How to be yourself

Today I had the pleasure of presenting a session on public speaking to the University of Exeter’s 2018 iGEM team. This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to work with these amazing interdisciplinary students and, as was the case last time, I was impressed with how passionate, insightful, and dedicated they are.

At the end of the session, after I’d run through my top ten tricks for public speaking, one of the students asked me a question about my second recommendation, ‘Be yourself’. Some background before I divulge her question: What I’d meant by that advice was, essentially, that there is no one way to be a good speaker, to be professional, or to be compelling. Therefore, no presenter should feel that they have to quash their mannerisms, significantly alter their vocabulary, avoid personal anecdotes, and so on. To constantly be monitoring and adjusting yourself in order to be something you’re not is to waste time, energy, and concentration that would, in my opinion, be much better used on the presentation you’re giving at that moment. I also think that being personable and ‘real’ can make you more accessible and allow you to foster engagement with the audience. I did, however, note that sometimes ‘being yourself’ means fidgeting at the podium or swearing a lot or going off on tangents, and perhaps it might be good to ‘tweak those little things’ so they don’t cause any distractions.

This was the point on which the student sought clarification. Where do you draw the line, she wanted to know, between the ‘little things’ and everything else? At first I tried to answer this with an example: I try to never say ‘uh’ or ‘um’, but I don’t rein in my occasional impulse to say ‘y’all’ or make a joke. That didn’t seem like the most satisfying response, but the more I tried to come up with subsequent examples, or a better explanation of the process I use to follow my own advice, the more I realised that this was actually a very profound question: Basically, Who am I? What makes me me? Which of my traits are inherent to my fundamental identity, and which are just bells and whistles?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this question was asked by the only minority in the room, and as I stood there flailing for an answer, I realised just how very easy it is for me, a well-educated, white, middle class woman, to give that advice. However introspective I may be in my perpetual quest to know who I fundamentally am, and however challenging it may sometimes be to allow all the oddities of that person to manifest in public without worrying that I’m being judged, it’s still pretty darn easy for me to be myself without worrying about ramifications. That isn’t true for everyone. This week alone, I read a moving Twitter thread in which the author describes how she became ashamed of her Chinese heritage, and got goosebumps from the acceptance speech of N.K. Jemisin — a black woman whose work is inspired in part by the ‘structural oppression’ observed throughout human history — who received her record-setting third Best Novel Hugo. As these and other examples flashed through my mind, I began to grasp what a very complex piece of advice ‘be yourself’ really is–and the implications, both good and bad, of putting that wisdom into practice.

I knew I would not feel satisfied until I had an opportunity to properly acknowledge how justified that student was in pushing for better guidance, and to try to offer a more explicit explanation of, and expansion on, what I had been trying to communicate. It took me an hour to come up with the response which I have posted at the bottom of the page. I think is better than my first attempt but probably still falls short. I’m posting it here because I am grateful to have been asked the question in the first place, and to have been challenged to try to find an answer. I’m genuinely curious whether the question, and perhaps even the response, resonates with others–or perhaps you disagree and have better advice for the student; if so, I’d be keen to hear it.

I’m also posting my reply because the issues seems very timely. Just after the workshop ended, I got back to my desk to find this post on Twitter:

This was in response to a blog post about why a prominent birding event lacked parity of women and men speakers. Remember what I said above about how, as a well-educated white woman, I don’t face the same difficulties as some people in expressing my identity in public places? Well, that’s true, but even a privileged person like me can still face battles against discrimination, and, as a result, still be required to think long and hard about who we are and how we are and how we can ensure equal opportunities to unapologetically be those things. That is a freedom that should given regardless of skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, or any other of the endless traits that we use to label and judge other people.

On the one hand, these characteristics matter because they are associated with a diversity of viewpoints that enriches all our lives; on the other hand, they are totally irrelevant because, at the end of the day, human beings are human beings–and deserve to be treated as such–regardless of how you describe or classify them. It is, as I said in the workshop, ultimately just a waste of time and energy to focus on tangential things that don’t fundamentally impact the main message: We are all legitimate, we all have valuable insights to share, we all matter.

My (overly lengthy) reply to the iGEM students:

Right now we seem to be having a social ‘moment’ in which we are finally paying more attention to who is able to have a platform and a voice, and what message is broadcast when we all have this opportunity—and that’s partly why I think it is so very important to be your genuine self; this is a real chance to introduce some fresh perspectives and ways of being into areas that have been devoid of diversity for too long (STEMM is definitely still struggling to be fully inclusive of women, POC, etc., so iGEM is a space in which these are not just hypotheticals).

