Arolla, Switzerland

Last week I had the opportunity to attend an Evolutionary Biology Workshop in the Swiss Alps

(yet another perk of living in Europe – spending the week in the Alps, no big deal…).

In a nut shell, the purpose of this workshop was to aid people early in their science careers (aka me) in the process of grant and proposal writing. Basically, to survive in science research, and more specifically, academia, you have to convince agencies and governing bodies to give you money to do your work.  As you can imagine, this is no small task.  When you’re someone like me and that research involves a group of fish from central Africa, this tends to be a bit more challenging – the normal response when describing my work: “but why, who cares”?  With this in mind, off to Switzerland I went to gain every bit of help I could get!

Without going into too much more detail, the workshop was a collection of scienctists, both in early and late stages of their respective careers from all over the world.  This is by far one of my favorite aspect of working in science – people from all walks of life coming together with one common interest.  No one cares about where you are from or what you believe or don’t believe.  Everyone is just excited to meet other people and hear about their work.  That and talk about Donald Trump….everyone wants to talk about Donald Trump. Sorry world, it’s not a joke.

As I mentioned above, this workshop was really intended to help people like me develop their skills in grant writing.  So, to aid in that process, we were dividied into teams of 5 and tasked with creating our own research project, writing it as a formal proposal, and presenting it at the end of the week. Along the way, we were given constant feedback by 5 senior scientists in Evolutionary Biology, all of whom have had lots of experience with the granting process.   All-in-all, it was a great workshop!

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For the sake of those non-sceincetists reading this, I’ll stop with the science talk now and move onto the other exciting aspect of staying in the Swiss Alps for a week…the Alps! To say that it was incredible is an understatement.  In fact, the pictures that follow do not even do it justice.  It was amazing, so beautiful!  

To begin with, Arolla is not easy to get to.  It is a small alpine village at an altitue of about ~2,100m (~6,900 ft).  So, just getting there required a flight to Geneva, then a train from Geneva to Sion (~1.5 hrs), and finally, two buses to get from Sion to Arolla (~1 hr).  On the plus side, views are incredible the entire way.  The down side: a long trip and a bit of car sickness winding up the mountains on the bus.

As I said, Arolla is a small village…

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Kurhaus, which was orginigally built in 1896 but has more recently been upgraded to modern standards. The hotel was great!  It was full of memorbilia from early exporation of the Alps but, due to my lack of knowing French, I was not able to read too many details.  Nonetheless, very cool to look at the old pictures and equipment.

While the purpose of the workshop was to work and develop grant writing skills, it still allowed plenty of time to explore the local area and, for those interested, lots of hiking opportunites. And hike I did! This is something that I did not realize how much I miss.  Living in a flat country like the Netherlands, there isn’t much in the way of hiking.  Sure, people here go ‘hike’, but it’s not really what I have in mind.  To me, hiking is about elevation change, scenery, and getting away from everything.  The Alps provided all of these! The Alps also provided much less oxygen than I am used to when hiking….talk about a workout!

I won’t go into detail about every hike I did, but I will say that I certainly got my fill.  Luckily, there were two other workshop participants who also liked to hike so the three of us pushed it every chance we got.  Our longest hike (on our half free day): ~6 hours, to an altitude of 2,928m (+9,600ft), covering a distance of +17km (~10.5 miles).  Along the way, we crossed a galcier, hiked through knee-deep snow, went up and down ladders bolted to the side of the mountain, and even did some rock climbing.  It was hard and I paid the price for it later but totally worth it! My love of hiking has been re-awakened.  We will definitely be going back to Switzerland for more hiking!

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So, as I’ve said multiple times throughout this post: a great workshop and a great trip! I met amazing people, learned valuable tips on future grant writing, and enjoyed beautiful scenery.  What more can you ask for?

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In other exciting news, in about 10 days time the Wright clan will be coming to visit! Dad, mom, and Alex will be making the trek to Groningen, after which we will also visit Paris and Amsterdam.  To say that Whitney and I are excited is an understatement.  We love to travel and see new places, but it’s not so often that we get visitors! We have lots planned and will share the details following their visit.

