Monday, September 8, 2014

A Weekend in Western Nebraska: Attending the Rocky Mountain Conference of Parasitologists

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last weekend was a blur of exciting presentations, reunions, new friends, and amazing food. I'm talking, of course, about the recent convening of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Parasitologists (RMCP) held at the Cedar Point Biological Station (CPBS) just outside of Ogallala. This year's conference was small, both in terms of membership and in number of presentations/posters, but it was still a good meeting. Below are the highlights, at least from my perspective.

My major professor and I taught the morning's classes and left for RMCP around 1pm. We grabbed Starbucks on the way out and I ate lunch on the road. The four hour drive was filled with wonderful conversations about the semester that lies ahead and with the words of Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven emitted by the CD player of his blue Baja. We grabbed more coffee at our favorite little place in Gothenburg before hitting the last stretch of road to the station.

We were surprised to discover that we were among the first people to arrive for the conference. I took my things to the room where I already knew I was staying and went to see the kitchen staff while my professor got settled in to his cabin. The familiar smell of awesome emanated from the kitchen as soon as I stepped into the dining hall. I was greeted by the smiling faces of two close friends and we chatted until they had to put out the hors d'oeuvres. It is traditional to serve hors d'oeurvres rather than dinner at this conference unlike the other annual conference I attend. I suppose that's due to the later arrival of most attendees. The hors d'oeuvres this year were spectacular. I walked up to the serving bar to see an array of fancy crackers and white cheeses surrounding plump, green grapes. To the right of this was a tray of caprese...little bits of mozzerella, tomato, and a basil leaf skewered on a toothpick and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Just to the other side of that was a hot pan of Italian meatballs with warm smokes still rising from the freshly cooked delicacies. On an adjacent table lay a round tray of dark chocolate-dipped strawberries. To the left of the strawberries were small gingersnap cookies with vanilla frosting drizzled delicately over them in a zig-zag pattern. As I look at the spread before me, I knew that this was destined to be an awesome weekend! (I apologize in advance for my lack of food-porn from all of the meals this weekend...I will, however, flood you later with pictures of a particularly special dessert!)

The next morning came early. Breakfast was served at 7am and consisted of sausage, eggs, fruit, pineapple and coconut oatmeal, and peaches and cream french toast. The presentations began at 9am with four excellent graduate students (myself included) delivering their research to an eager and fully-awake audience. My own talk (which you can find here if you so choose) concluded with a long string of questions and was followed by a break during which we got cookies, veggies and hummus, crackers with cheese, and fruit to go with our coffee and/or tea. The next round of talks were comprised of two undergraduate student presentations, one of which had some beautiful SEM and TEM photos. By the time these had finished, it was near noon. Lunch was comprised of beef or veggie enchiladas, cabalcitas, and a freshly made pineapple and black bean salsa. This was, of course, offered with tortilla chips and a diverse salad bar. For dessert, the staff prepared root beer floats and I couldn't stop myself from indulging.

Lunch was followed by a memorial faculty presentation given by my professor (who was also this year's president) who spoke at great length on the subject of archaeoparastology as a discipline. I was super excited about this topic for lots of reasons, but it was amazing to see how entranced the crowd was (well, save for a few parasitologists who were ready to move on to the social hour, it seems) despite his accidental time slot overshoot. Upon learning of his overshoot, my professor had been embarrassed as he hadn't realized he had gone over time. It makes me smile that he was so passionate about his work and so excited to tell others about it that he lost track of time. In talking with other students, we all agreed that we aspire for such passion in our own work as we grow into professionals.

After another break with yummy snacks, we returned to the basement of the lodge for another session of shorter faculty presentations. These were obviously excellent in both their construction and in their content. These presentations were followed by the student poster session held in the adjacent building. There were only three posters, all of them graduate students. My own poster was among them, taking up the least space on the wall, but clade with beautiful photos of Ascaris lumbricoides eggs, malformed Trichuris trichiura eggs, and the lower half of a mummy. (If you are interested, you can get a pdf of the poster here.)

