Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Arbeitskreistreffen Wirbeltierpaläontologie (In case you forgot I was in Germany, those words should remind you)

Wow. I have a lot of catching up to do. As I’ve commented before, my productivity on this blog is inversely proportional to the amount of interesting things I have going on, and the last month or so has been decidedly interesting. It has also been far from routine. When there’s no routine, no rhythm of waking, eating, sleeping, and working, events that passed a few weeks ago can feel like a distant age now fondly remembered in yellowed pictures and dusty souvenirs. So, without further introduction, let me begin the process of getting you caught up:

After returning from the Iberian Peninsula, the final faint hints of chorizo lingering on my lips (and burps), I threw myself into paleontology. I had (and have) the mysteries of a 150 million year dead ecosystem to work out, and time is swiftly evaporating. I also needed to organize a poster for a conference I would be attending at the end of the week.

Every year, the vertebrate paleontologists of Germany (that is, the people who study fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals) gather for a weekend conference. Traditionally this was a cozy gathering of erudite sages who kicked around ideas over a few brews (really the most productive kind of science). They called themselves the "Arbeitskreistreffen Wirbeltierpaläontologie" or "Vertebrate Paleontology work group meeting" (I prefer the German for sheer German-ness. You would never get away with compound words like that in any other language). Naturally their graduate students wanted to eves drop, so the event grew into an annual meeting of roughly a hundred people who gather to present talks and posters loosely based on an agreed topic, in this case functional morphology. The topic really isn’t important, but the language barrier is.

As I said, it is a meeting of German paleontologists, so, while English may be the language of international science, everyone at the conference presented in German. When I first signed up for the conference I wasn’t terribly worried about this provision. The most expansive corners of my vocabulary (Wortschatz or “Word Treasure”) concern German words for obscure animals and anatomy. I was doing pretty well, cobbling together the main ideas of the presentations through a combination of translation, hand gestures, and Powerpoint slides. Then one of the patriarchs of the field stood up and took up a position near a large pad of paper and an easel. He proceeded to lecture for 45 minutes on “Functional Morphological Theory” that is, how physics and biology relate to each other. I was sent adrift in a Germanic haze of technical terminology and ambiguous arm waving. Occasionally a cryptic diagram of circles and lines would grace the page and I would perk up, then drift into a mildly interested haze once again.

Fortunately I was not alone in my experience. Vincent, the French post-doc who shares my lab space, was equally befuddled by the constant German input. He grasps more than I, but after four hours of lectures translation just becomes exhausting. It was good to know I wasn’t alone and we bonded over trying to piece together the finer points we were clearly missing.

The venue for the conference was particularly interesting: a Catholic seminary. I often remark on the convivial relationship science and religion should and do share. Here was proof. As we discussed the finer points of fish hauling themselves from the mud onto the shore, a crucifix loomed over the proceedings and a mural of the acts of the apostles provided a diversion for those of us lost or bored in the lectures.

The one of the lecture halls. Note the crucifix on the left and the fetching lighting design.

We slept at the seminary, situated just outside of Cologne, and ate our meals with an older crowd that also seemed to be attending a conference. The meal were covered in our hefty registration fee, but there was general grumbling in the ranks when we discovered we had to cover our own beverages. This situation would over correct itself in a few short days when I went to the Fulbright conference in Berlin.

The day chapel in the middle of the courtyard. I wish I had time to ponder deeply because this garden and chapel offered the perfect venue.

Ultimately the conference was enjoyable as I got to know the other Bonn graduate students and Vincent at the bar in the basement. I also attempted to meet other German graduate students, but was generally unsuccessful. The Germans have a reputation for being a stand-offish people and they are. At several meals I sat near other students who ate in silence or talked in hushed voices with each other. I asked for salt and butter in German, an effort to demonstrate I could employ small talk in two language and they need not fear the foreigner. But in these cases I would received my sought item and would be ignored. Thus I would turn to Vincent.

My poster was read by just about everyone in attendance as it hung alongside other posters in the coffee break space. It just wasn’t clear when or if I was supposed to stand near it in case anyone wanted to discuss mammal elbows and the dinosaur’s extinction. I was hoping for an opportunity to oral present my work, but was told you needed a PhD for the honor. I understand and will cherish the letters all the more when I am dubbed “Herr Professor Doctor Borths.” It has such a melodic ring.

My poster was similar to the stuff I presented at SVP last October, though with a new idea about the humerus. As you will not mine (on the left) is the only poster horizontally oriented. Apparently vertical is the norm 'round these parts. I didn't know that and had to play the ugly American who needed to rig up an extension to the space I was provided. Now you know so you don't make the same mistake.

A wonderfully ironic twist came when Vincent stood to present his work. Because he is not confident in his German, he elected to present in English. Another French post-doc followed suit. Two American professors working in Germany on Humbolt Fellowships also presented, but both did so in German. This means the French were the only people in attendance who used English. And thus Henry V, J.R.R. Tolkien and Admiral Nelson did grin.

After learning about dinosaur paces, horse teeth, and fish vertebrae, I scurried out of the conference, toting my rucksack and a ticket for Berlin. After brief confusion in on the suburban streets of Cologne, I found my station and idly chatted with a fellow attendee who was making a break for it before the professors noticed a lowly graduate student was missing. It was time to enjoy the “highpoint of the Fulbright year” at the annual European Fulbright Conference in the German capital. I prayed this conference would offer a cheaper beverage service and pee breaks. I wouldn’t be disappointed….


Michael said...

I wouldn't beat myself too much over not getting through the old professor's lecture. Sometimes, a poorly done presentation (not to implicate that easel boards are an inadequate media) is poor no matter what language it is.

Charity said...

I too have noticed the lack of sufficient 'pee breaks' at German conferences. Thankfully all of the conferences I have attended thus far have been in English (one conference had a lecture in German though). I always leave the conference feeling completely exhausted....Who knew that sitting on a chair all day could wear you out so much.