Until next time,

Shane

eseb 2015/Laussane & Noorderzon

Remember the days of book reports in middle/high school? Remember how you always waited until the very last minute to start working on it (don’t kid yourself, everyone did)? The night before it was due, there was a frantic rush to find the cliff notes (had all the free sites saved) and the constant battle of line spacing and margins just to get the required number of pages.  Well, that’s kind of how I am with blogging.  I always have these grand ideas of writing a post but when it comes down to it, I can never make it happen.  My grand ideas slowly turn into cliff notes versions of various events, only to be shown up by Whitney as she enthusiastically posts the day of an event (I’ve said all along she is much better at this than I am).  The post that follows is no exception.  I’ve been intending to write this for over two weeks now. On the plus side, we’ve done a few more things in the mean time…


Way back at the beginning of August, I traveled for the first international conference of my PhD.  The conference, eseb 2015 (Congress of the European society for Evolutionary Biology), took place in beautiful Lausanne, Switzerland on the campus of the University of Lausanne.

Instead of going into way too much detail about science and my excitement over the various talks, I’ll just sum up by saying that there were 1,500 participants from all of over the world, over 300 presentations, and two different poster sessions.  In other words, it was a big conference. Of all of the talks/posters I saw, I do have to admit that one stood out among all of the others…

An interesting side note: eseb is a biennial meeting and therefore will not take place again until 2017. The next location of this large meeting? Groningen.  While part of the fun of these conferences is getting to travel some place different, it will be nice to be able to come home every night. I’ve already told Whitney she can come with me to eseb 2017.

Outside of the conference, I did get to explore Lausanne a bit.  First and foremost, I finally got to experience some sun and summer temperatures (I’m still wearing a jacket nearly every day in Groningen) so of course I took advantage and went swimming in Lake Geneva.  For those of you from my neck of the woods (southwest Virginia), this is no South Holston Lake.  Lake Geneva is crystal clear, refreshingly cold, has great beach areas for relaxing, and is surrounded by the Alps.  It’s beautiful.

Following my swim, I went into the city for a bit of sightseeing.  One thing to note, Whitney and I live in a completely flat country. Walking around a city like Lausanne (lots of elevation change) in heat and humidity was completely different from our typical day-to-day.


In other happenings, Noorderzon 2015 is currently happening in Groningen. This is a performing arts festival that takes place every year in a large park near our house. If I remember correctly, it runs for 10 days and is the place to be: lots of food, drinks, shows, and concerts.  We were able to experience this last year, but on a very limited scale.  For one, Whitney had yet to start her job so we were trying to be careful with money. Secondly, we now realize that we were very timid at that point in time. In fact, timid might be an understatement.  We were scared that we were going to do or say something wrong. The simple thought of us not being able to speak the language was enough to cause us to just pass by and watch.  Fast forward to this year and we don’t think twice about ordering a drink/food or walking up to random tents and exhibits. To think about it now, the idea that potentially saying something wrong would prevent us from checking out a local festival is ridiculous.  However, at that time is was 100% true.  It’s funny how things change in a years time.  Moral of the story here: being able to speak the local language, if only on a limited basis, makes life so much better/easier.  But even if you can’t, you still got to go for it! In the whole scheme of things, no one really cares.

In other exciting news, Whitney will soon be heading back to the US for a wedding. While I’m quite jealous of her getting to go, I’m not jealous of her travel schedule.  From the time she leaves Groningen to the time she gets back, it will only be 4 days.  Let’s not forget that includes flying half way across the world…twice. Nonetheless, I’m sure she will have plenty to tell in a later post.

We will also be traveling to the south of the Netherlands for a quick diving trip and to complete our Advanced Open Water certifications. This was originally supposed to happen following my trip to Lausanne but we had to reschedule.  If things work out, we may try to mix in an additional small side trip along the way.  As with Whitney’s trip, it will all be covered in a later post.

So that’s it for now. Stayed tuned for Whitney’s crack at the blog. It’s sure to be more timely and entertaining.

Until next time,

Shane