Saturday, 9 July 2016

The 20th International Congress of Arachnology

Four months before I started my PhD, I went to my first ever conference: the 19th International Congress of Arachnology (ICA) in Kenting, Taiwan. I presented a talk, and connected with a bunch of fellow idiopid researchers to share ideas. That conference had a massive influence on the start of my academic career. It also made me realise what a truly wonderful bunch of people the arachnologists are, and what an exciting world I was getting into.

Now, four months before I plan on submitting my thesis, I have just had an exhilarating week at the 20th Congress, in Golden, Denver. It was the largest assembly of arachnologists the world has ever known, and there were some inspiring presentations and discussions. My head is still reeling from it all. It was perfect timing for me; I now have some ideas about research fields and grants to apply for, and also some pointers on how to improve my thesis. Although right now I have my head buried firmly in the writing up process (hence my silence for the last couple of months), it was well worth coming. Life doesn't end when a thesis is handed in! There is plenty to do to build my career. Conferences and networking are fuel for a baby scientist's growth, especially in a close-knit community such as the arachnologist community.

I won't bore you with a day-by-day text wall, but here are a few cool things that I picked up from the human and arachnid components of the conference.

1. My usual strategy of orbiting the crowd and then diving in to hit a weak spot has, for the last few conferences, been made more successful by befriending someone similar to me on the first day. One looks a little less predatory and a little more social if one has a friend or two.

2. Having said that, I am always surprised that there are plenty of people who are fine with being on their own, and they don't seem like losers or unpopular people. It is fine at conferences to be by yourself sometimes, as long as you don't do it too much (when the conference is over, you don't want to have missed opportunities).

3. The best time to network is at mealtimes, when you find a space, sit down and munch while listening to people talking about their research. They are pretty much a captive audience and you can get to know them pretty well.

4. Different countries have totally different research dynamics and cultures. Each has its merits and its disadvantages.

5. Amblypygi (an order of arachnids that look terrifying at first but are harmless) are underappreciated powerhouses of sensory perception, neural processing, and cuteness.

6. Jumping spiders have eyes at the end of long tubes, and in translucent species you can see the tubes move around as the spider scans its surroundings. They only have clear colour vision on a small part of their retina, so they need the ability to move their eyes and focus on different parts of their environment.

7. Sometimes (often, maybe), technology progresses faster than our ability to use or understand it and its outputs.

8. Even analyses using rudimentary techniques, or those which produce inconclusive results, are informative and of some use, so long as their limitations are taken into consideration.

Anyway, I need to get all my thoughts together and get back into thesis mode. Conferences really take it out of a person!

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