How do you organize an international symposium?

One word: communication.

I was approached by the ISCB Student Council leadership almost a year ago with an invitation to work as the co-chair for SCS2016. Yesterday, students from around the globe came together to share their research in computational biology here in Orlando. Throughout the many month-long organizing process, one theme stayed constant: the importance of communication.

It’s communication that convinces senior faculty to travel and give keynote lectures. Communication that persuades pharmaceutical and publishing companies to sponsor travel fellowships and our networking event. Communication that gets the word out to students around the world, communication that enables us scientist to speak in a common language despite different backgrounds, educations, accents and opinions. And most importantly, communication that allows students in different time zones come together and work to put an event like SCS2016 together.

To this end, a few practical tips: Doodle polls with timezone support are key for organizing meetings with people from different parts of the world. Skype or other web-based group calls keep people together and on track. To-do lists and documents of people’s responsibilities prevent you from forgetting what was decided at the last meeting. Gentle reminders via email are sometimes needed to make sure deadlines are met.

I learned a lot about the way I work with people. I’m quick to take on additional responsibilities if I feel I can complete a task quicker than delegating it out to someone else. I had to learn that “fast” or “better” isn’t always the end goal. It can be much more rewarding to give the responsibility to someone else and let them learn from it.

Inevitably, communication will break down at some point in the process. At this time, responsibilities fall on the head organizers to complete what needs to be done, even if it involves losing sleep!

Organizing SCS2016 was a lot of work, especially in the few weeks before the conference. Was it worth it? Without a doubt. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to learn and work with other motivated students, and I’m proud of the event we pulled off yesterday!

This post was originally posted in the PLOS Computational Biology Field Reports Blog.

Martha’s Vineyard 70.3 triathlon

I’ve been interested in doing a triathlon for a while now – the combination of swim, bike and run is an excellent test of fitness, endurance and skill. Last week I finally pulled the trigger and signed up for the half-ironman distance triathlon on Martha’s Vineyard in September. It’s a beautiful course (the bike is basically a tour of the whole island) and will be a good event to focus my training on over the next few months. I think this is a good event for me for a few reasons:

  • 70.3 will be a challenge but not impossible with training. That’s a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run. I’m more interested in the endurance aspect than how fast I can finish the course.
  • It’s over six months away. I plan to train seriously for four months. This will give me plenty of time to work out the kinks in my training and do a sprint/olympic tri to practice.
  • Training will happen in the summer. It’s tough to find a pool to swim in around Boston, so I’m planning to do a lot of my training in Walden Pond, Upper Mystic Pond and the ocean when I’m back on Cape Cod.

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    Just look at that bike route!

I plan to start training for the 70.3 in May. Until then I’m focusing on lifting and seeing how far I can push my squat, bench, deadlift and press. It’s fun to set goals and see your progress! You can follow me on the blog and Strava.

Road Trip: Final Numbers and Thoughts

Back home on the East Coast, I started to reflect on the trip that had occupied the past month of my life. There were so many things I learned about traveling, driving, relationships, the outdoors and my own personality.

Overall thoughts: This trip was meant to be an exploration into parts of the US that I hadn’t yet visited. I think it served that goal very well. A breadth-first exploration into what the midwest and west coast have to offer. If I had to go back I wouldn’t change the overall format of the trip, but I wouldn’t do the same thing again. I wish I had much more time – a month for each leg of travel would be ideal. With that in mind, my future travel in the US will be more focused and directed.

Final stats: 9800 miles, 30 states, 32 days, 8 National Parks, 1 breakdown and over $900 in gas.

Items I couldn’t have done without
National Parks Annual Pass: for $80 you get a pass covering admission into all National Parks and National Historic Sites. This turned out to be one of the best deals out there. It paid for itself at least twice over and gave me a freedom to visit what sites I chose without worrying about cost. It speeds up entrance into the parks, and I’ve even been able to use it at some federal recreation sites since being back in Boston. Bottom line: if you are planning to visit several NPs in a year, get this pass!
Osprey Hydration Bladder: I bought a 3L “camelbak” before the trip and used it daily. Always convenient when hiking, and actually really nice when driving. I stuck it in the cooler behind the drivers seat and extended the hose over my shoulder. I always had ice cold water without having to fiddle with a bottle.  
Slim Cooler: Fit well in the back seat of the car and gave me more options for carrying food. Refilling ice is a pain (especially when driving through the desert) but was well worth it. Gave me a spot to keep my water cold and chill beer also.

