December 2019 was the second time in my life that I traveled across the Canadian border. Little did I know, I would meet people from all over the world and make connections that will hopefully last a lifetime. I also experienced my first big academic/professional conference, NeurIPS, but I will mainly recap my travel stories in this post.
The world is indeed small...make sure you are representing who you want others to see you as at all times. For example, Alex and I were waiting to board the first leg of our flight to Vancouver, BC. We had a stop in Seattle, Washington. As we were waiting to board, I thought I recognized someone that I had lunch with one time who was a part of a lab I did some work in. Maybe before 9th grade, I would not have walked up to him and strangely asked, "Oh yeah didn't we eat lunch together with so-and-so before?" Turns out, it was him! He was flying out to the west coast to present at a Water Conference on Glacier Science for his Post Doc. Soon after that, Alex and I ran into someone who recently graduated from Pitt and was going to the same conference as us!
After arriving safely in Seattle, we impatiently and excitedly waited for the next flight to take us to Vancouver. Several delays occurred causing our plane to get us to Vancouver around 1AM PST! Coming from the east coast....this really sucked. But we met up again with the Pitt alumni who was attending the conference as well and started conversation. He introduced us to his coworker/friend...I forget their exact relationship. Anyway, both of them are doing great research contributing to safety and social good of our society. As we were talking about machine learning research, as one does in an airport, another conference attendee joined our conversation. He was coming from Paris, France! I commend him for his English skills especially when he was very jetlagged. Turns out we will both be interning in the bay area this summer! He was presenting some of his research in one of the neuroscience workshops which I attended to show him support. The conference didn't even start yet and I already felt in over my head about being an undergrad and having no experience with this jargon or research. Little did I know meeting people has only just begun! We get on this tiny little plane that is about to fly us to Vancouver at 1AM PST and I get settled in my seat. I eavesdrop on what the person sitting next to me is doing…he was clearly reading research papers. So, I say, “I’m assuming you’re going to NeurIPS, too”. We get in a conversation about where he works and why he is going to NeurIPS, etc, etc. Turns out I had been emailing with the technical recruiter at his company for the last month and he worked on a team I was interested in! I didn’t end up applying for that position because the conference was very overwhelming at points and I only applied to two or three positions while there.
I have to say, if I am ever looking for a job in the technical field I am going to go to a conference. Both my friend and I landed summer internships from attending! On the other hand, paying to attend this conference felt like a secure way of showing me that I know what I want to do. Though I did not travel to Vancouver alone, I still felt very independent. I went with Alex and Anastasia, but they had their own schedule. I heard stories and research from people all around the world. Talked with researches from IBM, Apple, Google, and Nvidia. From working on data science for the social good to trying to create and provide the best hardware to save energy for running models, I learned so much! It helped that many of them were also from all across the world...I did not feel like I was in Canada. I felt like I was in a bowl of culture which was amazing! I have connections in Israel, China, France, Montreal, and many other places. I connected with other grad students and even a few amazing undergrads! I met several people that are important to me and I value. All of us enjoyed touring the city and finding the best bars, night clubs, and places to take a quick nap or read a research paper. Honestly, paying to attend this conference and touring Vancouver at the same time was definitely worth it. Better than a vacation to the beach.
The networking didn´t stop when we left Vancouver. The day we got to Seattle, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at my Aunt's house and connected with one of her family friends. She toured us around a tech company in Seattle that she works at and arranged the ultimate networking lunch for us with some of the data science and software engineers! I really enjoyed touring Alex and Anastasia around Seattle, as well! We met up with another Pitt computer science student who lives in Seattle and toured around with him for a bit as well.
Don’t be afraid to talk with strangers (safely, of course). You never know who you will run in to or what connections you will make. When you meet these new, valuable connections, you should not think “what can they do for me…how can I benefit from this relationship?”. You should think “how can I help them…do I have valuable connections that I can introduce them to?” This will lead to a mutualistic strong relationship in the end that will last for a lifetime. There is also that saying that your personality is averaged out amongst the 5 people that you hang out with the most. This is true…so hang out with those who you aspire to be. Not only will you learn so much, but you will also be shaped into a better person, the person who you aspire to be. I have learned a lot from attending conferences and getting in conversations with other PhD students in the field that I want to go into. It has helped shaped me academically and personally.