Travel opportunities are coveted by the typical graduate student. Every year, I
create a list of three to four major conferences that I would like to attend. Inevitably, my
travel intentions are thwarted by reality, specifically bench work and data crunching.
Maybe this is a good thing, since too much travel would cut into the time that should be
spent on my thesis work.
But, understanding the bigger picture in research requires stepping away
from the data and experiments, at least occasionally. In this way, the AACR
special conference in Pancreatic Cancer was a great opportunity for me. With the
encouragement of my PI, and help from the GSA travel award, I was able to attend this
conference in New Orleans, LA.
I had never travelled so far into the South before and this was my first pancreatic
cancer conference. In the end, both the conference and the city proved surprising.
In my opinion, smaller conferences are ideal. The schedule is straightforward
because there is only one hall and one lecture at a time, so no worries about choosing
which presentation to attend. The subject of each conference is specific and nearly all of
the talks are relevant to a particular field of research. For me, this structure is great for
learning about topics that I typically neglect.
In my case, my mentor, Dr. Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, and our lab studies
metastasis and pancreatic cancer. My thesis aims to better understand the genetics and
evolution of metastasis: this focus regularly dictates which seminars I attend and the
For me then, this Special Conference in Pancreatic Cancer was a crash
course in many less-familiar topics. The development and metabolism sessions were
particularly enlightening (although if I had to pick a favorite, the tumor heterogeneity
session would win...I should add here that my PI was a conference co-chair, so I will
admit to some bias!).
This was not my first scientific conference, but it was my first time presenting
a poster, at least outside of Johns Hopkins. I enjoyed discussing my project, and was
surprised at how much genuine interest there was overall. There was no shortage of
feedback, both positive and critical. The best part was discussing my project with other
graduate students who would stop by my poster: interestingly, it was these interactions
that were the most conceptual and enthusiastic in content.
Overall, the conference was rewarding. Even more of a surprise, however,
was the city of New Orleans (a.k.a. NOLA). I now realize that my Midwestern origin
precluded any cultural understanding of the Deep South. Luckily, another lab member
had a friend who was local: he and his wife were kind enough to take us around the
city in the little spare time we had. I would have been lost otherwise, and it is always an
exceptional experience to have someone knowledgeable and enthusiastic show you
around. I think this is key to truly understanding any city (say, Baltimore).
I experienced a craw-dad boil, Bourbon Street, and authentic New Orleans
music (arguably the first time I have ever heard true jazz). I also saw the mythical
Mississippi in all its glory, followed by a beignet at Café Du Monde. Even with all that,
we barely scratched the surface of what New Orleans is about. I look forward to the next
opportunity that brings me back there.
This conference was fulfilling in many ways. I gained a great deal of knowledge
and enjoyed discussing science with everyone there. I had the chance to learn
something new and present my work. New Orleans, LA is a great city to which I will
return (the top of my to-do list for next time is a swamp tour).
I am very appreciative of the GSA travel award that facilitated my trip: without it, I
would not have had this great experience or the chance to write about it.