Tag Archives: academics

Traveling and Conferences: When Bacteria Has a Party

In my first post for The Mind Hears, I want to tell you a little about my background, then outline some strategies that I’ve found successful for traveling and attending conferences.

I have been a regular at my ENT’s (ear, nose, and throat doctor) office since I was young, getting new tubes, replacement tubes, removing cholesteatomas, and repairing perforated ear drums. On a good day, I have about 50% of normal range of hearing—less if I have sinus or ear infections. Because I had my right ear completely reconstructed, I am unable to use any hearing aids effectively. Due to my upbringing in a impoverished rural town, I didn’t have access to speech therapy or options to learn American Sign Language. My loss of hearing wasn’t pronounced as an official disability, so I moved through most of my life trying to find creative ways to be successful at school or professionally. Now I wish I had spoken up more, but the aforementioned lack of resources and accommodations made it difficult.

Traveling is a necessity for (geo)scientists, from fieldwork, attending conferences, or networking with the scientific community. The quickest mode of transportation is air travel with changing pressure and humidity which apparently has a big impact on my sinus system. I remember attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco as an undergraduate in 2006, overwhelmed by the size of the conference and harder of hearing than usual. I thought I happened to catch a cold and tried to communicate my fellow scientists in loud poster sessions. I repeated this trip a few more times in graduate school and sure enough, the bacteria in my sinuses decided to have a party that moved to my ears. We all have flora in systems, mine just like to come unannounced and frequently. Later in graduate school, I traveled to Italy for fieldwork and I found myself with (surprise!) a sinus infection. It was not fun being in a foreign country and being unable to communicate at all in the local language; in addition, the infections made communicating effectively with my own team difficult. Nevertheless, I powered through these situations.

circe quote

Because of my experiences, I’ve found myself being more vocal about my needs; I’ve realized that I’m my best advocate. Here are some strategies that have helped me.

Medical help: I have built a great relationship with my ENT and we’ve developed a system for traveling which helps prevent weeks of sinus congestion and nearly complete deafness. I travel for my job too often to make visits to the ENT feasible prior to every trip; but occasional visits a few times a year help. Please note, this is my personal plan; please consult your physician. I take steroidal prednisone and prescription-strength Sudafed right before a flight—this medication regime means I have a better chance of flying with limited, or even better, no sinus impacts. One downside to the medications, however, is that I’m sensitive to the steroid; I feel amped and often can’t sleep that first night if there are significant time zone changes—west coast to east coast in particular. This is not a minor downside; my reaction can make important meetings stressful. But the benefits far outweigh the cons. Since I’ve become a chronic sinus infection patient, normal antibiotics on existing infections don’t work. Proactively heading off infections is my preference, since if I’m at a conference or meeting, I cannot wait the two weeks for the medications to work. Waiting would mean that I’d miss conferences with breakthrough discoveries and vital conversations. I don’t love that I have to depend on medication and the side effects, but it helps me to be an active participant in conferences rather than a passive observer.

Communication tips:

  • Live-captioning platforms and apps are improving, and more conferences are starting to use them for conferences and poster sessions.
  • Teleconferencing:
    • An example is InnoCaption, an app for both Android and iPhone that can be used for teleconferencing meetings. A federally administered fund pays for it, and you must register, as it enables a live stenographer to generate captions. It requires a 4G network or reliable Wi-Fi.
    • Another approach is using smarter work phones that can use programs such as CapTel to do live captioning. These are phones such as the Cisco (model 8861) that does live captions during video. There are also applications such as Jabber that enable you to transfer captions to a computer screen for smart accessibility.
  • Traveling to foreign countries: Google Translate now has several offline dictionaries! Five years ago if you didn’t have Wi-Fi or data, you didn’t have Google Translate. But I recently used Google Translate successfully for Spanish! Google Translate is simple to use by talking into your smartphone—you can get good translations to or from English.

Conferences:

  • I find it helpful to I sit up front in conference rooms both to hear better and be seen.
  • If I didn’t quite catch the presentation, I ask the speakers for business cards to get a copy of presentations or posters.
  • Depend on the conference moderators: Another technique to anticipate impaired hearing depends on the conference size and style. I’ve asked moderators in advance (via email) to repeat questions from the audience if I’m a speaker. This helps to ensure I understand the question and help with accents. I’ve had mixed results—often there is no moderator to contact directly; it means I have to track down that individual in person before the session, which is a lot of work.
  • Normalize captions: The best way to normalize is to use Google Slides or captioned presentations for everyone all the time!

What tricks and tips do you use for communicating?

circeBIO: Circe Verba, PhD, is a research geologist, science communicator, and STEMinst at a government lab. She earned her doctorate in geology and civil engineering at the University of Oregon. Dr. Verba specializes in using advanced microscopy (petrography and electron microscopy) and microanalysis techniques to tackle challenges facing the safe and efficient use of fossil energy resources. Outside of the lab, Dr. Verba is an avid LEGO buff, even designing her own set featuring field geology and a petrographic laboratory.