Thursday, 20 September 2012

As it happened - HB2012 Conference in Beijing - Day 4

Today I am really tired. I had to take two naps today just to get through. 

It was the last day of talks for the conference and I woke up at 4.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went to the gym, had breakfast and attended the morning session. Then I had to skip a few talks to finish editing a long paper I had to get done by Friday, and managed a quick lunch before I decided to have the first nap for half an hour. That kept me going until about 4pm until nap number two during a gap until the final discussion session. I’ve never before been so thankful that the conference is in the same hotel as the accommodation!

It was a good day, with some new interesting ideas and questions passed around. The discussion session at the end of the day went on for over two hours (it was scheduled for one), with a few experts dominating the conversation. It was an interesting experience and despite the ‘main players’ taking over it was very valuable – most conferences are so busy you don’t get to have a proper discussion of the new and interesting issues that have been presented. It’s not practical for every conference but for a ‘workshop’ like this of maybe 150 people split into five topical groups, it is very useful.
The final discussion session for my working group. 

I’m too tired to say much more, so instead I’ll tell a story my colleague Chip (of cricket-eating fame) told us at dinner tonight:

At KEK laboratory in Japan the accelerator operators hear an alarm when there is a problem with the accelerator that needs attention. The alarm is there just in case the operators are asleep or don’t notice a flashing signal on the screen. They wanted a way to be able to tell immediately which area of the machine had a problem, so they allocated an animal noise to each section. So one section makes a monkey sound, another a lion, another a snake hiss and so on. He says “on a bad day, it’s like a zoo in the control room!”.

Tomorrow I've been naughty and instead of attending the final summary talks I’ve organised a very exciting day out! But you will have to come and read about it tomorrow…

For now, I will leave you with the lovely latte art of a cat face (we think) from a cafĂ©/restaurant called Lovever Coffee near our hotel. I’m only sad I won’t have time to go back and see what else they can do! 

Coffee from Lovever - great coffee, pricey at £3.20 but good!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

As it happened - HB2012 conference in Beijing - Day 3

It is actually now the morning of Day 4, at 5am. Jet-lag has woken me up an hour earlier than my alarm, so what better way to use it than to write about yesterday? Photos at the bottom!

Day 3 is always the day of the conference that my enthusiasm starts to be challenged a little. We're all in a state of over-tiredness coping with jetlag, long days and going out socialising every night. Seriously, I'm tired! But, the show must go on.

There were some interesting talks today, one of which I missed but at least 3 people told me was very interesting. Darn! It's always bound to happen that I miss something I wish I'd seen, but the best thing is not to be disappointed, read the paper and get on with life!

It got me thinking about how I approach conferences so I thought for today's blog I'd share a few thoughts and tips on how to approach conferences for people new to them or perhaps for people who don't feel they get a lot out of them. So, in no particular order:

  1. Firstly and most importantly, while in the conference venue WEAR the conference badge. If it's not a lanyard one around your neck, make sure you pin it high up on your lapel so when you meet people they can learn your name. It is SO important for people to know who you are. (Yes, just a few years ago I thought they were uncool too and either left it off or wore it at my hip. I have learned my lesson. People don't want to have to visually scan your entire body to find your wayward badge.)
  2. People have different approaches to science. Some love nothing more than a heated argument about the intricacies of mathematics, others (often more senior scientists) can be very stuck-in-their-way with their "views" on certain topics. Don't be personally offended if someone comes up and calls your conclusions crap - it is just their way of doing science & initiating scientific debate. (OK if they are really forceful and you can't cope just politely tell them you respect their opinion and find a diversion!)
  3. Conferences are as much about cultural exchange as about scientific exchange. Try not to get stuck in the conference centre the whole time - or at least try to see some of the place you are in at night time and on weekends. It is important in the international world of science to have a cultural understanding of the people you work with. It can make all the difference to a working relationship.
  4. It's OK not to go to every session!! This is something a lot of new PhD students don't get. They sit through hours of talks they don't understand because they feel they have to. It's healthy to watch some talks on other topics than your own, but sometimes you need some time to assimilate information, look up a paper on a topic you found interesting, catch up on work you absolutely must do from home, sleep or whatever.
  5. Be enthusiastic! Meet people. Take business cards. Make your own business cards if your uni/work won't give you them. Take copies of your proceedings paper or poster to hand out. Tell people about your work. But mostly, be enthusiastic! I thought this went without saying but I have learned it's not true. If you're naturally shy you will have to put on a brave face or ask someone you know well to introduce you to people - this, my friends, is where having social skills in the world of science comes in handy!
  6. Some of the presentations will be awful. As a science communicator & scientist this one is hard for me to cope with. The AV won't work properly, you won't be able to see the bottom of the slide where the speaker has put their main point. The speaker will face the slides instead of the audience and in doing so turn away from the microphone so you can't hear and for some reason no-one will let the speaker know and it will go on for 20 minutes like that. People from other countries will talk through the whole thing (in China it is normal to have a conversation in an opera or ballet, so why not in a talk?). That talk you were really looking forward to will be incomprehensible because the speaker isn't very good at explaining things. At least one speaker will be so nervous they will struggle to talk at all and wave the laser pointer around in such a way that makes you glad for the rules about Class II lasers. There will be people talking outside the room so loudly it makes it hard to hear the talk in the room. All of these things have happened here and if you go to conferences regularly you realise they will happen a lot. Good organisation can only help so much. It always makes me a little bit angry! Try to accept it. Anger will get us nowhere.
  7. Finally, don't overdo it! OK this is me giving myself advice here - I tend to be on the go from about 6am (running, gym) to midnight (socialising) and sometimes you need a night off! (Given I've woken up so early I think tonight will be an early one for me).
Ben, Stephen and Rob enjoying the banquet
Last night was the conference banquet - in a nice restaurant just down the road from our hotel. The food was plentiful and very good and the entertainment was amazing! We experienced what I can only assume is the whole gamut of Chinese entertainment - from a musical trio, a theatrical mask performance, a singer, kung-fu demonstrations, a magician (with a real dove!), acrobatics... I have to congratulate the HB2012 conference organisers - it was amazing how much they had arranged!

