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  • Writer's pictureJuniper

Conferences and pot noodles

Attending conferences at Hilton Resorts and Hyatt Regency with a student budget? The secret: share beds, flats and ask for help. A few weeks ago I was notified that I got a travel grant ($500) to attend the Plant Science Symposium at the University of Minnesota from 27 March and at first I got super excited and replied right away that 'I am in'.

Later, I started calculating how much the flights and accommodations will be and started scratching my head. It kept adding up to $1,000 in total for 6 day trip. As an undergraduate student in the UK, universities do not directly fund any student trips and travel grants from different societies are for trips after April.

With a heavy heart, I emailed the organisers that I just cannot afford it, could I present over a webcam/send a poster at least... They replied ever so kindly that they can send out an email to the graduate students over the weekend to see if anyone could put me up for a few nights. By Monday, I was put in touch with plant science graduate students and talking about an upcoming 'plant enthusiasts' party after the symposium!

So, now I have my plane tickets and in three weeks, I will be crossing over the pond!

But this is due to luck. And asking for help.

In a recent Science article, the conference reimbursement system was called out. Paying up front all the travels, accommodations and registration fees might be 'OK' for professors but for a student, especially for an undergrad, makes attending conferences close to impossible.

My first American conference the Tri-Societies' AGM in Phoenix in 2016. I was awarded the Golden Opportunities Scholarship which covered the expenses of the conference and four days of field trips. However, once again, I contacted the organisers that there is no way that I can pay upfront all the costs.

They offered to make an exception and reimburse my plane tickets before the conference and they booked accommodation for my at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, paid for all the field trips and said that I will be reimbursed for all extra costs after the conference. It was a generous offer and made my trip possible.

But. I set off to America with my backpack and £60 on my bank account. To say that I felt out of place arriving at the Hyatt is an understatement! I am usually a hostel/Airbnb person. While everyone was going out to restaurants, I was piling up food from the conference for dinner. It turned out that my last night was not paid for by the organisers and I did not have enough money for a hotel or to get to the airport.

Luckily, I met three inspirational PhD students from Purdue during the pre-conference field trip. They offered me to share a bed on my last night and they took me to the airport. Funnily enough, my backpack did not make the connection in Atlanta and I arrived to London in a dress and sandals at the end of November. One of my dear classmates bought my return coach ticket to Cambridge. My bank account was on £0.00 for another week until I received my salary.

Without the kind help and support of many people, once again, I would not have been able to make it to this conference. At this meeting, I met professors who recommended me to apply to ASPB Conviron Scholar programme that potentially led to my current job as Social Media Intern! I also had the opportunity to meet Dennis Dimmick, Executive Editor of National Geographics who gave me tips to re-design GOES magazine. I also met the motivational Prof David Weindorf from Texas Tech Uni whom I hosted at my university the following February.

Then over a year ago, I emailed the Phenome Conference conference organisers in the fall that 'I am a poor student', would happy to help with the conference if there is any fee reduction possible and how much I love phenotyping. I was incredibly lucky to receive the Phenome Travel Award in January to present at the conference in Tucson, AZ at the El Conquistador Hilton Resort in February 2018. Yes. Hilton Resort.

In this case, the organisers covered the accommodation and registrations fees and we received a check at the conference for extra costs. Factoring in that only the transport to and from Tucson to the hotel was $140, my train tickets £70 and the last minute flights, I was again on a tight budget. Looking over the the mountains, swimming pools, listening to live music in the evening, I enjoyed the pot noodle dinners.

At this conference, I had the chance to meet the ASPB community, people I ended up working with and meeting scientists whose publications I have been relying on for my undergraduate research project. Being the only undergraduate student at the conference, I was pumped up to give my 5-minute lighting talk and get everyone's feedback on my poster. I will never forget directors, professors and postgrads coming up to me and saying 'keep doing what you're doing'. On the last night of the Phenome conference, all the 'shop talk' finished and we just danced.

While none of my current classmates are applying for PhDs and even less of them like the idea of ending up in academia - having been to these conferences and meeting kind, supportive, tough and motivational scientists, I have always wanted to be part of this scientific community.

While Purdue University gives uni bank cards to PhD students, solving many issues, undergraduate students have fewer options and help.

Something to keep in mind while organising conferences, sending students to conferences or commenting on the lack of undergraduate students at conferences.

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