Answering the Conference Call

If you see a fork in the road, take it!
As a beginning researcher wondering how I was going to make anything out of my interest in chemistry education, the international travel award from the CHED International Activities Committee was just such a fork. And boy, am I glad I took it!

It’s very common for recent PhD graduates to feel isolated and have moments when they wonder whether anyone cares about what they are doing. Even if they were in a big research group, they are often on their own at the forefront of something new, uncertain if it will turn out well. I know that after four years of my PhD work, done while I was teaching undergraduate labs full time, I had no real idea if what I was doing would really be interesting to others in the field or whether I was simply retreading old ground. I’d read their papers of course, downloaded their studies, and dug into their experimental designs, but the author names I was filling my reference manager with were just symbols. They might as well have been hieroglyphs. The notion of a community of scholarship around chemistry education was purely a theoretical concept. Lacking geographically close colleagues with similar interests I was craving collaborations and conversations, opportunities to discuss methodology and data analysis. 

Hey this is crazy, I just referenced you, coffee maybe?
With the ICCE in Toronto in 2014, I saw an opportunity. I didn’t have any funded grants, and travel support from my department was extremely limited, but the list of speakers – the same names I had in my citations! – called out to me. These were the authors of papers that inspired my dissertation, people from around the world that I never imagined I would get to meet in person. I applied for the IAC travel funding, not confident that I would get it, but determined to do anything to make the trip – even if it meant sleeping on someone’s floor and using frequent flier miles to get there.

Fortunately, the travel grant came through, and for the first time, I found myself really engaging with our academic community in person. I got to the conference, and I can’t forget the excitement I felt as I coyly looked at the name badges of the other attendees. More than simply author names in a database, here were the real, flesh and blood people! Names that had up to then been mere talismans, were now actual men and women, with different styles of dress, patterns of speech, haircuts, accents, and manner. 

A friend advised me that while at the conference I should never eat alone. Despite my trepidation and nervousness at the thought, my first day there I forced myself to approach speakers and other graduate students who seemed to be doing interesting things. It was far easier than I ever imagined it would be – people were open, interesting to talk to and interested in my progress and ideas. My imagined fears of being shut out from conversations vanished, and I found myself excitedly making new friends and diving deep into the research areas we had in common. 

I talked to people I whose research inspired my own, others I’d never heard of but should have, and recent graduates, who like me, were attending their first conferences. The liberating feeling of finally being in a room where I didn’t need to explain why I was interested in chemistry and where I didn’t need to defend my interest in education research, was exhilarating. The response I received from experienced colleagues was amazing, the atmosphere was welcoming and encouraging. I gained experience helping run a symposium and support developing symposium topics for future conferences. I met with colleagues over coffee, lunch, and dinner. Even sightseeing was an opportunity to relax and build new connections. The isolation I had felt was gone, these were people who wanted to talk about their research design and findings, people I looked forward to catching up with over the years. 

Walk the walk, now give a talk!
I was nervous for my first presentation to an international crowd and feared that no-one would show up for my talk, and so I was astounded by the turn out (well, not quite standing room only), but that many of the people I was citing were in the audience!  And they were interested in what I had to say! After my talk they came up to me wanting to continue the conversation and introduce me to their graduate students. The speakers whose work inspired me wanted to discuss my analysis!

With all the interesting conversations I had at the conference, I knew that I did not want these connections to fade. I wanted to bring some of this back to my department and share with our chemistry faculty the best of what the chemistry education field had to offer. I met with and sounded out a number of potential speakers who I felt could really bridge the gaps between the two groups. When I got back, I had just the right ammunition to persuade my department to start inviting chemistry education research specialists to the sought after departmental colloquium slots. Looking back now after a couple of hugely successful visits, I know that without this travel opportunity, they never would have happened.

More personally, I made key connections with other researchers, got invites to speak at other departments, and became a port-of-call in my hometown for researchers passing through. My work on quantitative eye tracking analyses of students got noticed, and led directly to collaborations, a grant proposal, and regular Skype conversations that keep those connections going. From one travel grant, I found myself part of the community that I’d previously only seen from the outside.

I now sit on the committee that helps award these grants, and I see in the applications, that same yearnings I had to learn, to speak and to be part of this community. Conferences are the ‘villages’ that it takes to raise a researcher into academia, and especially in a field like chemistry education, these meetings are often the only time that everyone in the room will ‘get it’. By making sure that we bring in new researchers to participate in these events we are seeding the future of the field and hopefully benefiting from the huge diversity of talent, approaches and styles that exist. Too many early career researchers don’t get enough feedback and exposure and end up leaving the field. My experience shows that even a small helping hand can have a major impact on the researcher, their institution and the research field itself.

Looking back, I never did eat alone. Good job I picked up that fork.

Sarah HansenSarah J.R. Hansen, Ph.D.
Lecturer in Chemistry
Columbia University
3000 Broadway, MC 3184
New York, NY 10027