Imogen Clarke completed her History of Science Ph.D. at the University of Manchester in November 2012. Her thesis explored the transition from classical to modern physics in early-twentieth-century Britain, and how these changes were communicated to wider audiences. She is currently an ‘independent scholar’ (working as an admin assistant) and blogs at imogenandhistory.wordpress.com.
My First International Conference
In July 2011, halfway into my PhD, I travelled to Washington, D. C. for an academic conference. Flights and accommodation were fully paid for, and all I had to do in return was deliver one twenty-minute paper. It all seemed simple enough. I’d been on planes before, they speak English over there, and I’d already successfully tested out my paper at a British conference. I was ready for my free holiday. Little did I know that four days in I’d be alone in my B&B, watching repeats of Jersey Shore, and crying over a Subway sandwich. (Don’t worry, nothing horrific had happened, this is a light-hearted blog post.) Here is the story of my first international conference.
The call for papers was circulated in September 2010 and the conference appeared to be tailor-made for me. It was for Ph.D. students and early-career researchers; it was on the history of physics (my field of study); and the specific theme was ‘continuity and discontinuity’, two words that were cropping up constantly in my thesis. My supervisor encouraged me to apply, I submitted an abstract, and I was both accepted and given a grant-in-aid to contribute to my flights. As for the remainder of the costs, I was in luck – after finally working up the courage to go and speak to the Director of my department about money, I discovered that there was some to be spent by the end of the financial year. Using our combined intellectual prowess, we eventually managed to navigate the university’s payment system, and my flights were booked and paid for. I gave myself ten days in total, allowing for some D.C. sightseeing and a stay in New York. I decided not to book a room in the expensive and inconveniently located official conference hotel, and instead found a much cheaper B&B right by a metro station. I then used airbnb.com to rent a studio apartment in Brooklyn from a professional double-bass player (you can imagine how unbelievably cool I felt at that moment).
And off I went! My bed and breakfast, Aunt Bea’s Little White House, was run by an odd but harmless man called Gerald. Washington was recovering from a heatwave, it was 35°C at night with something like 1000% humidity, and the air conditioning in my room was rather understated. The next morning, my jetlag woke me up at 6am (one of the perks of being a late-riser travelling west), Gerald made me breakfast, and I got the metro to the conference. After a fifteen-minute walk in the wrong direction in ridiculous heat, I made it to the gloriously air-conditioned conference building, and slipped in halfway through the keynote speech.
The next few days were a blur of social awkwardness and incomprehensible physics. This was not the kind of history I was used to. Half the papers seemed to be about quantum mechanics and there were equations everywhere. I don’t have a physics background – I just like telling stories about people. And when it was finally my turn, my paper on the relationship between modern physics, art and literature seemed wildly out of place. I rushed through it, trying to ignore the fact that an esteemed professor I was referencing was sat right in front of me. My talk was met with excruciating silence. Finally one guy took pity on me and asked a question to which I didn’t have an answer. At that point, I was pretty sure this was the worst presentation I’d ever given.
But then, as I was queuing up for lunch, somebody came up to me and told me how much he’d enjoyed my talk. During lunch, I got a few more compliments. Later on I had a nice discussion with the aforementioned esteemed professor. An extremely apologetic Brazilian admitted that he couldn’t understood a word I said, and I realised I’d been talking far too quickly for an audience consisting mainly of non-native English speakers. One delegate told me I ‘wrote beautifully’, to which I replied ‘it’s a shame I speak so badly’. (Cultural differences: here, my offhand self-deprecation was met with a horrified ‘that’s not what I meant!’) I relaxed a bit, improved my mingling efforts, and discovered that everybody at the conference was incredibly friendly.
I spent a lot of my ten days in America feeling fairly miserable. I regretted not staying in the conference hotel with everybody else. I couldn’t handle the heat and humidity. I was surprisingly homesick and (not so surprisingly) constantly convinced I was acting like an idiot. Everywhere I went, men in uniform tried to confiscate my suntan lotion. On account of my reserved English nature and confusion surrounding tipping, I felt like the rudest person in New York, of all places. And, yes, I spent an evening crying over a subway sandwich. But in retrospect, I had a great time. I didn’t actually embarrass myself at all. I met some lovely people and successfully networked with academics. The conference lunches were excellent. I saw the sights. I didn’t die of heat stroke. And if I ever get the opportunity to do this again, I will try not to be so bloody useless.