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My First Conference: A Story of Survival

Donald Hendrix

by Donald Hendrix

Graduate Student, Department of Geosciences, Stony Brook University

I can say without hesitation that my first year as an Earth and Space Sciences graduate student at Stony Brook University has been a rich and fulfilling experience. I have been fascinated by outer space since I was a child and I feel truly blessed that I get to be in a planetary science program.

I am assessing the health effects of inhaling pulverized minerals that are similar in composition and morphology to what is found on the Moon. It is known that inhaling rocky dust and minerals is hazardous to humans and is analogous to inhaling coal dust on Earth. My goal is to determine what chemicals are produced once powdered minerals interact with water – a reaction that occurs in human lungs when the minerals are inhaled. If humans are to spend extended periods of time on the Moon, it is vital that we understand the hazards of the dust they will be bringing in and out of the lunar modules.

An astronaut working on the dusty lunar surface.

An astronaut working on the dusty lunar surface. Image credit: NASA.

While I entered graduate school anticipating my research responsibilities, I did not expect to be asked to present at the 2016 NASA Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop in Galveston, Texas. This workshop features a variety of topics regarding human health and safety in space, including psychology, orthopedics, and food handling to human waste processing. I submitted an abstract for the conference the November prior and I was expecting to be asked to discuss my work in a poster session – the more commonly assigned of the two formats in which scientists present at professional conferences. This was, after all, my first conference. Because time is so limited, very few scientists are offered the opportunity to give oral presentations, sharing their work in front of a whole room of scientists at once.

In response to my submission, I received an email from the conference administrators referring to me as “Dr. Hendrix” – with a time slot assignment between 14:00-14:15. I thought to myself, “I couldn’t be giving a talk since they are mistaking me for a doctor; it must all be a big mistake.” I emailed them and said that I was a first year graduate student and that I was to get a poster. I waited a few days and got a reply back a couple days before Christmas. They told me that there was no error besides referring to me as a doctor, and that I was to give a talk at 2 pm. How could they expect me to give a talk my first year?! Merry Christmas to me, I guess.

After preparing for the conference for a couple of weeks, it was time to go. When I arrived, I immediately felt out of place. People in suits, ties, and dresses, and I was standing in the middle of the poster session wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants with bulky pockets. I felt tired and in need of a shower, in addition to being fashionably out of place. I felt like leaving as soon as I got there. I spent the next couple of days practicing and desperately hoping my presentation would go well. Once the day came, I was ready to get it done. I dressed a little more appropriately this day, so I felt a little more in place than I did the first day. After the two other presenters in my session finished, it was time to give my first formal talk ever.

I walked up and stood in front of the whole room, waiting for the IT guy to get my presentation ready on the screen. Then, a few seconds later, my talk was up on the big screen. I saw the title of my talk, “Identification of Mechanically Produced Defect Sites on Powdered Mineral Surfaces via EPR Spectroscopy.”  A couple of seconds went by and I thought, “this is it, there is no turning back”. I knew that I had to start and so I thanked my audience, stated my name, and began. My words felt heavy for the first few slides, but as I went along, I began to handle it better. It felt like as soon as I started my presentation, it was over.

Already, I feel my description of my experience during the presentation feels short. But in actuality, that’s how it felt. My talk went really quickly and I can say that it was well worth it. While it can intimidating at first, getting thrown out there can definitely have its rewards. I feel that I am more capable of presenting my thoughts and ideas to others because of that experience. My first year has definitely given me wonderful experiences – and giving my first talk, I can say now, was one of them. If this first year brought me so much, I can only imagine what the other four will bring.

Featured image credit: Clements Group, LLC.

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