Sunday, November 27, 2011

2. BIT's 4th World Breast Cancer Congress.

Sounds grand. The convention center is gigantic, with luxury hotel to match.

One thing I noticed about the organizers, though, was how they kept trolling for new speakers even after the deadline for signing up had passed. Long after. And how the schedule kept getting more compact. How I was originally slotted into Section 18 of Chapter 1, Molecular Oncology of Breast Cancer but on the final final schedule I was advanced to Section 4 of said Chapter. Other Chapters simply disappeared altogether.

The registration desk in the morning isn't exactly thronging with eager congress-goers. Must have picked up their materials yesterday. At the Group Photo on the spacious front steps of the convention center there's room for a serious convention, but only 60 or so people show up. Who bothers with these things anyway? YJB isn't here. Somebody else figures the photo is for invited speakers only. Ah, yes, must be it. Only the elite.

We find our way to a rather modest meeting room, and about 100 of us space ourselves out comfortably to listen to the Keynote Session. This can't possibly be all of us. Well, no; YJB is still not in sight, that's one more. Perhaps many others are lurking in their rooms getting their presentations in order, or recovering from jetlag. Although, the room won't even seat more than 150 so we must be close to all here.

It's one of those small, cozy meetings, then. The kind you can really get to know people, and develop friendships and collaborations. That sort of meeting can be much better than the huge ones where you remain anonymous, pal around only with people you already know, and run from one simultaneous session to another trying to get to the talks that interest you. It could be that sort of meeting but for two things.

First, the organizers tried to cover everything under the sun as long as it's breast cancer. So most people here have very little to do with your particular domain. The natural affinities are stretched very thin. It's good to be exposed to new things at meetings, but this is most fruitful when there's a bit more common ground to start off on.

Second, this gigantic venue. We're rattling around like a handful of peas in a 50-gallon drum. This gives a strong impression of being unimportant, alone, inadequate. Strung about all this empty space inhibits our finding that coziness of a good small meeting.

It's understandable that the invited speakers are rather few in number ("invited" being a relative term; most of us still had to pay the majority of the fees), but we're in Guangzhou, a city of 20 million. Where are all the students? The post-docs? The young clinicians? Local people who don't need the fancy lodging or endless buffets three times daily? Where's the poster session? I heard talk of a poster session in the introductory talk - on the second day four tiny posters appeared next to the coffee table outside the meeting rooms. That was it, the whole poster session. They didn't even merit four poster boards, but had to share space crammed onto two easels.

Ah, the meeting rooms. With the Keynote session over, we split into four rooms for various simultaneous sessions. Four small rooms, but still more than adequate. I like a modest-sized room. It's not as intimidating as a huge auditorium. But some speakers traveled all the way to China to talk before just a dozen other people.

The second day, the woman before my own talk had 10 people in her audience. Two moderaters who of course had to be there, two people working on their computers in the back row, one chick typing on her phone, and me just there because I was next. Some of the four remaining were actually listening. Now that is just too sad. That kind of situation makes you want to ask 'should we do this, or just skip it?'.

To top off the shrinkage, two of the sessions were combined into one at the last moment, just to group people together and make the thing fill up the time before lunch. And there would be no coffee or tea for the coffee break. Just a break.

Contemplating the lameness of the situation while loading my presentation onto the host computer, I figured I would just look at my friend Laisheng a lot, because I knew he'd be attentive. But lo and behold, if didn't the room fill up as the no-coffee break ended. People paid attention. There were two or three even nodding and mouthing 'yes, that's just the thing'. And I had questions! Four bona-fide, tell-me-more questions. And afterward, people came up and talked to me and asked me stuff. And I asked them stuff. We used each other's first names. The meeting was beginning to gel. A bit.

Then we all dispersed into the cavernous restaurant for yet another go at the buffet. And this time I sat with a woman from Iran, somebody who earlier commisserated with me over the absence of anywhere to walk to, instead of with YJB (whom I didn't catch sight of anyway).

It's not over yet - there's a mainly clinical session in the morning that a lot of people are apparently planning to skip in favor of a turn around the city - but I guess in spite of my disappointment over this being neither a larger, more animated, event nor a small intimate gathering, it was worth coming. Seeing my ex and future grad student Laisheng was great, and we hope to work out a way to bring him back over to France to finish the project he started. Preparing my presentation forced me to take the time to get this batch of data in order and consider what needs to be done to make it a good publication. And the interest of my fellow congess-goers showed me that that's worth doing. There really is almost nothing in the literature comparing breast cancer in developed vs developing countries, and the little information I have is indeed a big step forward. There's motivation for getting my colleagues moving on our project again.