At the same time, I realize that some people have more privilege in terms of how much they can get away with when being themselves. I am also aware that ‘being yourself’ intersects with ‘reading the room’ and ‘playing the crowd’. Everyone has expectations, assumptions, biases (including ones they aren’t aware of, ones that are subtle, ones that don’t seem ‘bad’), and this impacts how they respond to whatever version of ‘you’ you put forward. Most of us are a bit chameleon-y when it comes to social interactions, anyway, and adapt what we present depending on whom we’re addressing and under what conditions (e.g., how you are with your best friend vs your teacher, or with your teacher in the classroom vs your teacher after you’ve graduated, and so on). There is a spectrum of ‘you’ that you pick and choose from, and this includes what you say, how you talk, what you’re wearing, how sure you feel, and how confidently you present yourself. Depending on the parameters of a public speech, you will have chosen in advance where along the ‘you spectrum’ you think you should position yourself, and then as you engage with the audience during the event, you can modify that positioning depending on the responses you’re seeing and the feedback you’re getting.

My particular area of scientific expertise is animal communication, and perhaps as a result of this I am keenly aware of the dynamics of different communication interactions. When you ‘read the room’, you learn to get a sense of how different people will respond to different things, and you can use that to your advantage. You might call this ‘manipulation’ if you aren’t feeling very generous, but I prefer to think of it as simply being pragmatic and using all the tools at hand! If you learn to predict people’s expectations and biases, you can deliberately subvert them for an impactful / dramatic surprise, or you can use these to your advantage in order to ingratiate yourself and make people more open to your message. Whether or not you want to do either of these things (or both, or anything in between) will likely change dramatically depending on audience, setting, topic, etc. I suppose I am a little Machiavellian, but my personal feeling is that if people are not introspective enough to search out and address these biases in themselves, then I shouldn’t feel guilty for exploiting them—which, I should add, I do not do in a supervillain sort of way, or very often (well, not consciously, at least). Some examples:

  • I conducted a lot of my PhD field work in places where grumpy rich guys didn’t want some hippie tree-hugger intruding. When I went to negotiate access, I was not deliberately, overtly ditsy or flirtatious (yuck), but because I recognised certain assumptions about women and academics (and the fact that surely someone couldn’t be both at once), I also did not go out of my way to flex my intellectual muscles or present as anything other than a charming weirdo who happened to want to watch birds on their territory. You might say I was a sellout for not being unabashedly scientifically rigorous during those conversations, but you would also have to admit that I greased the wheels for collecting an awful lot of data and saved myself a lot of time in the process, so…
  • I don’t really have much of a regional accent, but every now and then it shows up—for example, I might pronounce ‘tire’ as ‘tar’ or say ‘I’ve been workin’ hard’ rather than ‘I’ve been working hard.’ Where I come from, these sorts of pronunciations are signs of being rural and/or working-class, and are often interpreted as indicating ignorance. Might I relax my attention and allow myself to speak that way in the middle of a science outreach presentation or a lecture? Sure. In a job interview? Probably not, because I don’t want people to be sitting there distracted, wondering where I’m from and whether I’m just a country bumpkin. I am in no way embarrassed of being from the country, mind, but in the middle of a job interview I want people focusing on my amazing responses rather than how I sound delivering them. However, if someone in that job interview were to say something derogatory about rural or working-class people, would I continue to ‘hide’ my origins? No way. I don’t want any job so badly that I’m not going to stand up for myself or pretend I’m a bigot.
  • You might have noticed today that I have a tattoo behind my ear. The studio where I got it done tried to talk me out of having it there, and in fact they have a policy against doing prominent tattoos like that on someone who doesn’t already have a certain number or positioning of tattoos; that’s because often employers and others will make assumptions about people with ink like that and will discriminate against them. There is a very specific reason why I wanted that tattoo in that location, so I wouldn’t take no for an answer; I still strongly feel that if someone is ignorant enough to discriminate against me because of my body art, then they don’t deserve to have me anyway. I aware that I’m privileged to be able to make that stand, and I’m glad that I can.

These are just a few of many examples I could give. The point  is that you have to figure out the boundaries of your own individual ‘you spectrum’ and then get a sense of how those boundaries may temporarily shift–or where within those boundaries you feel comfortable positioning yourself–under different circumstances. Once you’ve done that, you then have to be brave enough to really commit and own it, whatever ‘it’ is for you. (Oddly, this is advice my high school choir teacher used to give with respect to doing choreography during songs, and it’s true – even if the choreography itself is kind of lame, you personally will look less lame if you go for it 100% than if you just do a few lacklustre jazz hands. YouTube backs me up on this!)

