Traveling to the joint Indo-US X-ray crystallography conference in Mumbai
I traveled to Mumbai, India, for the first time to attend the joint Indo-US X-ray crystallography conference. This is the third blog in a series about the trip.
In this installment: Opening Ceremonies, Hang-ups with Presentations (Mine), the Guesthouse, and Great Food
I will describe the room in the guesthouse later, and I’ll post some pictures so that you know what I’m talking about. But, again, picture an old movie about British India. I was up early because of the time change, but someone rang the doorbell about 6:30 am for “bed tea.” I didn’t have any because I was already drinking the coffee that I brought, and I found out later that it was a good choice on my part. Now, I’ve been to England several times, and I love the tea there, so I thought the tea would be the same here. No. The tea here is a mixture of tea (some), milk (very hot / boiled) and lots of sugar. I found out last night that there are some regions of India where water is a problem (either getting it altogether, or getting it clean), but getting milk is not an issue. So, the milk is boiled, a little tea is added, and the mixture is sweetened with sugar.
The conference center is quite nice. A new building with a 400-seat auditorium that contains two screens for viewing. There are about 200 people at the conference, most from India, but I’d guess that there are about 50-75 folks from the US, including Indian natives who live in the US. First, we had breakfast and coffee/tea during the registration. Imagine the tea that I described above, but with coffee. Actually, the coffee is quite good. It reminds me of Vietnamese coffee available in the US, but a bit sweeter.
The Indians are very, very good at pomp and circumstance and they are excellent hosts. There was a symbol on the conference center hallway for the Indo/US crystallography conference. The thing looks like a henna tattoo, but made of sand. The colors are so vibrant.
The opening ceremony included the Indian minister of science. There were a few speeches, then a torch-lighting ceremony, where several wicks were placed in a golden figure/statue/elaborate bowl (if I could get on line I’d look up the significance of the ceremony). This all lasted about an hour, and since we started late due to AV problems, we were now about 45 minutes behind schedule. I think that the organizers are learning how to do something on this scale, and I’m not sure they had a lot of secretarial help – mostly students. Anyway, that meant that my talk was bumped to the afternoon, just after lunch.
For some reason, I get stressed thinking about the timing of my lectures, even after doing this for twenty years. If I’m given 25 minutes, then I want to end on 25 minutes, not 20 or 30. Partly it’s because I’ve been to many conferences where the talks run late, and it gives the impression that the speaker isn’t being mindful of the host or audience because they haven’t spent much time preparing. In reality, I think it’s because we all have a story that we want to tell, and it’s hard to do in 25 minutes because the data are so complicated. Anyway, the timing issue really stresses me out. I’m learning that each research story (ie the talk) has a shelf life of ~2-3 years, where I add new data to the story as we collect more data. Then at some point the story is “old news” and I start over with a new story as the research evolves. This is a new story at the beginning of the cycle, so I have to figure out how to make these beginning talks exciting. There’s plenty of good stuff to talk about, but I need to figure out how to do it with the time allotted. Anyway, enough about the mechanics of the talk – it’s just something I need to work on, and I’m hypercritical of my performances.
I saw my former student Kakoli at registration yesterday morning. She and her daughter live in an apartment close to her institute (ACTREC – a cancer research center), which, I believe, is northeast of Mumbai. She’s been at ACTREC for ~3 years, so she’s still getting her lab started, students trained, etc. It’s interesting to hear her talk about research in India.
The Indian government has a state agency, like NIH or NSF in the US, that funds research, but they have a broad, country-wide view of hiring scientists. I believe that strategy is due in part to the fact that they seem to be just getting started – it takes decades to get the warm bodies and instruments in place. So they seem to hire crystallographers, for example, for targeted areas of the country. When Kakoli wants to do experiments using an analytical ultracentrifuge, she has to travel from Mumbai to Kolkata (on the east coast, about 3 hour flight). But, she first has to travel to a lab near the AUC instrument (~25 minutes by car) to centrifuge/clean her protein samples, then drive back to the AUC lab to set up the run. I need to describe this to my students.
Ordering is also a problem since there appears to be several layers of bureaucracy, contracts, etc. Overall, it seems to slow down the research. But, there are some very good scientists here, and many of the “local” speakers have pointed out the history of science in India, so that has been very interesting. Most of the scientists (past and present) have trained elsewhere (US, England, Europe) then returned to India to set up research labs. It’s nice to see the pride in their country. I think that it’s important to maintain a relationship with the international students trained in the US, help them mature as scientists and help them establish collaborations that they need. Since the scientific world is so small (I mean, really, I’m in India after 1 day of travel!) we need to think of building the world-wide community rather that a US-centric view. This should be apolitical in the sense that the government only needs to provide seed money and research funds.
This gets through most of Day 1. Read on if you’re interested in descriptions of the Guesthouse and Dinner Banquet on the first night.
Otherwise look for the next installment – WiFi is a closely guarded secret!
The building is square with an open area in the center and the rooms off to the sides around a balcony. There’s not much on the ground floor except the reception desk, although the room is very large. It’s very different than a US hotel in that there’s no TV or other display. Information is posted on a pin-board.
