Beckman Conference

Hey all!

Sorry for the late post—I just got back from the Beckman Conference in Irvine, CA!

Way back sophomore spring, I applied for the Beckman Scholarship—a national undergraduate research scholarship awarded to universities and colleges like Wellesley. Professors at those schools then decide on individual Beckman Scholars after an internal application process… and I was not one of those recipients, hee :). But, slightly-less-way-back junior spring, I applied again, and was chosen as a Beckman Scholar! Scholars are financially supported for two summers and one school year, and have the opportunity to attend the annual Beckman Conference twice. I didn’t make it last year, but am happy to have attended this year.

Awesome conference, might I say. It was different from the other conferences I’ve attended in a few ways. First, we had to wear business attire. I’m still complaining about this because the word “blazer” exists in this nebulous clothes-based space in my head that is defined only by literary context and I still find the concept odd. Luckily, it didn’t matter too much, because women seem to be able to get away with wearing dresses all the time rather than suits. (Though then you have to deal with being cold. Also, shoes, but the guys were complaining there too.) This business-attire business was remarked upon by one of our speakers: “Yes, so, if you’re at an engineering conference you should be dressing even more up than this, but scientists dress like slobs. This can be a good or bad thing.” Definitely good, man. I like my mind’s blazer-space undefined.

Second, I had my own hotel room. I have never in my life had my own hotel room. I walked in, and there was one bed, and I was like… hm, that’s odd, usually when they assign random roommates they don’t expect us to share right away. But I was accepting, because I usually pay for my hotel rooms at conferences, and when I’m paying I’m forcing as many people into a bed as possible. Not so in this case! The bed was huge; I had to crawl to get my water bottle on the edge of it because I felt a moral obligation to sleep in the center. It was quite awesome.

Third, all of the speakers were fantastic. We had a few DARPA guys, which was a treat—scientists who are funded by DARPA, the US Defense Agency, always have really boundary-pushing, fast-paced, applied research. They also tend to be working with the development of tools in research—and it’s often the creation of new tools that really move academic research forward. Arnold O. Beckman, the philanthropist behind this conference and the awards, was a big proponent of this idea that tools motivate progress (he invented the pH meter and the spectrophotometer, among others), and the organizers of the conference stayed true to his vision.

One of my favorite speakers talked about a new method to do intracranial recordings in humans. When people have very severe epilepsy, sometimes surgeons remove a part of their skull and place electrodes on the scalp in order to try to localize (and then remove) the source of their seizures. One speaker had developed a way of laying down tiny, micro electrodes that allowed much higher spatial resolution and localization. You know when you’re sitting through all of the introduction and background to one of a long series of talks, and you’re kind of nodding along and kind of nodding off, but you force yourself to follow along and then you get to the punchline and then you’re suddenly wide-awake and super-excited with your mind blown? A lot of the talks were like that for me.

Another really, really cool talk was about an MD/PhD who has and is continuing to develop treatments for cancers using viruses. It’s always a bonus when speakers have charisma, and Dr. Yuman Fong was chock-full of it, in addition to doing incredible applied research. It’s so amazing when people are doing research that they’re actually getting onto the market and using to help people. The rarity of this kind of research came up in the question and answer session, too, when a tense back-and-forth was smoothed over by another panelist with: “And this is amusing, because the scientist who has studied organic compounds for 40 years wants to know how these viruses function, and the MD/PhD who does surgery on patients twice a week is like: ‘It works, damn it!’” “Much like the divergence between scientists and engineers,” he added as an afterthought.

We also had excellent student speakers. Very smoothly-delivered research, great question-and-answer responses, all going to great PhD programs next year—all of the older scientists were very impressed, and kept murmuring things like: “these kids are great,” and “they’re the future, you know.” I was kind of intimidated by a few of them, but in one of our later sessions we were informed that: “oh, you always want to have people smarter than you around. Be in the bottom half of your class, if you can swing it.” If you can swing it indeed :). (Other instructions on how to succeed as a scientists and human being include: work hard. Take every opportunity to present and write. Work hard. Suck up to everyone. Work hard. Don’t be afraid. Did I mention work hard?)

One of my favorite pieces of advice, actually, was: “If you’re not making mistakes, or pissing people off, then you’re not trying hard enough.” Like I said, fantastic conference.

What made this conference the most valuable, however, (and you can see evidence of this in the preceding paragraphs) is that it was oriented towards us, the undergrads. The Beckman Foundation funds undergrads through its Beckman Scholars Program, but it also funds new faculty members through its Beckman Young Investigator Program, and this year was the first time it funded post-docs as well. So in attendance, we had a bunch of Beckman Scholars, the Beckman Scholars’ mentors, a solid number of Young Investigators, and a number of postdocs. All of whom managed to secure funding from the Beckman Foundation and were thus very impressive. And all of these mentors were focusing their attention on us, the students, the “future”—and it was heady and very, very useful.