The first performance - a chinese musical trio
Well it's now almost time for me to be awake to go for a run. Let's see what Day 4, the last day of talks, has in store.

Bit hard to see - acrobat twirling a big pot!?


As it happened - HB2012 conference in Beijing - Day 2

Warning: if you’re squeamish about eating strange foods, you probably don’t want to read to the end of today’s post…

Where are floors 4, 13 and 14?
One thing I learned today is that the number 4 is unlucky in China. It seems so is the number (Edit: Matt pointed out 3 is there, duh!), 13 and 14 in our hotel as there are a bunch of floors that don't exist in the lift! 

Today the more detailed talks began. This workshop is divided into five different ‘working groups’ which each cover a specific sub-topic. For example the group that my work falls into is ‘beam dynamics in circular accelerators’, as opposed to the group focusing in linear accelerators. They really are quite different!

Laurette Ponce from CERN
There were actually only four short (20-minute) talks in my working group today, but of course I have interests in other areas too – so attended all kinds of talks, some of which I understood and some of which were a little hard to understand as I wasn’t a specialist in them.

Some interesting accelerator facts I learned today:
  • It's very hard to either predict or measure where beam is being lost in an accelerator, but it's super-important to avoid loss as much as possible!
  • The Large Hadron Collider has 4000 beam loss monitors. These are ionisation chambers that detect when some of the beam has been lost to the walls of the accelerator. If ONE of the detects beam, the whole beam is dumped and they have to start again! 
  • In the LHC if the position of the orbit of the beam shifts by the width of a human hair, (50 microns) it can cause beam loss which will trigger this dump system! 
  • Even though the Tevatron has shut down at FermiLab, the demand for protons for their other programs has only increased. They have a 'proton improvement plan' to cope with it.
Me (far left) and colleagues with the portrait of Chairman Mao
The later section of the afternoon was dedicated to working group discussions. This is what separates this 'workshop' from a 'conference' - there is much more interaction and discussion (which, after all, is why we come to these meetings!). 

However, today wasn't my working group so a bunch of colleagues and I decided we'd head into central Beijing to Tiananmen square (yes, there is a second 'n' in the name, who knew?) and do some exploring. Sorry I wasn't looking at the camera when the photo was taken... silly me.

I borrowed a guide book from one of my colleagues earlier in the day and discovered that there was a street called 'Xiaochi Jie Food Street' which sounded intriguing... thankfully the others were keen so after a bit of searching we found it...

From back to front, L to R:
lizards, cocoons, unknown?,
snake, tarantula, large scorpion,
seahorse, small scorpion. 
It was AMAZING! There were all sorts of smells, sights and weird and wonderful foods. There were also hardly any foreigners there and the stall vendors weren't touty or pushy - so it was a great experience.

We tried to ask what everything was and figured out most of it. I'd promised my colleagues we'd find "sparrow on a stick" and to my surprise, we did!

We walked all through the market taking photos and telling each other we'd better just try something safe like steamed buns. But curiosity got the better of me!

My colleague Chip was joking about buying some scorpions so he was mighty surprised when I actually bought some to eat! I'd tried tarantula when I went to Cambodia and had been told scorpions tasted like chicken (!?). 

Sparrow on a stick!
Actually, they tasted more like chicken skin. They were deep fried (fresh) for us and then sprinkled with a little salt. They were mostly just like chips (french fries) - if you ever get the chance, try some! We also had crickets which were also nice, but the wings can get stuck in your teeth a bit. Mmmmm.... nice thought, I know.

Chip really eating some crickets!
Chip pretending he might eat some..
After that we went to the Santlitun area (which we discovered is where all the foreigners hang out, which was a bit disappointing) and had dinner and discovered a local beer called Beijing Beer which was a really nice lager.

