Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Old Boys Conference

There is a conference in my field which is unique among the conferences I know about. It is only open to members, and membership is very exclusive - each country is only allowed 20 members. The US, Japan, France, and maybe Germany are already maxxed out, so in those places until somebody dies you can only be an Associate Member (which have limited access to meetings and proceedings). And even in places that are not maxxed out, the barrier to becoming a member is quite high - there is an extensive list of requirements to be met.

There are also very specific rules on where the conference can and cannot be hosted (two out of every three years must be in Europe, the President of the organization can only come from a country that has already hosted the conference, and on and on the rules go...). This year, the conference is right here in town, hosted by a professor here at World's Best School. This is a big deal, as the last time this conference was in the US was in the 1980s at some point.

The professor organizing the conference is the head of the overarching lab I work in (i.e. my advisor's boss; the director of the lab that my professor is a collaborator in). This means that most of the students I work with - my colleagues in the overarching lab - have been volunteered into working at this conference. Or, as we like to call it, "volun-told" to help out all this week. I get an official uniform and nametag and everything!

This is actually a pretty sweet gig. The conference is Sun-Sat, so it's a full week of work for me. But my advisor has told me that he doesn't expect any work from me on research, so this week is a wash in that regard. Three days I am working in the technical sessions, sitting in the back of the room to make sure that nobody's laptop fries or the microphone doesn't run out of batteries. I also collect the PowerPoints after each session, which will be compiled into a master document at the end (available only to members, of course...). The benefit of this job is that I get to hear all the presentations (I wrangled the schedule to get the sessions that are most relevant to me and my own work).

The other three days this week I am assigned to "Accompanying Persons" duty. This I think is a cool feature of this conference - many professors bring their spouses (the majority are wives, although there are one or two women professors who come with their husbands) and occasionally their children. And every weekday there is a tour planned for these people; bus transportation to sightseeing type of things around the area. This is a fantastic gig, because all I have to do is crowd control (which is not hard) and I get to see all sorts of cool stuff I've been wanting to see anyway.

Yesterday I was on bus duty, and we took about 70 people to see Plymouth plantation and Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower II (a replica of the original Mayflower). Really neat stuff, and a fascinating tour of replica colonial and Native Amercian villages. Thursday I am also on bus duty, and I think we are headed to the JFK Presidential Library and Musuem. I can't remember what Friday is - but I can hardly go wrong, I'm sure it will be enjoyable. As long as the same number of noses get off my bus as get on it, I have done my job!

It has been a really interesting experience to be on the other side of a conference - the organizing side. The staff here at World's Best School have worked their tails off to make sure everything is thought of, executed correctly, and completed satisfactorily. Every detail has to be considered, and I am so impressed at how well everything has gone. I have a new appreciation for the incredible amount of hours and dedicated people it takes to pull this kind of thing off.

When I next attend a conference, whenever I take a drink of provided ice water, or follow a posted sign to the bathroom, or consult a distributed schedule, or make use of my complimentary conference canvas bag, I will send a mental thank-you to the staff.

And at the end of my next future conference, I will take the time to stop by the registration desk and offer a personal thank-you as well.

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