Things I didn’t really need
As much canned food: I brought a lot of extra stuff I had when I moved out of my apartment. I ended up enjoying shopping for fresh ingredients when in town, and returned with some things I hoped I would never see again!

What I wish I had packed
The filter cap to my Aeropress: critical mistake that was realized early on.
My road bike: Definitely not a practical choice with the size of my car and the companions on my trip, but there are so many incredible bike routes out west. I would love to go back and bike through the Tetons into Jackson WY, for example.
More downloaded music: I relied on Google Play music for much of the trip, which didn’t hold up in a lot of areas because of lack of data service. I would have created more playlists and cached them on my phone beforehand. And I would have made them LONG – 12 hours of music might sound like a lot, but it can go by pretty quickly…

 

 

 

Road Trip: Shenandoah NP to Boston, MA

I had to include a trip on Skyline Drive through Shenandoah on my route back. I visited once on a backpacking trip with the Brown Outing Club 3 years ago and couldn’t wait to see it again. I came to the Southern entrance in the early morning and drove North, stopping for a few short hikes, including one down to the Rapidan Camp, president Hoover’s summertime retreat. Apparently he loved to fly fish in the river here!

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Skyline drive is a winding mountain road through the entirety of Shenandoah. There are lookouts with views of mountains and the valley below and plenty of places to stop and have a picnic. It’s a great road to drive slowly (because of what you’re seeing out the window) and fast (because it’s windy, hilly and feels like a rollercoaster through the mountains).

After Shenandoah I drove to the Pinchot trail system in Eastern PA to spend the night in the backcountry. This was my last night camping on the trip, and it ended up being kind of a pain. I didn’t have much food left and settled for an average-tasting chickpea stew dinner (seen here cooking away on the pocket rocket after dark).

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It started raining soon after, and I crawled into my hammock for a wet and chilly night where I didn’t sleep much. I remember thinking that I was glad to be heading back to civilization soon – 10 days of being on the road and in the woods alone had taken their toll, and I was looking forward to some comfortable accommodations and good company. Luckily, that was right ahead.

I left PA the next morning and drove through New Haven CT, where my friend Gordon recently started working. We grabbed lunch (mmm turkey and bacon!) and caught up about Life Since Brown. After that, I headed to Boston for a night and back home to Cape Cod!

One final post will sum up my thoughts on this trip overall.

Route traveled:

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Road Trip: Nashville to Atlanta

Next stop: Nashville. The city of Country Music and BBQ was alive to welcome me when I arrived in the early afternoon.

I tried to stop at the famous Cafe Loveless for lunch, but they had over an hour wait! I ended up getting my BBQ fix at Peg Leg Porker. Pulled pork, smoked green beans and bacon mac & cheese. Just what the doctor ordered.

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I toured around downtown and Broadway street for a few hours, hopping in and out of bars to catch some music. It was early afternoon on a week day and the parties had already started! Every bar shad a live country singer or band. The artists were talented and obviously trying to make it among the huge competition in Nashville.

On the road again and I was headed to Atlanta, GA to stay with my cousin Lindsay for the night. She was doing her post-doc at Emory University and I was excited to see her and catch up on family gossip. The highlight of the stay was definitely brunch at The Flying Biscuit Cafe. We shared oatmeal pancakes with warm peach jam, incredibly cheesy grits, eggs, sausage and biscuits, and left feeling like we had eaten a meal enough for 4! Definitely recommend anyone in Atlanta check out that spot, but be prepared to wait for a table on a busy morning!

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Lindsay and I did some grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s and parted ways. I only had a 7 hour drive until my destination for the night: a dispersed camping area in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, at the Jennings Creek area. Once again, I was able to stay for free on Federal Land, leave no trace and leave in peace.

Road Trip: Utah, Dever, Missouri

The next stop on the trip was Denver, Colorado. Colorado has been calling to me for a while now, so I was excited to have the chance to visit. The drive from Utah had some great scenery and kept me awake: stratified rock formations gradually turned into mountains, and I eventually drove through the continental divide on I-70 (that’s a LONG tunnel). I wish I had more time to stay in the West of Colorado and hike the mountains, but that will have to wait until another trip.