The funniest part of the whole of Day 2 was our taxi ride home. At 200 yuan (£20) we knew the price was about double what it should have been,  and I tried to bargain the driver down. But he was so funny in the defence of his price that we just ended up in fits of laughter and went with him. I can't describe how hilarious he was and do him justice, so let's just say he had an opinion on every country that involved squealing loudly and waving his arms around and he liked to pretend he was Michael Schumacher when he drove.

What a day!

Monday, 17 September 2012

As it happened - HB2012 Conference in Beijing - Day 1

People sometimes ask me 'what goes on at a scientific conference?'. I thought I'd take this chance to blog my first trip to China for a workshop* on high brightness and high intensity hadron beams. 

I arrived in Beijing early Sunday morning after a long flight with a rude man sitting next to me taking up way too much elbow room. I couldn't sleep because of him, so it wasn't a good start.

The taxi drive to our hotel was... interesting. The good news? There were seat belts! The bad news? The bit the seatbelt clicks into was missing entirely.

The driver didn't speak any English (which we kind-of expected) and seemingly couldn't understand our specially printed instructions in chinese for which hotel we wanted and where. Eventually he phoned the hotel and we got on our way. He drove the car (which only seemed to have two functional gears) mostly in the middle of two lanes! Thankfully it wasn't too busy, but he didn't seem to understand the concept of driving in one lane. 

It's all part of the experience. 

A quick nap later and my colleagues and I spent the afternoon visiting the Temple of Heaven, some hutongs and Tianamen square. We walked between them and were on our feet for about 6 hours! I was so exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel I only just had the energy to register for the conference and quickly attend the welcome drinks to say hi to a few people. 

Watching a plenary talk
But... this post is about "Day 1" which means Monday! The first day of the conference and we're all fresh with optimism and happy to catch up with old colleagues and acquaintances and excited to find out what's new and happening in our field. 
Old steam boat on canal, Beijing
One of my work friends that I run with (Ben) is also here & we're both recovering from injuries so we went out for a short run early in the morning. Not many people run in China, so many of the walkers and people doing Tai-Chi watched us as we ran past. We found a nice canal near our hotel to run along and even found this old shell of a paddle-boat with some fisherman nearby.

Today was all invited plenary talks - from 8.45am to 4pm. Some of them were very interesting. I decided to tweet some of the key points while it was happening, so below is my twitter review of the talks today!

From 4.30pm-6pm was the poster session, which is where I was presenting my work. I normally don't like poster sessions because in the past they've been at big conferences where many people aren't familiar with the work I'm doing, so I find myself explaining the very basics loads of times over without it being of any use to me!

Today was a different experience though - I actually enjoyed & got a lot out of presenting my poster.

I had long conversations with a number of people, most of whom I already knew but some that I didn't. It was actually very helpful. I have at least one new simulation to try and I now understand my own results better than I did before. I've also built connections with some existing acquaintances (I'd prefer to call them friends, really, but let's be professional!) and I'm feeling encouraged that I will now have more people to discuss ideas with in the future - which will make a big difference.

Tonight I went for dinner in the fancier of the two hotel restaurants with one of my colleagues together with a colleague/expert/guru/pioneer-in-our-field from Japan and two guys we also know who did their PhDs in his research group. My group are hoping to collaborate with this research group on some experiments early next year. We tried all sorts of delicacies from pigs ear (yum!) to jellyfish (not very tasty) and chinese rice wine.

I've had a lovely evening - but now it's 11pm and I've been up since 6am, so better get some rest for tomorrow!
Ben presenting his poster (he was next to me)

Highlights of today (from my twitter feed @suziesheehy) from the Large Hadron Collider beam energy in terms of chocolate to my joy at seeing real experimental data:

*a workshop is meant to be more interactive than a conference). 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Conference season is upon me!

Over the past few weeks I've been working hard preparing a paper and poster for an upcoming workshop (a small conference) in Beijing. The workshop has a hilariously long name, it's called "The 52nd ICFA Advanced Beam Dynamics Workshop in High-Intensity and High-Brightness Hadron Beams"- but those of us in the know just call it "HB" or "HB2012" for this years one. It happens every two years and is the place to discuss accelerators that deal with every intense proton beams - which is really relevant to my current research.

With the hard prep work almost done, I can't wait to visit China for the first time! I'm all ready to go with my flights, visa, and my Wallpaper city guide to the best funky spots to eat and cool places to go. I'm slightly worried I won't have any time to see major sights though - as I'm really flying-in and flying-out, I don't have a spare day at all! I'm hoping to sneak in an afternoon to visit the Great Wall and maybe see some other sights in the evenings.

For the first time on this trip I'm going to try something new - I'm going to write up each day of the conference as I experience it here on my blog - from interesting new developments, people I meet and if you're lucky some of the crazy food we get to eat.

I'm hoping it might serve as a glimpse into the world of "what scientists do" as well as a place for me to keep track of interesting new research directions in the field. If it goes well, I'll blog my trip to Japan in November as well.

I arrive in China on Sunday - so watch this space!