A banquet dinner was served after the poster session. The tables were set with real wine glasses at every center and heavy porcelain plates were waiting to be filled with shrimp scampi (or a vegetarian version...I guess that's just called "scampi"?), a melt-in-your-mouth garlic cheddar biscuit (or 5), and the ever-present salad bar assemblage. It was, however, the dessert that stole the show. Our amazing kitchen manager (/my best friend from college) created chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. On top of each one was a hand-pipped parasite silhouette made of dark chocolate. They where adorable and perfect. Lots of photos of this perfection follow. 

Parasitophiles, feel free to nerd out right now...

I am hookworm, hear me...Rawr! cute! 

Oh no! We are almost out of cupcakes!!! What do we do???

Oh good! Airicca saves the day with more cupcakes!

Protozoan love!
Okay, so it turned out upside down in the photo, but
the one on the left was my cupcake...I <3

 Karl grabbed a tick! And then, he ate it.

 Another great tick shot next to an elegant little cercaria. 

How many can you name?

(Left to right, top to bottom: tick, Trichinella nurse cell, Plasmodium in cell, Trichinella nurse cell, small worm [nematode], 
Plasmodium in cell, hookworm's bucal cavity, 
cercaria, top-view of Schistosoma egg,
small worm [nematode], Giardia, Demodex (follicle mite),
cercaria, Schistosoma egg, mystery top-view.)

Hey look!!! Coccidia!!! Oh, yeah...and other stuff too.

 After dinner, I took my wine glass with me to the basement for the last presentation of the day. This was the second memorial faculty lecture given by a woman who studies the genetic histories of elasmobranch (that's sharks, skates, and rays, if you were wondering) tapeworms. If you've never looked at marine cestodes (tapeworms), google them. Right now. Go on. I'll wait. that you're back...aren't they just amazingly beautiful and complex?! If I wasn't already enamored by archaeoparasitology, I would be looking for any way possible to get into studying these little guys. I mean, WOW! Seriously, I am more and more amazed by them every time I sit through a presentation on this topic. After the presentation came the social hour (or a few) in which we conversed the night away while munching on the vestiges of the day's meals lovingly left out for us late-night snackers. It was a great night filled with great discussions with great people. :)

The final day of the conference began early again with a breakfast bar presenting sausage, eggs, blueberries and peaches oatmeal, fruit, and pumpkin french toast. There would be only a single faculty presentation after breakfast, but I was especially excited for it. The topic covered a recent range extension of a coccidian parasite in Eastern box turtles. I was especially excited for this one because I recently co-authored a book about turtle coccidia (find it here) that was finally published last month. (After only 4 years of work! :p) The presenter unexpectedly volunteered me to help answer questions after his talk and even motioned for me to stand up. I did not stand, however, not because I didn't want to, but because I didn't want to do so during the applause he had earned for his presentation and it would have just been weird to stand after everyone stopped, forcing them to question whether they should begin clapping again. As you would expect, he didn't really need my help in answering questions, but I did add in a few additional comments to some of the questions after he was finished talking.

Book at the Sod House Museum
Look! It's by John Carter!
Next, it was upstairs for our last round of snacks and to get prepared for our business meeting. The meeting was quicker than usual. Awards were given out, nominations turned to new officer positions, and the proceedings of past and future meetings were discussed. The meeting concluded with a passing of the gavel from the president and the president-elect. This was ceremoniously passed to the tune of actual bagpipes. This ceremony may or may not have included the skipping of the two presidents down the aisle and back. ;) It was glorious.

With the meeting adjourned, we all loaded up our vehicles and headed out. Some grabbed lunches on the way, while others at the last CPBS lunch of sandwiches and left-over snacks. My professor and I headed back to our Gothenburg coffee shop and made a stop in at the adjacent Sod House Museum before the long drive back home. We spoke of the conference and of future projects for a while, and then we attempted to finish our audiobook. 

The Moral of the Story
As you've already read, the conference was a good one....and the food rocked! I'll leave you with this little haiku I wrote for the business meeting, but didn't get a chance to share:

Parasites abound
Happy faces everywhere
So much love is here

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