22 September 2011

An illustrated protocol for a scientific retreat

Every day I’m working on my biggest project to date: earning my Ph.D. And yet I don’t talk a lot here about how exactly one does that, do I?

I rather suspect a lot of you don’t really know what I actually do every day. I can’t really blame you. It’s sort of mysterious, isn’t it? Seemingly cloistered in the ivory tower? Mr. P studied for years for a post-graduate degree in math and I still don’t really understand what he did all day, every day, for years. I know he had an office with a desk and a whiteboard, so apparently that is all that’s needed to solve the world’s most complex math problems?

Anyway, I guess it’s time to break any illusions. My daily routine, as a graduate student, mostly consists of going to the lab to do experiments. And doing an experiment involves approximately 90% setup (making the things I need to do the experiment) and 10% collecting data. Those things usually take days, weeks, months. The downtime is spent writing about what I did, then reading what other people wrote about what they did to figure out my next experiment.

It does not sound that exciting. It often is not.

But that’s okay! Because most people doing science (or as I have taken to calling it, "sciencing", despite Mr. P claiming that is not a word) realize that the daily grind is often filled with drudgery. We don't pretend that the exciting days aren't few and far between. Which is why, to lessen the blow of those long stretches of troubleshooting without useful data, and to remind ourselves why we stick with science, we have conferences and retreats!

Such as the one we had last week, held in a beautiful location many hours away from campus:

So what exactly do scientists do at a scientific retreat, if not experiments?

1) Scientific talks

Those make for boring photos. Let’s move on.

2) Playtime

If you look closely, you may find a professor playing volleyball in his full dress shirt and khakis. Just like you probably imagined what scientists playing volleyball would look like!

There are also ample opportunities to model sunglasses with other distinguished professors.

(The one on the right is my labmate. The one on the left gets the final word on whether I graduate or not.)

(When he asks me to take a photo of him in his sunglasses? BY GOLLY I DO IT.)

3) Dinnertime

The scientists got barbecue! The bugs got me. Thirty servings' worth.

4) More talks

Still not interesting enough to photograph.

5) Poster session

Here, scientists who don’t give talks can present their work in poster form. Or, to use my new favorite verb:

But really? A poster session is the gateway to the crazytimes. It starts off innocently enough, perhaps with some interpretive dance:

Which leads to – or perhaps from – the jello shots:

And an overt reminder from our program director regarding his stature:

Which segues nicely to...

6) Uhhhhh

7) Get up early the next morning for more talks

Don’t let the lack of uninteresting photos of the morning talks fool you. We were totally there, to the surprise of our new student, a retreat first-timer, who couldn’t believe that the people stumbling around at dawn were showered and on-time to hear the 9AM talks.

It shouldn't be such a surprise, though. Because for all the debauched revelry at the retreat? And despite the rarity of exciting days in the lab? We also really, truly, love sciencing.