In the morning the conference has indeed shrunk again. They decide to combine the two parallel sessions into one because some of the speakers have not bothered to show up. We start off with just 37 people, going up to 48 with some very late arrivals, but that's it. I had thought to blow off the morning too, but it's just too depressing to give a talk to an empty room so out of pity for the speakers I stayed.

The Russian speaker gave the strangest presentation. He had a girl stand next to him at the podium, a young blond with a big smile, and her job was to press the button for the next slide. Never mind that his hand was closer to the keyboard than she was, or that he had to interrupt himself to say 'next slide please' every time. Then there was his talk itself. He would go a minute or two without changing the slide, speaking in a very heavy accent, but the slides didn't contain anything to help us understand what was going on. There were no diagrams or explanations, just naked graphs of data that must have been explained in the flow of words, but who could follow? At one point a chart said that 107 % of the cells were dead. Wow! They're good, these Russian scientists!

By 11 the whole thing was over. I tried to be reasonable at the buffet at lunch (in view of a formal dinner with our Chinese colleagues at 6), but you know how buffets are. A taste of this and a spoonful of that, and your plate is piled high. To compensate, a good walk around was in order.

The convention center is just a few hundred yards from a metro station, so getting to town is not all that difficult. The ticket machines and the metro map are pretty easy to navigate as well. So I carefully noted the name of my station (Baiyun Culture Square) in order to find it again later, and off I went. On my very lame tourist may provided by the concierge I saw "Chigang Pagoda", sort of off on its own away from the dense old town I'd explore in depth later.

The metro station, just 5 minutes walk from the convention center. In the middle of a huge vacant lot!
merging from the metro station I found myself on the bank of the Pearl river, in the shadow of that modern pride and joy of Guangzhou: the collosal TV tower. They are very proud of this tower. They love it far more than some old pagoda. The TV tower figures prominently in tours and postcards and everybody wants to take you there.

Feh on TV towers.
Oooohhhh Aaaaahhhh  !!!!!! TV tower!!!

Where is this darned pagoda?

It takes a bit of wandering around - but that's the point of the excursion, isn't it? - before I spy the pagoda's top peeking above some trees in the distance. Thank goodness it is so tall, because you'd never find it otherwise amongst all the 20-30 story apartment blocks.

On one side of Chigang is a neat little park, with a couple necking on one of the benches, happy to have the place to themselves. Except for the stranger with the camera, that is. The pagoda itself is in a fenced-off area dense with bushes and trees. Around the other side is vacant lot with cars and buses parked, and the entrance to the compound with a smart modern building and an elaborate gate. The gate opens for an arriving limo, but I don't dare sneak in. Doesn't look very welcoming.
The Chigang Pagoda at last

Back at the metro entrance, there's a prominent notice: no combustibles, explosive, or poisonous materials, please. As if people just randomly bring their explosives on the metro every day. Of course, this stuff is always in the fine print posted somewhere for those with far too much time on their hands. Naturally, no poison allowed in the metro. But what person really intent on bringing a load of sarin or some packets of C4 onto the train will really be dissuaded by the rules? Sorry, Joe, the terrorist attack is off; our weapons aren't allowed. There's another sign for No dogs, No smoking, No balloons... No balloons?

You decide - which is better?

1 comment:

GingerV said...

doesn't seem worth loosing a complete day - Camillo kindly points out that you will get your day back on the return trip - Lol.

Course we are into Geophysical conventions - not pure science ones, but we have seen a downturn in attendance lately. The last one here in Rio Camillo decided to attend (mainly just to see old friends) Petrobras didn't even send their students. no Petrobras attended at all. It was blacklisted by Petrobras because the organizers tried to bribe someone to promote the congress.... plus lately the cost per person has gotten way out of line. 10 years ago it cost 500 USD per person, and another 150 for a wife to participate at opening / closing / and the official dinner - this las one they wanted $2500. and 600 for a wife. so no wives came and only the subcontractors - no oil companies - anyway a waste of time. I have loved to go and listen to the presentations and to see the poster sections - the best part of a congress.
I like the pegoda more than the tower.