A Notebook Full of Colors
March 3, 2020. I was sitting in my kitchen in Los Alamos, New Mexico, checking my email for the last time before heading out the door to drive to the yearly meeting of the American Physical Society. Gmail delivered a new email, sitting bolded at the top of the inbox. March Meeting is canceled.
The world shifted. For four years, since my lab group and I drove from Dallas Airport to San Antonio, my primary connection to the larger community of physicists had been the March Meeting, when 10,000 of us came together to share science and stories. I built a community for myself of physicists who cared about mental health, about diversity. I found other queer physicists and came to terms with my identity as one. And now? It was cancelled, at the last minute—so last-minute, in fact, that many of the members were already in the air on their way to Denver, unable to turn back in time. I watched friends (online) putting together informal get-togethers, because they were in Denver anyway and had no way to leave before their allotted time was up.
Over the course of my postdoc, I had become more isolated, as friends I had made in the past years finished their terms and left. It was hard to make new ones as I rather frantically tried to find a faculty position or transition to a staff scientist at LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) when my postdoc ran out. When March Meeting was canceled, it was as if my last thread to anyone outside my closest family/friend bubble had snapped. In the ensuing weeks, as work from home orders and lockdowns exploded across the globe, this impression only heightened. I felt as if I were floating in an ocean of black and white silence, becalmed in the doldrums, with Zoom and Discord playing the roles of distant semaphores.
Just a month before the cancellation of March Meeting, I had accepted a position as an assistant professor of physics at Concordia University. Without many other options, my amazing spouse put together travel logistics while I scrambled to do emergency COVID research for the lab. We arrived in Montreal late in August 2020 after a terrifying voyage throughout the U.S. to get there (I have asthma, I have a blood-clotting disorder. We have a dog. We drove and covered the 3000 km in three days, barely sleeping, spending four hours at the border crossing waiting for our work permits.) Unmoored, without the ability to connect to my family (aunt in Halifax) or best friends (one in Ottawa, one in New York), I started my position under lockdown, entirely online.
My world contracted. I started joking when people asked me how Montreal was that I was sure I’d love it if I’d ever gotten out into the city. I could barely even see it, taking walks outside with my glasses impossible to wear because the combination of cold and masks made them a foggy barrier rather than a vision-enhancing device. It was not the easiest of starts to a faculty position—having to ask questions over email and Zoom that normally I would have walked down the hallway and knocked on a door to ask, making a five-minute question into a several-day saga.
Still, I had help. In addition to my online communities and the close friends I talked to over Discord, everyone at Concordia and in the Canadian community that I have reached out to has tried to help me. I spent afternoons walking with the associate physics professor who lives practically next door (and on several memorable occasions sobbed at her over the phone about grants.) I asked people to give me tips on all aspects of faculty life, and many of them stepped up—including BSC’s own Nancy Forde, who carved time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about how to mentor students, many of whom were as new as I was and were also trying to navigate the pitfalls of a new situation in a suddenly-online world. This spirit of cooperation is something I have observed again and again in the BSC community, and it’s what brought me to Ottawa in May, for the first in-person meeting I had been at in three years.
I got to the BSC 2022 conference vibrating with nerves. I have a pretty severe anxiety disorder that has only been exacerbated by two years of global pandemic. I felt so strange walking into a new campus, a new university. I didn’t even know if I’d manage to last out the conference.
Five minutes before the conference had even started, not only had I made a new friend (hi, Jyh-Yeuan!) I had also succeeded at goal #1 for the conference: find an experimentalist interested in peptide toxins or ligand-gated ion channels. Things only improved from there. I attended dozens of talks; I gave my own talk. I poster-judged nine posters in a whirlwind of laughter and enthusiasm. I went to lunch at a surprisingly swanky restaurant and also a tiny little hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I had probably the best vegan lunch of my life. I attended the BSC business meeting in high spirits and got to watch and even engage in strategic brainstorming over the society’s trajectory and where it should go next.
I left with a notebook full of names and contact information; I have been having meetings, swapping stories, chatting, putting people down as possible colloquium speakers, looking into possible collaborations ever since. All of which is generally good from the perspective of career development, but perhaps more importantly, I left BSC with a notebook full of friends. The quiet gray of the doldrums had lifted on my scientific career—in some ways for the first time since that fateful day in March.
Humans are pattern-seeking animals, and I do a lot of creative writing in my spare time. Maybe it was inevitable that I now see this experience as a story with book-ends—one scientific meeting canceled, a life put on hold, and the hold only lifted when I finally made it back to another scientific meeting, of another society, in a whole different country. I don’t want to minimize the impact of COVID on any of us—it’s hit everyone very hard, myself included, and folks from marginalized groups the hardest. Recovery will be slow going, and we’re going to have to consider a lot of paradigmatic shifts and sea changes to help people out. But for me at least, as messy as I find suddenly interacting with people again (heart pounding, anxiety disorder shrieking), the BSC meeting really represented hope.
A notebook full of hope. A notebook full of friends. I hope I’ll get to connect with all of you next year and for many years to come.
About the author: Rachael (Ré) Mansbach is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Concordia University, whose research interests lie in physics-based design of therapeutics. Their lab group uses computational techniques such as molecular dynamics simulations and machine learning to understand and design novel search spaces for short proteins and small molecules. In their free time they enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons or cuddling with their dog, Scout.