My name is Lewis Ward, and I'm a Geobiology PhD student at the California Institute of Technology. In January 2016 I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend the 4th ELSI Symposium.
Me doing field work in the Japanese Alps
The timing of the symposium this year couldn't have been better--in early January I was just finishing a 4 month research visit at Tokyo Metropolitan University, where I had been an NSF GROW fellow studying hot spring microbiology. Although I was anxious to get home--to burritos, and sunshine, and friends and family--I couldn't turn down the opportunity to spend a week among the great people who work at and with ELSI. As soon as I learned the dates for the symposium I rebooked my flight home and committed to attending.
I knew I had a lot to look forward to. I had previously attended the 3rd ELSI Symposium in 2015 and had visited ELSI to present at a seminar, and both visits were incredible experiences packed with incredible discussions. The symposium this year more than lived up to my expectations. The conversations at the symposium were some of the most stimulating I've ever had, whether it was at lunch, during the poster session, or in the evening over beers at an izakaya.
One of the things I love about interdisciplinary programs like ELSI is how welcoming and inclusive the breadth of expertise is. In many departments that are more focused on a single topic, it can be intimidating to admit when you don't know something. At ELSI, because everyone comes from a different field, you never have to feel awkward about not knowing everything. There will always be other people who are just as unfamiliar with a topic as you, and there will always be a subject that you know better than anyone else in the room. This makes it so much easier for students and young scientists to get excited and involved, which benefits both the experts and those who are still learning.
So even though I was a biologist at a symposium focusing on planetary science, I didn't feel out of place--I felt encouraged to share my expertise and to find ways to connect my research to that of other attendees. As a result, I don't think I spent a single day at ELSI that didn't result in plans for a new collaborative project. Now I have relationships and collaborations with researchers around the world, including ELSI. And that's important, because it gives me an excuse to visit again as soon as possible.
A oba-san washing radishes in an onsen in Akita prefecture
A closeup of the hot spring in Akita, where iron oxides and aragonite are precipitating on CO2 bubbles degassing from the spring water