Note: I wrote this blog post on a legal pad on a flight from Tampa to Pittsburgh on Jan. 8
I generally go to two conferences a year: the annual meeting for the American Elasmobranch Society (AES) and for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). AES was the first meeting that I felt like I belonged at, like my professional home. But, as I settled into my career, our relationship changed. It became the conference I go to see my shark friends, where I can learn all the things about sharks that I ever wanted to, and to remind myself why I love sharks so much. I still enjoy this meeting a lot and enjoy learning as much as I can about sharks. Research-wise, though, I’m an island.
SICB, on the other hand, is full of weirdos like me. Scientists who don’t fit into one neat box of a particular -ology. Scientists who study multiple types of critters, across phyla or even kingdoms. Teacher-scholars who are adept at fusing research and the classroom and producing something awesome. This year I learned how sea robins (one of my favorite bony fishes) walk, how witch hazel launches its seeds, about the mechanics of cactus spines, that some sea stars can bounce to move, why the stinkbugs in my house fall on my head when headed toward my lamp (they stall out) and how to use that the classroom, about tiger shark genetics and migration, about a new way to use my students as peer coaches for other students. This conference has everything!
This SICB was extra special though, because it was in Tampa. I lived there while earning my Ph.D. and during my postdoc, but it’s been 9 years and 1.5 months since I left. I’ve been back twice – once in 2012 for some stone crab reasearch, and for a single afternoon in 2017 to visit a friend. Coupled with that, one my favorite people – one of my Ph.D. advisors – retired about seven months ago. Since many of his former students would be in Tampa for SICB, we threw him a retirement dinner. So, I’ve been an incredibly nostalgic and reflective mood for much of the trip.
Not all of it is good nostalgia. My eight years in Tampa were not easy. It’s where I lost 6 months of my life due to complications from endometriosis. Where I found out my dad had terminal cancer. Where my mental health reached crisis levels. But, there are so many little things – good things – things I had forgotten – that kept popping into my head throughout the trip. Kitten Cannon marathons in the lab with one of my closest friends when we just couldn’t write our dissertations anymore. Pranking my postdoc advisor by showering his lab in pink (yeah, it was me). Meeting newly engaged friends in front of the ice arena to celebrate. Endless hours in the water, helping other grad students with their field work. All of the really weird stuff you see in Tampa, like this dude who had a wooden cross that he would bear up and down 56th St., except he added some off-roading wheels and bungeed a beverage cooler around it. Happily finding out that the bar you went to every Friday for almost 5 years hasn’t changed much, though they did put doors on the bathroom, and the food is as good as you remember. The afternoon you spent with your friend after he defended his dissertation. Coffee breaks. Mantis shrimp. Shrimp boils (but not of mantis shrimp). All of the weddings.
And now my plane is on its final descent into Pittsburgh, and I have a 90 minute drive back to Meadville. People often ask me (especially in winter) whether I miss Florida. I always answer “No, except the ocean and wildlife. And the weather in March when I’m tired of the gray and snow. That’s all.” But now I’ve ben reminded of the good, and I’m less sure of my answer.
I think I needed SICB this year, more than usual. I needed the contrast to other conferences. I needed the guided randomness of the science, which helps me prepare for the variety of my students’ interests and speaks to my own scientific nature. But most of all, I needed to reconnect with that previous life, pre-kids, pre-tenure, pre-middle age, pre-professor life – the one that seems like it belongs to someone else. I needed to remember the good and remember that moments like those are still happening in the hustle of my life now.