BioVision 2013: My Unprofessional View of a Professional Forum

“Some moments are nice,
Some are nicer
                                   Some are even worth writing about”   Charles Bukowski
BioVison 2013 was definitely an event and memory worth writing about. Ever since I attended my first international conference to present my MSc research in 2008, I have become a conference addict and now I can boast of attendance at dozens and dozens of national and international conferences. I love conferencing not only for the obvious professional and networking benefits, but also for the sheer thrill of traveling and meeting people of different origins and cultures.
I was not a very social person, but conferences over the years have helped me to overcome my xenophobia and every time I go to one, I meet and talk to more people than I have done before.  Just the week before the BioVision 2013, I was in Cambridge, UK for the Fourteenth Student Conference on Conservation Sciences. I noticed that I amassed a staggering twelve business cards in Lyon compared to only five in Cambridge.Cambridge and Lyon 2013 182
Speaking of business cards, here is how most people in conferences meet. You are sipping your coffee or tea during the break sessions and you see the person who just talked in the last session. Either you have been looking for them or you suddenly bumped in to them, and out of politeness you say, ‘nice talk or I loved your talk’. Then they noticeably get flattered, and ask you where you are from and what you do or study. After you tell them your work or study, as if everything is interesting to everyone, most people would respond, “Oh, that’s interesting”. Nah! I do not think gynecology is interesting, or is it? Anyway, if you really liked the talk, then  this person is professionally worth connecting to. So you will say, “ I am doing this and that and I would love to read more about your work, or ask you a question in the future’, there you go, you get the card. But, are cards worth risking ballooning your wallet? I bet they are. Having collection of cards at your desk does not only make you look professional, but the connections usually yield a physical result. My PhD research fund is a result of such connections I made at a conference.
The gathering at BioVision 2013 was so diverse in professions and nations that every other person you meet was someone else. Even I, a self-declared x-introvert, met a range of people including; a retired American Psychologist, a French politician, a professional photographer from Africa, a PhD student in Lyon, who happens to be from my university back home and many other people in between. I even met people from countries which you would think exist only in world country lists: ever heard of a Trinidad and Tobagonian? , a Mauritian?
To be honest, even if all the sessions in my focus were amazing, lunch sessions were my favorite, not only because the food was good, but because it is at lunch time that I get to observe unprofessionally. Like in many other conferences, in BioVision 2013, there were three types of people at lunch. There were those who get together to talk and network while eating, there were those who get together to devour food, and there were people like me, who eat alone and observe. So,  while people talk about the last session, I start looking at how that woman holds the fork, how that guy takes his suit seriously and acts as if it is his cloth, not him who is attending the conference, and how beautiful the waitresses are. Over there, this practicing Muslim guy is finding it hard to find food that is not ‘Haram’, while I am finding it difficult not to pick from all the food in offer.
Being able to make such ‘unprofessional’ observations is what gives me comfort in my inability to easily meet strangers. But, truth be told, I wish I were as confident and as easygoing as my proudly African TED fellow friend-Dr. Boghuma Titanji, as professionally organized and effective as my Chinese friend Lei Wang, and as cheering and lighthearted as the French BioVision staff Hélène, and as flexible as the talented dancer Adoligabe Camus, and many other BioVision Next Fellows who obviously were having a lot of fun.  I hope to make myself more of a conference person in a coming conference I am attending at Nairobi in July.
One of my unprofessional observations was rather delightful. Being from a non-Arab country, but close to the Arab gulf, I had the usual preconceived stereotype of Arab women as always oppressed uneducated and unable to stand for themselves. But I gave up that perception the time I met Joanna FaresAbeer Ahmad and Abou Zeinab Noura, three young female doctors who talked about their fields of studies with deep passion and professional eloquence. Meeting them reaffirmed to me that there indeed is a lot ‘they’ don’t tell us about our Arab neighbors.
The coffee sessions were the best conferencing ideas I have seen so far. During those sessions, I have learned about what really is important in professional and business life of a young PhD. On stage, the people we met appear very rigidly professional and talk of their sciences seriously, but when they speak personally at the coffee sessions, their tone and message was different. All of the ones I met indicated that PhD and Post Doc certificates are good, but are not the most important things. Do you believe that my most important take-home message of BioVision 2013 was ‘PhD’s don’t really matter’? Most of the people I met had a job either totally unrelated or remotely related to what they were trained to do. So what does really matter in professional and business success? A lot of advice have been given, but these are the key words I noticed: Love, Passion, Networking, Teamwork, Observing trends, Clear vision, Open mindedness and Commitment. Well I found these satisfyingly relevant, and I am seriously warning myself to network more and not be a distant observer at lunch time any more.
This is my final unprofessional observation. If you are from a developing country (Asia, Latin America or Africa), then this will not be new to you, but if you are not,  here it is;  In many conferences, especially in BioVision 2013, you are now and again asked the question ‘where are you from and what are you studying? You tell them your field of study, and if you are studying somewhere in Europe or in the US, then an immediate question pops up – ‘are you planning to return back to your country after finishing?’ This question is expected, as many PhD’s from poor countries prefer to work as PhD-Janitors in  Europe or in the US, than return back home. However, to assume that every African or Asian will do the same, is plain annoying and impolite. So, if you have not met me in person, I am Mulubrhan Balehegn Gebremikael, from Ethiopia, a PhD student in Norway, and yes, I cannot wait to return back to my sunny and beautiful country, but will always try to attend every round of BioVision.

Author: African Academic/Researcher

Science and Research by Africans for Africa

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