The room has a switch outside, about six feet up the wall, that the “bed tea” guy uses in the morning. The key is an old-fashioned style that has a round handle, is long and thin, and a section on the end that hangs down. It’s like a key used for an old trunk. As I
walked in the first time, I was struck by the smell of moth balls. The room has a switch on the wall to fit the key, and this turns on the electricity for the room. This is common in Europe and, I guess, prevents the guests from wasting electricity. Anyway, the room has a hallway with a wardrobe, a bathroom off to the right, and a large area that contains two single beds, a desk, and a couple of sitting chairs. The moth balls were in the wardrobe, so I made sure the doors are closed. I won’t put my clothes in there, so they will just have to stay wrinkled in the suitcase. Also, there is a plug-in air freshener, which I turned off. So the mixture of odors was not pleasant. I later found out that the air freshener is actually a mosquito repellant, but I haven’t had any trouble with mosquitos, so I’ve left it off. Also, each bed has a mosquito net, but I haven’t used it.
Luckily the weather is here is fantastic. Mid 80’s or so during the day and low in the 70’s at night. The room has a ceiling fan and an air conditioner. I haven’t figured out how to get the air conditioner to work, so luckily it hasn’t been hot at night. The electrical switch is weird and looks like a fuse of some type. I’ve tried every permutation possible, but I can’t get the air conditioner to turn on.
There are also a couple of bed lamps connected to the wall, and they don’t work either. Every outlet appears to have a switch that must be turned on for the outlet. Again, I’ve tried every permutation, which isn’t a lot since the switch is either on or off, but I think the switches don’t work. They seem to be add-ons because the wall wasn’t repaired when old lamps were removed.
When I first walked into the room I noticed that the bathroom door was shut and bolted. The “lock” on the door is a bolt on both sides. I can understand why one would bolt the door while in the bathroom, but I don’t understand why I would bolt the door inside the room. The shower is like a large shower room, with a large tile shower, not in a tub. There is a fan in the window, and I can only guess that the door is bolted inside the room for security. Next to the toilet is a small spigot and a plastic container. I’m guessing that this is used as a low-tech bidet, but I don’t know. I’m puzzled about the 5-gallon bucket in the shower, though. I don’t know what to do with that, so I shoved it into a corner.
Dinner banquet – night one:
The dinner banquet was set up outside since the weather is so nice. The caterers, if that’s what they’re called, set up a fence on a dirt field, along with tables and chairs. I can’t do justice in describing the food, and unfortunately I didn’t get pictures. It was stunningly beautiful. I’ve been to many conference banquets, but I’ve never been to one like this. To me it looked like a luau but without the beach. There were long rows of tables that contained various dishes, either veggie or meat, rice, pasta, and many others. In some stations, the “chef” would assemble the dish while you wait. As we were waiting to eat, waiters came around with soft drinks and juice. The term “soft drink” is used here to distinguish from “hard drink,” or with alcohol. The juice was fresh squeezed from watermelon or pineapple, so it was very good. I don’t know what the soft drink was, but it reminded me of a Nehi soda – either orange or yellow. The dessert was a frozen yogurt (I think) with small gummy-bear-like candies on top and some type of sauce. Also, there were fried doughs (like at the state fair, but very small) with some type of sauce. The names don’t make sense to me, so I can’t put a name to any of the items. Luckily Kakoli is here to tell me what things are. Overall, the food was fantastic.
As an aside, I’d like to say a word about hygiene. Please note that I don’t mean these comments to be negative in any way, and please also remember that I report this through the lens of someone who grew up in south Georgia in a town of 200 people. I can see why diseases might spread here. The waiters and other staff were clearly not trained in the food services. The were given a task, such as “take this tray of water bottles around and distribute to whomever wants one.” Or, “go pick up the empty glasses.” Many times they would ask for your glass as you were finishing the last of the liquid. Also, the staff wore “white” shirts, but most of the shirts hadn’t seen a washer in a long, long time. At one point a waiter brought a couple of dishes to the table, and Kakoli asked for forks for everyone, since they weren’t apparent. He said that he did have forks and proceeded to pull them out of his pocket. Also, there were spoons in a basket near the dessert table. Occasionally the dessert maker would pull out a spoon and put it on a plate, but there was no consideration of what part of the spoon he touched. I mention this only because I have a phobia about people putting their hands on my food – I won’t eat from snack trays at parties, for example – but I’m guessing the immune systems of the locals are much better than mine.
Coffee and tea at the conference:
Coffee and tea were plentiful at the conference (always a big plus for me), but I got a kick out of how the two were prepared. The coffee/tea is served hot from a pot. Imagine taking a coffee urn (probably holds about 2 gallons) outside and beating the hell out it against the building, and be sure to scratch it with rocks or something sharp. In the mean time, have your buddy boil the water/milk/tea or coffee mixture so that when you are finished interrogating the urn, you can put the hot mixture in it. Stand behind a table, turn on the spigot to the urn and fill small disposable cup (slightly larger than a Dixie cup) with coffee or tea. That’s what it’s like to see the coffee dispensed. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the way it’s done, it’s just different. I would think that India would be more mindful of reusing cups, etc. There are a lot of dispensable cups used for coffee/tea or water. And, if you want a refill, they will throw away your cup and give you a new one. However, they are using plastic plates and real silverware utensils, so I know that at least some of the things are reused.
Also, I’m not entirely certain, but there’s a faint hint of formaldehyde in most of the drinks. I think they may be spiking the water to make sure we don’t get sick. As I said, I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty good at identifying the odors and tastes.
Next Installment: WiFi is a closely guarded secret!