Having grown up in a hometown nestled in a river valley amid the westernmost reaches of the Appalachian Mountains running their diagonal out of West Virginia and through southwestern to north central Pennsylvania, and then moving to my first permanent residence away from home in a city tucked neatly between the Rincon, Catalina, and Tucson mountains, the flatness of the American Midwest always strikes me. If not for the intellectual excitement associated with attending a conference (here, the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy), the uninterrupted straight lines of the horizon in every direction in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, might have even unnerved me. It occurs to me now the curiosity of having a symposium on spectroscopy—a field which could be described simply and practically (but rather incompletely) as a process of peak-hunting—in a place so devoid of peaks.
After a jet-lagged night’s sleep following my Sunday evening arrival, a breakfast of eggs, bacon, potatoes, coffee, and 80s music had me ready for the first official day of the conference, which opened with a plenary session covering a range of spectroscopic methods and systems. In the afternoon—I remember most distinctly—I learned during Peter Bernath’s talk on the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment that wildfires could be tracked by detecting the HCN they evolve, and that peat fires evolve especially large amounts of it. As a man who enjoys an occasional scotch, and who prefers them smoky, this new information stuck with me a little bit more than it may have otherwise, I confess.
On a less scientific note, that evening at a mixer with the companies sponsoring the symposium, I bowled my absolute worst games.
The conference’s second day started with power ballads over a breakfast not dissimilar from the first (but this one with sausage instead of bacon), and proved an outstanding networking day, as I spent most of my next two meals with graduate students and their PIs whose interests aligned considerably with my own: photoelectron spectroscopists from Caroline Jarrold’s group at Indiana University and some of Mathias Weber’s group at JILA. I also got to learn about some of the latter group’s work with carbon dioxide during one of the mini-sessions, and commiserated (of course) about various research struggles with all parties present.
That evening there was a barbecue, and I heard a story about a notorious professor some years ago at the symposium host University of Illinois. I will leave that story untold here, but know it was amusing. The day concluded with a pleasant evening rainfall.
Wednesday was a bit different from the first two days. Just as the first two days, there was a breakfast centering on eggs, meat, potatoes, coffee, and Molly Hatchet’s “Flirtin’ with Disaster,” and there were several interesting presentations on various applications of spectroscopy—including one which the speaker said was motivated by wanting to study the wine he was drinking with a friend—but my networking efforts took an unexpected turn. I chatted both interestingly and humorously with Steve Gibson and his high resolution photoelectron imaging group from Canberra, Australia, over a doughnut and some lemonade in the afternoon, clarifying some questions I had about the presentation Gibson’s student gave shortly beforehand, and then moving on to some lighter topics. (We told jokes.)
This was not an unusual exchange, but that evening spent with the Jarrold and Weber groups on what turned out to be Karaoke Night, I did something I had never done before, and arm wrestled both professors.
I assure you, dear readers, it was not my idea.
Following the arm-wrestling, the karaoke began, and while Weber and I did not participate, everyone else at our table did. One of Weber’s students, it turned out, was trained in opera, and Jarrold was herself very active in musical theatre once upon a time. They performed a rather excellent duet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Two other students sang a duet of “My Heart Will Go On,” but replaced “heart” with “mass spectrometer” to great effect in a bar now full of other spectroscopists, with whom such a hopeful sentiment would resonate (pun probably intended).
My talk was scheduled at the very end of the conference’s fourth day, and as such demanded all of my charisma to keep the audience engaged. I fear little was on my mind besides my talk, and so much of the day before that escapes my memory, though during that morning’s plenary session, I did have the opportunity to applaud a friend as she received the Rao Prize she had won the previous year. Shortly before the talk, I realized I had forgotten to review some work I had done on the system I was studying, and was unprepared to answer a question I was certain to get (I didn’t get asked that question at all, it turns out), and called Yerbolat back in the lab to send me the Excel sheet in which I had the information, receiving it just in time. The talk itself went well, and I would be happy to talk about the work with anyone who asks (and many who don’t), and my jokes landed at a solid 50 percent rate, which is pretty good, considering my jokes.
Once the talk was over, and I had breathed my heaviest sigh of relief, I went to a get a celebratory meal with my conference buddies (and it was divine), delayed only a bit by discussions with a few other students who were especially interested in my work. An ongoing conversation with a student from the group of Richard Mabbs (who did his postdoc with Andrei Sanov, my own advisor) has proved especially useful in improving my spectral resolution.
Due to difficulties finding an appropriate flight, I was unable to attend any of the goings-on of the fifth and final day of the symposium, but the first four were remarkably productive and rewarding. By way of summary, all-told I ate ten doughnuts and attended tens of talks, and left at once exhausted and intellectually invigorated, with new ideas and directions and motivations of my work here in Tucson. I look forward to going back again next year.