I was a minor player in a group of three who had proposed a new series to the GRC organization, under the umbrella name “Multiscale Plant Vascular Transport.” The proposal was turned down, but in 2015, we were successful, and in 2016 we put on our inaugural meeting. I had the simple role of Vice-Chair. But this time, I succeeded the previous leaders and became Chair. Luckily I had a Co-Chair and two new Vice-Chairs, as well as the wisdom of the past Chair and Co-Chair.

Administrative details aside, my point is that I have been involved in this conference for the past four years, with measures of anticipation, dread, duty–and pride.

Reality struck me when we were selected to put on the June 2016 conference. As I read the acceptance email, I went from clueless to concerned. What had I signed up for?

But I had simple tasks–editing, making minor suggestions, organizing the poster session. Yes, simple tasks–but forewarning of the surge of duties that would soon overtake me: cogitation about theme, and about who to invite. And after cogitation, the surge of required actions: invitations, advertisements, solicitations, coordination.

We had to devise a new theme (per potential funders’ request), but it had to fit under the old umbrella and rely on invitees who had not been speakers or discussion leaders at the 2016 conference. We would have to solicit contributions to help cover participant costs. We would have to attract participants, including underrepresented minorities. We would need to propose establishment of a partner conference, a two-day event called a GRS, for early-career scientists–and findable, eager people to lead it, and we would seek funds for a session on issues of interest to women and other minorities in our field. We would then have to include the GRS organizers in the planning group. (The GRS, by the way, was approved on the first try.) And with 89 instead of 110 attendees at the first meeting (which we thought was pretty darn good) our umbrella group was still on probation: we would need excellent attendance and even more excellent post-conference reviews.

My duties began in January 2017, in Los Angeles, with Chair training. Hundreds of us sat in rows as the GRC president and CEO, a charismatic and dynamic PhD, told us that the parent organization was in the business of “building scientific communities.” That need resonated with me: our fields spanned so many subfields, continents, and technologies, that this type of meeting was the only chance I could imagine to bring us together. Which we needed, for so many reasons.

The non-profit GRC organization, she continued, used us experts to put on over 300 conferences a year. She let us reflect on that number and then told us that former chairs often reported that the experience was among the most gratifying in their careers. I rolled my eyes.

I left LA in a confusion of anticipation and dread. I had tried to follow along on my printouts of the slide shows, and I had scribbled in my manual, but I was only here. The manual went all the way to there.

For a few months, our leadership (me, the Co-Chair, Vice-Chairs, and the past leaders) read papers, conferenced electronically, and swapped schemata, until we finally had a cohesive theme for the conference. Then we debated session topics and potential invitees. The process of deciding on invitees was arduous–and certainly somewhat arbitrary, as we relied on a half-dozen types of guesses to come up with the invitation list. We started inviting–which suddenly required strong coordination.

All nine Discussion Leaders and 22 Speakers accepted. Early. We were good. We had made it from here to another here.

With the theme, sessions, and invitees in place, we sent out proposals. Negative or semi-negative responses came back. From agencies* (that without a federal budget in place …, that without published abstracts that all the world could benefit from …). From industry (that with the low grant funding, their businesses had been in tough spots …).

But funds started to come in. Not enough, but some.

We wrote proposals in late summer of 2017 through May of 2018, for our start date of June 16. An agency had to revoke a gift worth three participants’ registrations–after we had already allocated it. Timber companies were surprisingly generous, as were several journals, several companies, and at least one agency; another agency is still considering our proposal. Meanwhile, we advertised and corresponded. Two speakers had to cancel; fantastic replacements gracefully agreed to join in.

My roller coaster took down slopes and up peaks. The conference would succeed. It would fail. We would find sufficient funds. We would not. I worked to imagine the ride as downhill–easy-peasy, that we rolled toward our goal.

But there was another roller coaster: my awareness of how much time I spent on a four-and-a half day conference, for such an extended period. It had better start being one of the most gratifying experiences of my career, I told myself, but not my husband, who watched in dismay.

“Are you sure it’s not a Ponzi scheme?” someone asked me.

But that was someone unfamiliar with the aura of status that having an actual GRC conferred to our field. Right?

“Aura,” I would smile. Or, “Aura,” I would grunt.

Then came more hitches and glitches. The request for proposals (RFPs) from one agency was delayed month after month because of Federal budget delays. From another very encouraging agency, an RFP was never issued.

Then we worried about the participants: where were the senior scientists? Was it good that we were overcome with early-career people? How would the invitees feel about the mix? Were the more senior people “meetinged out” (yes, they wrote us), or did they simply need the time for other parts of their jobs (yes). And with “the funding situation” or “the economic situation” of their countries, they wrote us, they could not afford to come.

Applications came in. We reached 90, 95. Ninety-nine. And then it sat. We needed 110. They started coming in again, in ones and twos, and finally settled, at 112.

The conferences were explosions of insight and interactions, from the very start. Early-career people from everywhere doing everything with all manners of budgets, entered into a room. Two days later, they walked out more enlightened, more confident, and with more friends. And then the GRC participants began to arrive. I darted from place to place with the rest of the leadership team, setting up a bulletin board for connections and group art projects, helping coordinate transportation for late arrivers, and signing papers with the hotel and with the GRC.

I fell into a calm because nothing really depended on me anymore. And that was good; I was already empty, a premature postpartum blues, a malaise from letting my gears come to a stop.

The first night of the GRS had a dynamite–absolutely dynamite–first discussion leader, and two fascinating, informative first talks. So many questions from the jet-lagged crowd! A little sleep and it started again–for four more days, with a session until 12:30 p.m., and then 4:00-6:00 p.m. for posters, and another session from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. followed by refreshments (read “bar). From 12:30 to 4:00 p.m. each day we would take lunch, and then relax or hike or fall into a small discussion on a quiet patio or along a trail, at the idyllic Vermont ski resort, in the summer, empty of snow and skiers, bright with green.

Can you imagine?

GRC-Art“It’s a great day for photosynthesis,” we grinned to one another. People wrote names of people they appreciated onto flagging that they tied onto a dead branch. They scribbled quotations they liked, and they fashioned modeling clay into phloem elements, leaves, and even a sloth–that a hotel-staff member put a tail on, she told, me because it looked better that way.

The buzz, the groupings, the remarks of participants! “I had no idea how good it feels to hear an expert say he or she doesn’t know the answer.” “I came in knowing no one and I’m leaving all excited with ideas and people I’m going to follow up with.” “I can’t believe how much more I understand about what I thought I knew,” or, “about things I should know, so close to my field.” Or “I had it all backward. This is amazing.” Or “I had no idea you could do that.” Or “Amazing idea. Can you believe she thought of that?” And then the heart-warming statements, like “I could never have come here if I hadn’t had the funding you all raised. My expenses were about what my country gives me for discretionary spending for seven years.”

The GRC’s president had been correct. We are building community. And for some minutes, as I stood below the stage, microphone in hand, I felt perhaps like a conductor after finishing a performance with 112 musicians who each did what he or she knew best: it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

“And now the bar is open,” I said.

I got myself a water–cool, clear, and unadorned.

And I left Mount Snow with no more malaise from stopped gears, with no more blues. I left feeling good.

*Agencies we approached: National Science Foundation (NSF), USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), USDA Forest Service, Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and the Department of Energy (DOE)

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