By Sam Wilson, MES 2nd Year Student.
Earlier this month, the fifth annual CONFORWest conference for environmental graduate students was held in the tiny town of Bamfield, British Columbia located on the southern side of Vancouver Island. I joined ten other MES students and alumni on a long journey by car, boat, and bus from Puget Sound not knowing exactly what to expect. This being my first time in Canada, I was incredibly excited to experience a new environment and network as a foreigner.
We arrived at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre to find ourselves in a picturesque landscape with tall mountains, old-growth trees, and the strong current of Barkley Sound. Shortly after settling in to our comfortable accommodations, we headed to the cafeteria for dinner. Most of us were expecting a summer camp style cafeteria serving Spam with green goop soufflé, but were pleasantly surprised to find a well-staffed kitchen with a dedicated and talented chef who peered over the dining hall as if it were a fine dining affair. Needless to say, the food exceeded all of our expectations. Cheers to you chef.
Later on that evening, we all met in the main building of the science centre for a social session where we met and networked with many bright and interesting graduate students representing a diverse number of Canadian universities. The beer and wine poured throughout the night and we conversed until way past our bedtimes. Walking back to the lodge that night through a beautiful stand of Madrone trees, I realized that I was not at a normal conference.
The second day began the academic portion of our adventure. Throughout the morning we listened to a number of grade-A presentations and participated in what were dubbed “break-out sessions” where we engaged in passionate discussions over coffee. Both the oral presentations and the break-out sessions kept my attention and sparked new and exciting thoughts despite the lack of sleep. I think that the other MES participants would agree that topics presented on and discussed at CONFOR were relevant, interesting, and though provoking. Overall, very choice.
Later that day, we broke from presentations to participate in a number of different activities including a tour of the facilities, a nature walk with keynote speaker and renowned author and biologist Andy MacKinnon, and a boat tour of Barkley Sound. Two first-year MES students, Lauren Taylor and Kelly Beach, and I chose the latter and saw a number of marine mammals, birds, and incredible views, all while sipping hot tea in the salty spray of the turbulent water. After returning from our voyage, eating another wonderful dinner, and listening to a wonderful presentation by Andy MacKinnon, we perused poster displays (mine included!) over wine and beer. This turned out to be a really fun late night discussing science and sustainability with our Canadian colleagues.
The presentations on Saturday mirrored the quality of those the day before without a doubt. After lunch, we broke for another activity session, which included a more diverse schedule with software and publishing workshops, an algal art class, and yoga. Some of the MES crew and I decided to take the afternoon to visit Pachena Beach, a beautiful shore partially covered in snow with tall rock faces marked by icicles dripping into intertidal pools with all kinds of little critters. We returned to the center to discover that some of the locals had invited all of the CONFOR participants to Brody’s Beach for a bonfire after dinner, which was one of the most fun parties I’ve been to in a while. Although I was disappointed that this was our last night, it was great to have one last hurrah with folks.
CONFORWest was much more than experimenting with what happens when you put 40 scientists together in a remote location with ample libations, it was a time of learning about new topics in environmental studies and sustainability, networking with peers, having an adventure, and perhaps most important for me and the other second-year MES students, a time to help sharpen our own thesis topics. Without a doubt, prepping for CONFOR advanced my thesis in an effective and unique way. Although it was a bit of a vacation, I feel stronger with my topic and on top of my personal deadlines after attending CONFOR. My hope is that I will be able to go back next year as a recent grad and have a similar experience all over again.