Science Conferences Are Our Mother-Daughter Thing
published during a waning gibbous moon.
science conferences

The author and her daughter at AbSciCon in June 2015. Credit: Nola Taylor Redd

As a freelance science writer, I attend science conferences throughout the year. It’s a great opportunity to hear new research and casually chat with scientists about their thoughts. Conferences are also an excellent opportunity to travel. It takes balance, since I’m a single mom homeschooling four children, but it’s always worth it.

Like most parents, I try to get my kids interested in my work. Sometimes I’ve been more successful than others. I have the added advantage of homeschooling, so I can often push a subject that I think they’ll enjoy. Usually I’m right, though not always. Along the way, I’ve learned to be sensitive to what my kids are interested in.

She agreed to be my intern.

Like most teenagers, my daughter Dawn’s response to any discussion about my work results in substantial eye-rolling and sighing. However, we have a shared interest in writing, one that homeschooling has allowed her to explore. She’s been creating stories since she was six years old, and started writing a Civil War novel when she was eight. But when we began discussing her career options as part of her eighth grade Civics course, I pointed out how difficult breaking into the fiction writing world could be. It would be easier to make money—and subsequently eat—if she focused on nonfiction writing, a branch of writing she also enjoyed.

“I could write about travel!” she exclaimed. “Or history!” (She loves history.)

“Or science,” I said casually.

She doesn’t struggle with science, but it’s not exactly her favorite subject, so she just gave me a look.

“Or space!”

Another look.

The largest US astronomical conference of the year was coming up, and it happened to be in the same state her aunt and cousins lived in, so I convinced her to give science writing a try. Since she’d be hanging out with me in the press room, and thus with writers and editors from a variety of publications, she would have the chance to get to know other folks in the field and ask their advice. I told her that if she absolutely hated it, she could hang out with family—and if she loved it, she could (possibly) join me on international trips in the future. She’s been planning a world trip since elementary school and loved the idea of traveling for work.

Since I homeschool Dawn and her three younger siblings, getting the okay from her teacher wasn’t that difficult. I cleared bringing my daughter as a press intern with the press officer, and the trip was set. Of course, shelling out the extra money for my daughter’s flight came out of my pocket, so I wanted her to treat the trip as her first professional paid assignment. She agreed to be my intern.

Before a conference, I always read through and mark up the summaries of each talk and poster to prioritize what I attend; for Seattle, this meant nearly 600 pages of study. I tasked my daughter—er, intern—with simplifying my to-do list. I read through the summaries and highlighted what I might want to see, and she grouped them by day and time. I also encouraged her to make note of any talks she found interesting (and I marked others I thought she might enjoy).

To my surprise, she started getting excited about the trip while wading through the dense, jargon-filled conference materials. She furiously noted sessions that caught her eye, and would run into my room to eagerly discuss them.

Science conferences have become our new mother-daughter thing.

When we arrived in Seattle for the conference, we found that the organizers had prepared several ‘first-timers’ sessions to help ease young scientists into the intellectually rigorous material they might encounter at the conference. After attending the first-timer session on fast gamma ray bursts (a topic that I occasionally struggle to follow), Dawn went to the regular presentation. When I saw her again, she was excited.

“I actually understood some of it!” she told me. “Not a lot, but more than I expected!”

One day, she trailed a public school group around the exhibitor hall and joined them in building a pulsar from clay and a Christmas-light bulb. She spent the rest of the trip whirling it around, though I prohibited her from doing so in the pressroom. I didn’t want her taking the eye out of an editor that might otherwise provide me with work.

One of her favorite rooms at the conference quickly was the enormous auditorium of posters. Scientists who want to share their work but don’t have enough material for a talk create posters detailing their research, and those posters are available to view during poster sessions. Poster sessions are usually staffed by undergraduate and graduate students eager to discuss their research. “Just ask them a question,” I encouraged Dawn. And she did. Dawn loved the poster sessions because they gave her the opportunity to ask scientists questions about their work and to listen to them break things down a bit more than they would at their formal talks.

Dawn didn’t make it the full week. Her aunt invited her over on Thursday night, and she decided it would be good to visit her cousin across the country. Still, I’ll admit she made it longer than I thought she would. And at subsequent conferences, she’s attended all five days.
To date, my daughter has attended more science conferences and events than many scientists. She’s trying to decide if she wants to pursue science writing or go on to get her doctorate in some branch of astronomy. Possibly both. She’s wrapping up her ninth grade year, so that’s subject to change, and I’ve let her know there’s no pressure from mom to follow anywhere near my footsteps. But one of the things I’ve always loved about homeschooling is the ability for a child to follow their interests. If she tries out science writing and hates it, better to find out in high school than after college.

In the meantime, science conferences have become our new mother-daughter thing.

“This is the best conference ever,” she told me on the plane flying home from Seattle. “The only way it could be better is if it was an entire conference on astrobiology.”

It turned out she had a new interest in learning about how life could evolve on other worlds.

“In April, I’ll be attending the Astrobiology Science Conference,” I said casually.

She grabbed my arm. “You’ll need an intern, right?”