By Jamin Dreyer
Soggy sneakers from falling in the lake. Dutch food. Old hymns. People that know you, but you don’t know them. These nuggets are imprinted in my childhood memory from the Zandstra family reunions that I was dragged to as a child. Twenty-five years ago, my nuclear family plus my grandma would pile into our minivan and drive a few hours to visit extended family. To be frank, I didn’t care much for these events as a kid; I was shy, and anyway too young to appreciate what the fuss was about.
With the passing of my grandmother’s generation in the mid-to-late 1990s, the family lost the threads that bound us together, and I haven’t been to a Zandstra reunion since. But I do have a new family reunion of sorts that I’ve been attending for five years now: ESA meetings. Entomology 2013 was my fourth national ESA meeting since I lugged a poster tube to Reno in 2008 as a brand new graduate student. Over these five years the event has morphed from an intimidating experience (my first big meeting!) into one of the highlights of my professional and personal calendar.
Just last week, I was at a long table in a hotel lounge on Sixth Street with some academic family members. My PhD advisor always hosts an evening gathering of current and former lab members who are attending the annual meeting. Now that I’ve “moved out of the house” as a new postdoc in another lab, the importance of maintaining these connections is sinking in. Colleagues and friends whom I used to see on a daily basis are now removed by hundreds of miles and a myriad of disparate responsibilities. But for a few hours our table was a food-and-drink-fueled lab meeting without an agenda, abuzz with conversation and stories, with people swapping seats here and there to ensure they were able to spend time with everyone.
In a less organized fashion, I experienced numerous small-scale, unplanned reunions as I rushed from session to session through the Austin Convention Center. Once you’ve been to enough meetings, you come to recognize, if not know, seemingly everybody like some huge academic Cheers. Some folks you greet with a quick wave, nod, or smile as you both scurry in opposite directions to events on other ends of the building. Other times you can stop and chat for a while and hash out career talk, some gossip, or new ideas. Perversely, after only a few meetings your network may become self-perpetuating to the point that you can only get face time with half of the friends you meant to.
Family reunions, real ones, are also a time for feedback of all kinds. “Look how you’ve grown!” “Who let you wear your hair like that?!” “I’m so proud of you!” Scientific meetings are no different. Year to year we are grow as scientists, sometimes stumbling along the way, and we have our scientific community to help guide us and inspire us. Maybe your poster is a flop or your talk bombs, or you wonder “Will I ever pull off something that cool?” when you see some of the great science being done by ESA members. But right then you might have an uplifting experience like I did when, for the first time, a grad student I didn’t know approached me and spoke highly about one of my papers. Maybe I’m not just the crazy uncle here like I feared I was…
Come next spring I’m planning to attend an ESA branch meeting for the first time, and I’ve already got eyes for the national meeting in Portland. For the branch meeting, I’ll pile into a van with my current lab, my nuclear academic family, and drive south to meet our “relatives” from around the region. To reach Portland, I’ll probably board a plane, and if I’m lucky there will be more than a few entomologist friends that I’ll meet in the airport terminal, in one of those very special unplanned reunions that kick off the festivities. I may never again make an annual pilgrimage to meet my extended family members, but I’ve still got my academic reunions to look forward to. Hopefully sans soggy shoes.