In the mountains, in Spain

Thursday 18 July 2019
‘Molecular Polaritonics 2019’ Group Photo (I’m on the far right-hand side, the white tee!)

For the second leg of my Laidlaw adventure, I wanted to challenge myself and try something new. My first summer on the programme was fascinating and highly rewarding, but I felt that with it I had reached a satisfying conclusion, and there was still a whole world of research possibilities for me to dip my toes into. I was excited about my transition from chemistry to physics, but I was also moving my research in a direction that I knew next to nothing about. To get myself up to speed I traveled to Spain to spend a half-week immersed in the culture of the field; I signed up to attend Molecular Polaritonics 2019, an all-inclusive academic workshop in the mountains near Madrid, with a full programme of invited speakers from around the world.

I had arranged to travel there with one of my supervisors, a young researcher from Iceland named Kristin. Any apprehension that I’d had about being locked away with a cohort of intimidatingly smart scientists for seventy-two hours quickly evaporated when I met her at the airport – I knew within just a short time that we would get along very well. My worries put to rest, my thoughts quickly turned to what I could hope to get out of my time there. Looking back on my experience I can say with confidence that it was one of the most valuable components of my scholarship. I met many different kinds of people, saw a dazzling array of cutting-edge research, and I’m sure the many lessons I learned will be of great use to me in the future (there was also a lot of free wine).

The conference took place in what seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere. The official location was the municipality of Miraflores de la Sierra, supposedly named after the flowers that bloom around the village, although neither the village nor the flowers were anywhere to be seen. One researcher told me that it was common practice to hold physics conferences in remote locations, in the hope that the geographical isolation would force the physicists to talk to each other. The ploy must have been successful, as the conversation never seemed to end. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to experience much of Spain, or even the hot weather, since the schedule ran from morning until evening, when dinner was served at 8pm – perhaps the closest I came to experiencing the Spanish culture, along with wine served at lunch.

Over the course of three days, I naturally picked up a lot of science – not only concepts and methods that would be useful for my own research, but also what makes a scientific theory or piece of research ‘good’, and how researchers build on one another’s work. I also learned a lot of big-picture stuff, much of it from private discussions around the lunch table, for which I had the privilege of being a fly on the wall. What are the big questions in the field? How does the work people are doing tie into the broader picture of science? These conversations were one of my favourite parts of the conference; placing my own activity in a wider context, relating it (in some way) to the world at large, has always been something that is important to me.

What came as more of a surprise was what I could learn about how researchers work together. The conference was a showcase for a host of different leadership styles, ranging from fostering inclusiveness and encouragement to a much more direct, even confrontational approach. I studied how academic researchers present themselves and their findings, how they keep audiences engaged and how they respond constructively to criticisms from their peers. I also saw different strategies for leading discussions, and for building professional rapport among colleagues. If there is one event that I can point to where I have been able to directly see the principles learned on the leadership course put into action, it must be this.

My experiences this summer would not have been possible without the scholarship’s generous travel fund, and I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for providing this fantastic opportunity, as well as everyone involved in running the scholarship programme. Thanks as well to all of my supervisors (Brendon Lovett, Jonathan Keeling, Kristin Arnartoddir and last year John Mitchell), for taking me on as a student. I have already learned so much, and I still look forward to what lies ahead.

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