This post was contributed by Kathryn Inkrott, a rising senior at Loyola Marymount University who attended this summer’s annual WOS meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Just before the end of March 2022, our advisor Dr. Kristen Covino came to us with the idea to attend the 2022 Wilson Ornithological Society annual meeting. The three of us were the most senior members of the Physiology and Hormonal Avian Biology lab at Loyola Marymount University, and knew we should be looking for some conference experience before the end of our undergraduate careers. My lab mates, Isabella López and Ivana Small, and I are rising seniors at Loyola Marymount University and are proud members of Dr. Covino’s “PHAB Lab.”
We all were quick to say yes to attending the meeting, excited to share our research ando get some experience with conferences before venturing further into academia. However, none of us knew exactly what to expect. I had always imagined conferences as stuffy meeting rooms and endless lectures on the same topic over and over. Ivana said she thought the meeting would be “a bunch of people who know anything and everything about birds.”
Dr. Covino, however, told us that the Wilson meeting was not a typical conference. She tried to explain to us that Wilson is more relaxed and welcoming than other conferences and that we would find a cheery, familiar group that just wants to share their love for birds.
While this did sound better than what we were picturing, the three of us were still very apprehensive. We are all just undergraduates and despite our research with Dr. Covino, none of us have ever even taken a bird class at LMU. We were fighting a brutal case of imposter syndrome. With the limited knowledge and expertise that we have, why do we think we have the right to stand in front of career professionals and assume we have anything important to say? It was very difficult to believe that if we attended the Wilson meeting we would contribute anything to the conversation, let alone anything important.
We all registered for the meeting anyway and found ourselves practicing our presentations on a flight to Santa Fe (in between rounds of UNO!). Upon arriving at the hotel, we made several observations right away. I remember Isabella leaning over to me and whispering, “Everybody knows each other.” I agreed. It seemed as though we had walked into a family reunion, and we were the long-lost cousins who knew they were supposed to be there, but knew no one.
However, we quickly found that making friends was fairly easy because so many conference-goers were connected in some way. We met Dylan Titmuss early on and were so excited to finally spend some time with them after their contributions to the project I have been working on. Dr. Covino also introduced us to several incredible people within Wilson that we would be seeing around the next couple days. We went to bed that night still feeling overwhelmed and nervous, but more at ease because everyone seemed friendly.
The next morning brought a new wave of nerves, as I began preparing to give my talk in the late morning. I watched the first round of presentations, admiring how knowledgeable everyone was about what they were talking about. I remember thinking, “This guy is clearly a PhD!” It was overwhelming to me, but also inspiring to see the interest in birds rippling through the room.
We spent the remainder of the morning running through our presentations with each other and Dr. Covino. After about ten times through my talk I felt ready. Isabella was giving me encouragement, saying, “No one out there knows this project better than you.” I felt better and less nervous right away. She was right! I didn’t need a PhD, or even a completed bachelor’s degree, to know every detail about the project I’d been working on for years.
I gave my presentation to a crowded room B, still feeling shaky, but ready. I explained everything about my methods validation project and felt good about how it went. When the questions came, I was ready with answers, and was almost surprised at myself for how self-assured I was. When it was over I thought I would only feel relief, but instead I felt pride.
In the evening, Ivana and Isabella stood confidently in front of their poster, smiling from ear to ear as they gave their “elevator pitch” to any ornithologist who walked by. Ivana made a comment about how fun it was to be next to another poster that was also about research with tree swallows. It made a nice transition when someone would walk from one poster to the next.
I wandered the poster session while Ivana and Isabella presented and was stunned by the wide range of projects being showcased. When I visited a poster about hormonal responses to urban environments, the presenter asked me about specific techniques from my own presentation that they might want to experiment with in the future. I felt very validated in that moment, as I felt all of my fears about not contributing to the conversation melt away.
I returned to check on Isabella and Ivana many times, but said nothing as they were engaged in deep conversation with fellow ornithologists each time. Later that night in the hotel room, we all discussed the day, especially how cool it was for actual career professionals to ask us questions about our work.
The following morning the three of us participated in the diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop. It was very encouraging to see how some of the problems in the culture of academia are being addressed. I especially enjoyed the session on paying undergraduate researchers, because I have a direct stake in the conversation. That said, listening in on some of the other topics, such as being a parent in STEM, was also very eye-opening, and I learned a lot.
After the final round of talks, the three of us watched the awards ceremony. The obvious warmth and closeness of the Wilson community affected all of us. After feeling so isolated when we’d arrived only days before, we now felt much more present and included in the community. Later that night we went on an excursion to explore Santa Fe and bring back fresh churros for not just us, but our new friends as well.
Overall, I enjoyed my time at the Wilson meeting, and Isabella and Ivana feel the same way. Although the conference consisted of people who “knew way more than we did about birds,” it wasn’t exactly what we’d expected. Instead, we found an inclusive community that was excited to talk about birds and learn from each other in the process. I feel better prepared for more conferences in the future after having this experience, and I am so grateful for the welcoming culture of the society.