Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Conferences from the inside

by: Drs M. Jane Bunting and Michelle Farrell

Between August 5th and 9th, we were the hosts and organisers for a small conference with associated workshops (small = 35 people on the busiest day).  Organising a conference makes the experience of being at the event quite different - for a start, some days you don't even get close enough to the coffee table at break to grab a biscuit!

The meeting was supported by the Crackles Bequest Project, which pays Michelle's salary at the moment.  The goals of the conference are described here.  We'll write more about the research later as we get final results and work on the papers; this blog post is about the experience of organising a small conference.

The process began in January when we sent out emails checking the availability of our project partners (a wonderful group of people who provided all sorts of support for fieldwork in different parts of Europe, arranging permits, translating, bringing their students and colleagues along to help our team with the actual work, and being enthusiastic about what we are trying to do, which really helps when you're half-way up a mountain in the driving rain or crawling around in a haymeadow in thirty degree heat trying to identify a lot of very small green leaves, which does tend to start you wondering why this ever seemed like a good idea). We then set the dates so that as many of these people as possible could come, and began to plan in earnest.

The 'who can come when' spreadsheet was just the first of many.  We had to work out how much to charge for registration at the meeting, to cover printing abstract volumes and lecture handouts, provide copies of software and pens, and of course the all-important regular infusions of caffeine (and biscuits) to keep everyone alert.  We got quotes for a conference dinner and developed teaching plans for the workshops.  We booked rooms on campus, contacted the local conference bureau to get their help with negotiating some cheap rates with local hotels, and put together an advertisement to send out to the pollen-counting community via various mailing lists.  We even had lists of the lists we needed to make!

Although it felt like we did a lot of planning in advance, and the deadlines for booking to attend the conference and to get the hotel rates were relatively early on the 31st of May (over two months before), the week before the event ended up being manic.  I really should be used to that by now, but it always takes me by surprise.

Michelle demonstrates field methods in a field
We had fun stuff to do, for example sitting down with the menus from the campus catering service and choosing the options for the lunches (why yes, there WAS a chocolate option on the sweet platter every day, and twice it was brownies).  Michelle had a never-ending stream of emails - the pricing policies of the UK's railway system are baffling at the best of times, but trying to help someone travelling from abroad to find the best value ticket makes you question the sanity of the person who came up with it (or maybe they were just feeling particularly misanthropic that day?), and advising people who come from locations with very predictable weather on the possible conditions during the field day ("honestly, it could be pretty much anything, although snow is unlikely") reminds us that our normal is not anyone elses.  Friday afternoon found us settled in the committee room in our building with piles and piles of paper all over the big tables, assembling the handouts for the workshops - I got a bruise on the palm of one hand from banging the hole-puncher (yes, I should have done smaller wodges of paper, but then I'd not have got home before midnight) and Michelle stuck name labels on folders, assembled badges, and cut out individual slips of paper showing the menu choices for the conference dinner (we decided that would be easier than taking the spreadsheet to the venue or hoping people would remember what they'd chosen).  We moved furniture and put up signs pointing to the various rooms being used, and finally got to go home.

Attendees in the quad
I remember how hot the computer room got during afternoon practicals, an Indian attendee huddled in a coat after the dinner while the rest of us enjoyed the cool of the evening (it was about 18oC by my car's temperature gauge - pretty cold if you come from the tropics I guess), some fabulous pictures of landscapes in a presentation about new work beginning in South Africa and some lovely data from more advanced projects, talking about science until my throat ached (and if you know me that's a LOT of talking) and a lot of laughing.  So here are a few pictures:

Before a session starts (in the earth science lab)

A summer's evening in the Hull docks area

As usual for conferences, people began to travel home at different points on Thursday, and by Friday afternoon only those who'd both stayed for the last workshop and had further to travel were still around.  We decided to meet up at a pub in Hull's docklands, where people could have fish and chips for supper if they wanted - obviously pub fish and chips are not as good as those purchased from a van (or shop in obscure location, depending on your particular favourite) and eaten out of paper, but they do come with beer.  Sitting around a table talking, teasing and gossiping like a group of old friends even though we'd mostly been strangers at the start of the week really brought home one of the benefits of this job to me - meeting other people who share the same strange interests and curiosity about how the physical world works, and having them become friends as well as colleagues.

Organising this meeting was a huge amount of work - I think we've finally dealt with the last of the expenses claims and bits of paperwork, and can sign off on the last spreadsheet, now it's October.  However, it is also very rewarding - all the intellectual stimulation of a conference PLUS you still get to sleep in your own bed, and don't have to put your pets in kennels.  But maybe we can all go to India or South Africa next time?

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