The reason I have typed out this very longwinded response is that it can be difficult to commit, but real confidence and real freedom come from being able to do so–and, just to bring it back to the context of public speaking, this is also how you can differentiate and distinguish yourself from others rather than conforming and mimicking those who have gone before. I am 37 years old (!) and am still continually reminding myself to practice what I am preaching here, but I can assure you that life (and the delivery of presentations) gets easier when you get better at this. You would not be a part of the iGEM team if you weren’t brilliant, so even if you do need to tone down your gesticulating or learn to make natural eye contact while speaking, I hope you can see how those sorts of aesthetic things are just icing on the 100% brilliant you cake that is underneath (weird metaphor, but you get the idea).

Finland 2018 (part 1b): Helsinki

The charisma that I found lacking in Jyvaskyla was on offer in abundance in Helsinki. Sadly, I only had about 24 hours to take in the sights; I arrived at 2:30pm on Saturday and needed to head to the airport at 2:30pm on Sunday, so I wasted no time in depositing my bags in the hotel room and heading out to acquaint myself with the city.

Although I generally dislike doing things that seem overtly, cheesily touristy, I find that bus tours can be quite helpful for providing a comprehensive overview of a new place while helping you get your bearings. They are especially handy for when you’d like to see a variety of places but don’t have time to squeeze them all into your schedule. Given that I only had a few hours before closing time, a bus tour seemed like a good way to do some scouting in advance of my longer free period on Sunday.

Senate Square, Helsinki
The Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square, as seen from the top of the tour bus

There are a few tour bus options in Helsinki, all of which use red buses. I have taken a number of City Sightseeing tours elsewhere and I thought that was the company I was booking with when I bought my ticket. However, in reality, I was getting a ticket from Red Buses, which visits all the same places using pretty much exactly the same route. The audio recording, though, wasn’t up to the same standard I have had on previous trips elsewhere. Maybe it’s just a Helsinki thing, and the same is true for the City Sightseeing audio tour, but I have my doubts. There were big gaps between anecdotes, and during the quiet periods we kept passing by interesting things that I would have liked to have learned more about; further, there was silence during those gaps (on previous tours there has been locally relevant music used as a spacer), so I kept wondering whether there was a problem with my audio port. Most crucially, the narrator mispronounced and misused words to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to discern meaning. I can see why the tour company would record someone with a Finnish accent–it somehow makes the experience a little more authentic–but I don’t understand why they didn’t do a better job with quality control for the messaging. Still, there were some interesting anecdotes mixed in with the confusing stuff, and the WTF moments added a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to the experience.

After disembarking, I headed off to visit some of the sights that we’d driven past during the tour–starting with the Helsinki Cathedral, which was right in front of me. It’s an elegant building with a prominent position (both in Senate Square specifically and in the city more generally). It was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, who had been brought to Helsinki shortly after Finland was annexed by Russia, and tasked with creating a proper capital city (which was, by the way, substantially smaller then, with a population of only approximately 4,000 people). Engel dedicated over two decades of his life to perfecting the cathedral, which wasn’t consecrated until 1852, twelve years after his death. On the outside, it may look very similar to other religious buildings such as the Sacre Coeur, but the Helsinki Cathedral is a Lutheran house of worship and is therefore incredibly austere inside. It isn’t plain, exactly, but there are few decorations and ornaments, and those that have been included involve no frippery. It is amazing how this alters the thoughts and feelings you experience while you are inside the building.

Altar at the Helsinki Cathedral
Look at all the unadorned walls here, and the completely blank dome. You would never mistake this for a Catholic building.

Just a couple blocks away is the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox facility that, unfortunately, I couldn’t properly visit because preparations were underway for a Saturday evening mass. I was able to briefly poke my head in the doorway and catch a glimpse of some of its many icons. Although the building is stylistically quite distinct from the Helsinki Cathedral, it was built during approximately the same period and was consecrated not long after its Lutheran neighbour, in 1868. The red brick, darker interior, gilt decor, and large collection of religious artwork give it an incredibly different atmosphere. As I was leaving, I encountered an orthodox woman who had come for the service. Although I have incredibly conflicted feelings about ‘modest dress’, I did think she looked very romantically beautiful in her lace veil and shawl; because I never see such things in my daily life, I sometimes forget that people still wear these traditional forms of clothes, so it was like encountering someone who had stepped out of the pages of a history book.

I had a bit of a wander through the harbour area, where the large weekend market was just packing up for the day. The fresh fruits looked particularly appealing, not only to me but also to the many gulls waiting around to catch things that fell off stands or to nab food right off tables if the vendors let down their guard for just a moment. I also took in the Esplanade, a long, thin park where people come to relax and picnic in the sun. It is situated near a range of shops, theatres, and restaurants, so it’s the perfect place to stop off for a mini-break in the middle of a busy day out.