I had an Airbnb in the city for the night and quickly showered and cleaned up once I got there. The rest of the day I walked around the city, getting to know the different parts and checking out what the local economy had to offer. At night I toured a few of Denver’s well-known breweries. I ended up making a friend (who was in Denver for a wedding) at Epic Brewing and we tried everything they had to offer.

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I departed Denver the next morning with a slight headache (turns out 24 beers is lot to drink, even when they’re only samples and you’re splitting them!) for one of the longest days of driving on the trip. It was around 13 hours driving time to the Mark Twain National Forest in Southern Missouri where I planned to spend the night. I-70 seemed to stretch endlessly off into the horizon in Kansas, with only occasional roadwork to break up the monotony. I listened to audiobooks, ran through playlists of music, called friends and family and sang to myself – anything to pass the time.

I arrived at the National Forest before midnight and found the campground I was looking for on a map at the entrance. Quick dinner, pitched the hammock, and I was asleep before I knew it. It was muggy, though, and rained heavily through the night so I didn’t rest much. On the way out the next morning, the road had flooded over. I was a bit nervous about crossing in the Saab, but didn’t really have a choice. I drove through quickly and was on the way to Nashville.

In Missouri I realized how much appreciated the US Forestry Service. Not even for the National Parks or more established parts. There are many little-known National Forests in corners of country that are completely free to access and available for anyone with a desire to get outside. In most of them you can camp at an established site for a small fee, or do dispersed camping – basically backcountry – for free. That’s the power of public land: it’s there for everyone to use. I was very satisfied at how simply and inexpensively I could live on this part of the trip, all thanks to the USFS.

Fried Chicken Stops: 1
Radio stations flipped through: too many to count.
Route traveled:

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Road Trip: Southern Utah

After a long, hot day of driving (high temperature of 114˚F!), I made it to the dessert outside of Zion NP. My plan for the night was to pitch a tent on some federal land outside of the park, where I could get away from the lights of the town nearby and camp for free.

It’s not well known, but you can camp on any undeveloped land administered by the Bureau of Land Management for free and without a permit. Simply follow their rules, don’t overstay your welcome and leave no trace. With that in mind, I found this (PDF) map of the are around Zion. With the help of GPS on my smartphone, I was able to locate a place to park along Kolob Terrace road, packed up my bag, and hiked off into the desert.

About a quarter mile from the road I set my gear down for the night. The ground was still warm from the afternoon sun and I was able to sleep out, cowboy style. I fell asleep to the most amazing starscape I’ve ever seen – there were no big sources of light for miles and the sky was completely clear. That was a night to remember. I was struck by the simplicity of it all: I was alone in the desert. Nobody knew where I was, and nobody would know come morning. I hadn’t paid for a campground or a hotel room, yet I had one of the most memorable nights on my trip. I felt like a cowboy, a pioneer, an explorer, you name it. Content, alone and at peace.

I then drove into Zion where I spent the morning. I did a few short day hikes, including the trail to the mouth of the narrows:

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(yes, I did resort to taking selfies for this part of the trip)

In the afternoon I drove to Bryce Canyon. It’s about 2 hours of switchbacks with great views and one long tunnel. In Bryce, I did a day hike of the peek-a-boo loop and then trekked down into the canyon to spend a night in the backcountry. I camped in a valley that was surprisingly forested with plenty of trees to set up a hammock.

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I had one last brew from Deschutes to finish!

I had one last brew from Deschutes to finish!

The next morning I hiked out among the Hoodoos and was on the road again…

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Road Trip: Turning back east

Lizzy left from LAX, and I’m on my own for the next week and a half until I get back to the East Coast.

Just my luck, because soon after leaving California, the Saab broke down! I was stuck on the side of the road in the 110˚ degree heat with a car that would not start.

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A bit of backstory: Saab cars have had a direct ignition module (that sits on top of the spark plugs and replaces the distributor in traditional ignition systems) since the 1980’s. The DI system increases efficiency and is supposed to work better with turbocharged cars. All good things, except for when they fail! The DI module had already failed on this car once before, so I was prepared…

I pulled the spare DI out of my trunk (drive a Saab long enough, and you’ll always have one of those in the boot), undid the 4 torx screws and swapped it out. It started right up without issue! The spare thew a check engine light (it was loaned from a friend and not 100% functional, I ended up getting a brand new part in Denver), but I tightened the bolts and was on my way soon enough. Total time for repair: 10 minutes.

My next major stops were Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Southern Utah. I was excited to get back out in the wilderness after spending several days in California cities.