No one cares about undergrads at conferences, because we are… well, untrained. We don’t know how to do anything yet, we don’t know enough to ask good questions, we don’t know how to think about science. Thus, if you go to any large conference, undergrads are largely ignored, and for good reason. But at this conference, everyone made the effort to make everything accessible to undergrads (which is how all good presentations are, actually. Everything you say should be clearly and logically explained, understandable by someone trained in science but not in your field. Making these kinds of presentations takes a surprising amount of effort and skill.) All of the presenters would intersperse comments aimed at undergrads throughout their presentations. We had sessions specifically aimed at undergrads moving into the future. A big one: everyone ate with the undergrads and were interested in talking with us. (I talked an extremely large amount about science and weather, by the way. These are the easiest topics for scientists across the board. This is because we talk about science all the time anyway and can thus give good speeches, and come from a bunch of universities and thus have sufficient variation in temperatures to talk about weather for more than a minute.) And, and, and: we were the future.

It reminded me very strongly of the one conference I went to at Harvard my sophomore year. There was just this intense sense that we were the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and that we were all going to succeed. That yes, there are not many of those glorious academia positions out there, but we can obviously distinguish ourselves, and that as long as we continue working hard, those slots will be there. (It was phrased as follows: “But the fact is that chemists are dying every year. Dying every day. And someone’s got to teach those intro chem classes to the new undergrads!”) That, and this one was addressed to me: “No, you can’t say that you got to Wellesley on accident and that you got to Cambridge on accident—obviously, you’ve shown some sort of potential and talent that allowed you to get this scholarship and be accepted to those places!”

Makes me kind of think I need to reorganize how I see myself in my brain better. But modesty is important, man! I’ve worried about this before, but a while ago I came up with a solution that I like: nah, just surround yourself by really incredible people and have a slight inferiority complex. Always better to hear you’re better than you think rather than the opposite, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the important mandate of apply for everythiiinnnnggg (even if you don’t think you’ll get it).

So yup, this conference was all about impressive people going: “All glory to the undergrads!” and it was freaking awesome. I talked to a ton of undergrads, and they were all great, I talked to a bunch of PIs (principal investigators; i.e. lab heads) and they were all really kind to us, I talked a bunch of speakers and almost to the head of the Foundation before I knew who he was (because the impressive people were just wandering around), and it was so much fun. So much fun talking to people about science who are great at talking about science. With short interruptions for discussions on weather.

The last thing that really differentiated this conference (oh, pause, the food was really good too) was how “family” oriented it was. The Beckman Foundation gives out money to scientists because Arnold Beckman made his fortune by inventing things for scientists, and he wanted to give back his money to the people who had supported him. He seems to have been an incredible person, who continues to inspire so much respect from those who knew him, and I urge you to check out some of his quotes. (My favorite: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” One that the conference people liked a lot: “Hire the best people. Then get out of their way,” often used in reference to their graduate students.)

So at dinner, we’d all applaud for every staff member of the Beckman Foundation, as they were recognized individually. We were welcomed into the “Beckman Family,” over and over again. Everyone was urged to treat each other as connections within a community. We watched a movie about Dr. Beckman, everyone brought back themes from Dr. Beckman, and integrity, humor, and dedication (three of his tenants) were weaved into every talk in this conference.

In short… I had a great conference :). I’d go to the events in the day, go work out and read at night, and there were no emails, no other things going on. I practiced for my poster presentation only twice the night before, and it went well and I had fantastic time presenting, as I always do. I met a bunch of new people, and had zero travel trouble there or back. Zero stress, consistently fun. I’m in the Beckman Family, dudes :).

Sigh, I meant for this to be a short post, but it’s going to be close to two hours long as per usual :). In other news, I submitted all of my visa materials for Cambridge! That was crazy—the only way I made it through this seemingly-impossible task was to remind myself that several of my friends had already successfully completed visa applications. (There’s just so much information everywhere. And you have to get it all RIGHT on the first try.) Also, Annie, the lab’s remaining rising-sophomore lab member, has left me to go see her family in China before school starts. Aw… but Erica (our rising 10th-grader) has been doing very well, and she’s still hanging out with me :).

Hope you all are doing well, and thanks so much for reading the blog :). I check up on my stats page more often now than I used to, and it’s incredibly inspiring to see that more people than my lovely parents (who are… well, they’re not obligated, since my sisters don’t read it, but they’re sort of obligated) are checking in with me :). I love comments and questions (including from my lovely parents :)), and would love to connect with any of you. Or take topics, or anything else you want to tell me.

Happy mid-August, readers, and thanks again for reading :).

Monica

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