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Ping Pong with PhDs: My Experience at the Gordon Research Conference

Michael Fiske
Department of Biology, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

“How would you like to attend one of the most prestigious scientific conferences in the world?” my advisor Dr. DebBurman asked me last spring.  I was intrigued.  He added, “By the way, you’ll be going alone.  And I don’t mean without any other members from lab; I won’t be going either.  And it’s in New Hampshire. And you’ll probably be the only undergraduate in attendance.”  I was intimidated.  He finished, “If you would like to go, we should start thinking about a poster soon. The conference is during the summer.”

Five months later, I was stepping off a plane at Boston Logan International Airport with my freshly printed poster in tow.  Numerous thoughts raced through my mind.  What would the attendees be like?  Would they ask difficult questions?  Would the talks be boring?  I had a feeling that this conference would be similar to others I’ve attended, but I would later realize that this experience would be unlike any other.

The Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) are a series of scientific conferences held every two years, and they cover topics ranging from saltwater plants to quantum mechanics.  While GRC covers over 370 topics, each individual meeting typically has fewer than 200 attendees.  The goal of the GRC is to promote discussion among the brightest minds in the field on unpublished data in an “off the record” setting.  Their mission is represented in the format of the conference.  Oral presentations are followed by up to 15 minutes for discussion, and the poster presenters are encouraged to include unpublished data.  Locations range from the local to the exotic, with previous conference sites including the United States, Italy, China and London. 

Attendance at any one conference is highly competitive, and prospective attendees must fill out an application for admission. In the spring, I applied to attend the Stress Proteins in Disease and Development conference.  More specifically, I pleaded to the conference chair, Dr. Jeff Brodsky, that a lowly undergraduate should be allowed to attend.  My application even included a personal letter.  The pleading worked, and I was accepted in late spring.

My conference was held at Proctor Academy in Andover, NH.  Proctor is a preparatory high school of nearly 300 students located at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  A shuttle bus took us from the airport to the campus.  After an hour long drive through winding mountain roads and continually popping ears, we arrived.  I was instantly shocked at how isolated the academy was.  With a population just over 1200, the town was smaller than even tiny Lake Forest College.  My cell phone reception disappeared, and the Internet connection was spotty at best.  The amenities were a bit of a surprise as well.  My housing was a dorm room designed for two students, and I shared a bathroom with all the males on my floor.  Meals were held in a dining hall similar to our cafeteria.  In reality, the disconnect from the rest of the world and the camp-like atmosphere actually enhanced the experience.  I was able to relax and enjoy myself even more.  There were no trains to catch or long walks to a huge auditorium.  It almost felt like a vacation a majority of the time.  Additionally, I think I was accustomed to the housing situation and cafeteria food service after three years of dorm life.  While some people actually complained, I felt right at home brushing my teeth next to my neighbor.

Each day followed a set schedule.  Talks began at 8:30 a.m. and continued until lunchtime at 12:30 p.m.   There was a four-hour break in the afternoon except on the two days that posters were presented.  Talks resumed at 5:30 p.m. and continued until 9 p.m.  The presentations at the conference were some of the best I’ve heard.  Each presenter was truly excited to be on stage, and every talk was followed up with insightful discussion.  Although the talks were clearly not given with an undergraduate audience in mind, I managed to glean the important points from most all of them.  I was slightly disappointed that there were not more neurodegenerative disease presentations, however.  What struck me most, though, was the atmosphere of the presentations.  The entire conference had an informal feel to it.  The discussions after talks were friendly and frequently punctuated by jokes and laughter.  It was unlike any other conference I’ve been to in that regard.

Some of the standout presentations were Johnathan Weissman and Jason Brickman.  Weissman is from the University of California San Francisco, and his talks described how structural characteristics of prion proteins enhance propagation.  More specifically, he described certain structural features of the budding yeast Sup35 protein that allowed it to pass on its prion form.  Jason Brickman from Northwestern University detailed his research on the biology of the nucleus.  His lab has discovered certain regions of chromosomes that cause them to localize to nuclear pores.  Interestingly, this localization is actually heritable, but the benefits of such “memory sequences” have yet to be described.

After a long day of talks, I was interested to see how the nights would unfold.  To everyone’s surprise, Dr. Brodsky arranged for an open bar held in the Proctor equivalent to the student center.  Edibles included wine, beer, pizza, and other snacks, and entertainment took the form of pool and ping pong.  I made friends with a number of graduate students, and we challenged several PhD’s to ping pong matches.  Like the presentations, the atmosphere remained relaxed.  On the final night, after our lobster dinner, they actually cleared a dance floor for us, complete with a spinning disco ball.  While the scientists at the conference were the leaders in their field, their dance moves left much to be desired.

The poster presentations were also enjoyable.  In addition to the many interesting topics, the bar was open during the poster sessions as well, and it was not uncommon for a poster presenter to be drinking wine or a beer while presenting.  Although I thought it would be nerve-racking to present my lab’s work to such well respected scientists, I was surprised at how unintimidating presenting was.  I felt like an equal rather than a lowly undergraduate.  Of course, I’m sure the C2H5OH helped.  In addition, I received some insightful feedback on our work as well.

Ultimately, the GRC experience shattered a number of my expectations, but it did so in a way that made the conference even more enjoyable.  The lighthearted atmosphere enhanced the dissemination of scientific knowledge and promoted a comfortable environment for discussion.  The GRC will stick with me for the rest of my scientific career, and I hope that I’ll be able to attend a second in the future.


Eukaryon is published by students at Lake Forest College, who are solely responsible for its content. The views expressed in Eukaryon do not necessarily reflect those of the College.

Articles published within Eukaryon should not be cited in bibliographies. Material contained herein should be treated as personal communication and should be cited as such only with the consent of the author.