Thoughts from 30,000 feet

It’s 10pm on a Saturday night as I write this and I’m on a flight from London to Boston. I’m heading to the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts where I will be spending the week teaching on an advanced study course, aimed at graduate students and post-docs in my field. I’ve participated in this course for the last five or so years and it’s something I’ve grown to look forward to every year [Link]. In part this is because I always find it stimulating and inspiring experience. Like all courses at Woods Hole it’s intense, the participants are always engaged and committed, they will pull all-nighters to work on their projects and then still want to ask questions and discuss details when you lecture the following morning.

On top of this, the other faculty who teach on the course are leaders in the field and spending a week with them catching up, discussing science, exchanging ideas is both motivating and enormously enjoyable. There’s something about the face to face social time that produces open discussion and leads to new ideas. The environment of Woods Hole is particularly good at encouraging this: we all stay in the same halls, eat together and spend most of our waking hours in each-others company. And because the course has a particular theme, it gives everyone a common focus. While electronic communication, whether email or Skype, is great for maintaining friendships and collaborations, it doesn’t come close to replacing this kind of interaction.

The other reason I look forward to returning to Woods Hole every year is because October is the perfect time to be visiting this part of the world. The summer season is over, the trees are on the turn and there’s a morning chill in the air. Many of the houses are holiday homes and these are shuttered for the winter, it all adds up to a dignified but austere look to the place.

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The trip reminds me what a great job I have that allows me to travel and see the world like this. It’s not the first or last trip I’ll make in a year that has taken me from India to LA and places in between. International travel wasn’t something I had realised would be a feature of a career in research. I hadn’t travelled much before leaving university and the opportunity to travel wasn’t mentioned when science careers were discussed in school – in fact I imagined a scientist’s career to be a lifetime spent in a lab working away in some corner of academe. Perhaps this has changed over my lifetime – today there seems to be a wider appreciation that research is an international endeavour. But I’m still not sure we highlight this aspect of research enough when we talk about career choices. This is a shame because it is something many people look for in a job and I can’t think of another career where it would have been so easy for me to visit so much of the world, live and work abroad and have friends and colleagues in so many places.

Of course there are downsides to this. The days of airline travel being glamorous, if they ever existed, are long gone. There are many evenings when I would happily swap a hotel room for the chance to spend the evening at home and in my own bed. And I know I would love for my best friends to live at the end of the road, rather than on another continent. But until we find a way of interacting with our fellow human beings that is as good as meeting them face to face, I am going to sit back, relax and look forward to spending a week in a beautiful part of the world.

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