Posted in Guest Blog

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Scientists

This is a guest post by Tabitha Zehms

Did you know that the study of fecal bacteria in the frigid waters of Lake Superior is considered a study in alpine microbiology?  Neither did I.  But when my graduate school advisor told me he was presenting a poster on the lab’s work at a conference in Innsbruck, Austria, I promptly told him that I, too, wished for an excuse to travel to an exciting new place—er, that I meant to say that I’d love the opportunity to discuss poop-derived germs with perfect strangers.

The Industrial and Environmental Microbiology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh sent teams of students (myself included) to popular summer vacation destinations in the state to test the beach water for microbial contamination.  If the results showed that there were high levels of bacteria in the beach water, we’d post swimming advisories or close the beaches.  Our work in the cold waters of Lake Superior counted as an alpine climate (the average summer temperature of Lake Superior, until recently, maxed out just above 60˚F/15˚C).

Did you know that volunteering yourself to go on a trip with your advisor meant that you’d end up presenting the poster and traveling to a foreign country all by yourself?  No?  Again, neither did I.  So in March of 2006, I strapped a black bazooka-looking plastic poster carrier on my back and went, for the very first time, to a place I had never been that spoke a language I didn’t speak.

I had never traveled anywhere by myself, and while the primary purpose of this trip was to attend conference sessions and hear speakers and stand next to my poster for a few hours every day, I was still nervous about what I was going to do when not being studious—how would I make friends?  Would I have to sight-see all by myself?  Wouldn’t I get really lonely hardly talking to anyone for a week?

Dom St. Jakob; Image: Tabitha Zehms

For the first couple days, it was just as I had assumed—I attended the conference during the day, took notes on topics and names of professors whose research would be of interest to my own, and had quiet evenings to myself.  I went downtown to eat dinner at a café or grabbed easy food to go, and then would go to my room, journal about the day, and soak my feet.  Yes, soak my feet.  This was the trip where I learned that packing an extra pair of shoes on one’s carry-on would have been a great idea.  My bag did not arrive when I did, so the first three days were in one pair of underwear (ew, I know), one pair of pants, two alternating shirts, and one horridly high-heeled pair of shoes.  I may have looked professional, but those cobble-stoned streets of the historic city center murdered my feet.

Perhaps the friends arrived when my fresh change of clothes did, but a few days into my trip I built up the courage to chat with a girl who looked about my age and gave an interesting presentation that day.  And the young men who always sat together a few rows ahead of me (and had a fairly consistent habit of turning around) had the courage to talk to me as well.  Once my new acquaintances found out I was traveling alone, they were very welcoming and invited me to participate in their evening plans. (Yay, I’m not alone!)

I had dinner with young Inna, a Russian studying environmental microbiology, and her mother, a PhD in the same field, and their entire entourage of academic women.  Inna and I also skipped out on talks for a day and had quite the adventure trying to find the Alpenzoo (zoo).  (Again, I curse the day I chose to bring high heels to traverse sharply-inclined streets.)

Stubai Glacier in the Austrian Alps; Image: Tabitha Zehms

The young men of the front row were all graduate students at a university in Belgium.  While dining with them and their advisors I got to both admire their ability to switch back and forth effortlessly from French to English (and some of them spoke four languages), and also learned what it felt like to be a foolish American and speak only one (sadly, my Spanish degree only came in handy when helping a handful of tourists find a church downtown).  One of the men, a PhD candidate named Jean-Claude, and I became fast friends, and enjoyed an entire day of sightseeing downtown, eating gelato, strolling through parks, and keeping each other company on the conference-sponsored trip to visit a glacier on the nearby Alps.

In spite of my plan to disguise this conference as an excuse for a vacation, I did learn a lot about academia and the professional international community.  The amount of collaboration and camaraderie was very inspiring—especially when you take into account that nearly everyone was speaking in a language that wasn’t their own.  English was the language everyone presented in at the conference and, perhaps naively, I hadn’t realized that English was the primary medium to globally share knowledge.  I never thought I’d think Irish and Scottish people were easy to understand, either, until I tried to listen to a day full of French and Russian presenters.  Hats off to them 1,000-fold for being able to work as scientific professionals in multiple languages, of course—but it made me realize that “international English,” with the differing places of emphasis in words and the foreign-influenced vowel sounds, should really be considered a language of its own.  I also learned several interesting things about microbes—for example, microbes can live on one side of a snowflake in a cloud.

So while taking a trip by oneself is kind of intimidating, it was definitely worth it to be brave and say “Hi.”  Thankfully, that’s all the courage that was required—and in exchange for an ounce of courage, I gained a multitude of experiences and memories in return.

Tabitha is a microbiologist-turned-computer programmer by day, and a dancer, avid reader, and baker by night. She resides in Champaign, IL, where she enjoys the local culture with her boyfriend, dog, and two cats.