Wednesday, 10 July 2013

My adventures at Iso-Camp (part 1)

Splitting hairs. Photo: SIRFER/Iso-Camp
Last month, I travelled 4800 miles to spend two weeks grinding leaves, splitting hairs, and cramming more science into my head than I thought possible. 

I should probably explain. 

In the first two weeks of June, I attended Iso-Camp (a.k.a. Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry and Ecology) - an intensive course run by the University of Utah.  I came across the course almost by accident, through an e-mail sent to me via a mailing list I subscribe to. I had not heard of Iso-Camp before, nor, for that matter, did I know much about Utah. But many of the names that appeared on the list of instructors on the course were familiar to me: not in person but as names appearing on papers in my bibliography. The course specialises in the applications of stable isotope research in ecology  and environmental studies, including applications in archaeology and anthropology. It was split into two parts: a lecture series taught by various isotope experts from across the US, and a lab course introducing students to essential techniques and equipment. I was fortunate to be offered a scholarship to attend the course, as the research council funding my PhD does not offer to cover the cost of any external courses.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Iso-Camp, but I hoped it would give me an much broader understanding of the background to the  techniques I am using in my own research. I was particularly looking forward to the lab course, as I have only had limited experience of working in a lab.  I knew that being away from my family for two weeks would be hard, but this seemed like an opportunity that was too good to miss out on.

I arrived in Salt Lake City (SLC) late at night the Saturday before the course started, and thanks to jetlag got a good opportunity to explore a fairly eerie quiet downtown SLC early Sunday morning. That evening I met my the other students at a welcome picnic, along with some of the instructors. The other students were from a very wide range of fields, including biology, earth sciences, ecology, and geography. All were either PhD-students or post-docs, and although the majority were from the US, a number of others were also international students. I hadn't worried about whether I would make any friends; my experience of similar events has taught me that when you get this many like-minded people in one place, you are bound to get along. Iso-Camp was no exception.

Afternoons were largely spent doing this.
The following morning we were thrown in at the deep end. Armed with coffee and an impressively-sized empty ringbinder, which I thought I could never fill (I was wrong), we started the first lecture. 

In the next blog post, I will give a run-down of the lectures, and explain how I learnt that; Americans eat more sugar than Europeans, and that cheap sparkling wines are really not that good (the latter was an essential part of the course, I promise).  

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