Fact and Fable statue
‘Fact and Fable’, by Gunnar Finne, unveiled in 1932. The statue is accompanied by a plaque with QR codes and a URL for more info (http://vihreatsylit.fi/en/esplanadinpuisto/).

With that brief introduction to the city under my belt, I headed back to the hotel to have dinner. This hotel, incidentally, was quite a step up from the one in Jyvaskyla. It had its own cobbled courtyard and counted among its decorations a centuries-old tapestry. Sadly–tragically, even–the flamingo frescos featured so prominently on the hotel’s website were not in evidence anywhere I looked. I had so been anticipating a selfie with the pink bird art and was disappointed that this was not possible. What I got instead was front row tickets to a small urban common gull breeding colony, from which emanated an endless amount of territorial shrieking  ALL. NIGHT. LONG.

Night sky in Helsinki
Long past my bedtime, the sun is still up. This is 11:30pm in Finland in mid-June.

Though this inevitably left me feeling somewhat bleary-eyed the next morning, I was still eager to get out and explore more of the city. I had two destinations in mind: the Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM, and the National Museum of Helsinki. You might think that I was going to the former in order to see fine art, but, no, I was only there to snap a photo of its main entrance:

Main entrance to the HAM
Helsinki Art Museum entrance under the watchful eye of an enormous gull head

I’d seen the HAM the previous day during the bus tour, which mentioned the museum but said nothing about the bizarre avian decoration outside its entrance; likewise, online research yielded no explanation and no photos featuring the, um, art. I can only assume this is a temporary installation, for which I am sure the residents of the apartments across the street are extremely grateful. If you are thinking that this building looks like an unusual place for an art museum even before you factor in the gull, you may be interested to know that this facility is called the Tennispalatsi and was originally constructed in 1938 for the 1940 Olympics (which were supposed to have been held in Tokyo but were relocated to Finland); it housed four tennis courts that were never used for their intended function because the Olympics were cancelled once WWII began. However, the building did finally contribute to the Olympics in 1952, when it hosted the basketball preliminaries.

After the photo shoot, I headed over to my second and final museum of the day. The National Museum is housed in a striking building designed in the ‘national romantic’ style–one inspired by the castles and churches of medieval Finland. It houses an extensive collection of items dating from prehistory to the modern era; there was even a temporary Barbie exhibit on display when I visited, though I didn’t have time to wander through. You start by heading downstairs to learn about Finland’s earliest human residents and then climb upwards to work your way through successive periods of history.

The museum is not only full of interesting things, but also laid out extremely well. For example, though there aren’t that many prehistoric artefacts to put on display, the exhibition is rounded out with drawings, videos, and infographics that provide additional information to help you contextualise what you are seeing; these are arranged so as to reinforce certain messages and concepts and help audiences really understand and remember the topics addressed through the collections.

National Museum living stones

(This–which is a video in which the sound is crucial–is one of the weirdest but also most wonderful things I’ve ever encountered in a museum. Without any preamble or captioning, it accompanied a display about petroglyphs. The text associated with the reproduction rock art stated that often the artists painted their images on rocks that had human features. That was the only context provided. There were four of these.)

As in Norse mythology, the idea of a tree of life can also be found in ancient Finnish beliefs. Here, the layout of the room helps the visitor get a sense of how a three-part tree structure (roots, trunk, canopy) might symbolise distinct parts of the universe.

I knew next to nothing about Finland before visiting, and though I am sure my current levels of historical and cultural understanding are well beneath those even of a young Finnish child, I do at least feel that I learned a substantial amount from touring the museum, and that what I picked up was the sort of crucial knowledge you would want to impart to a visitor so the they have a framework for understanding the country and its people. I got the sense that the museum was providing me with a lens through which everything I encountered in Finland was clearer and more logical.

Further, I found I was genuinely interested in everything I was learning. This is something I notice wherever I travel: No matter how little you knew about a place and its people beforehand, and no matter how unlikely those seem directly related to your own history or current life, it is almost inevitable that you will find something that connects with you personally, or that you have encountered in some fashion before, even without realising it. No matter where in the world they live, people are people, and we all share things in common.

Offering stone
Case in point: offering stone. People around the world are drawn to stones that are deemed holy because they are unusual in some way. This stone features lots of impressions where offerings–milk, food, flowers, etc.–were once left. I saw very similar things last year in Ireland.

One of the most impressive techniques utilised by the National Museum was that of housing entire structures within its gallery space. For example, there was a boxcar that you walked through as part of an exhibition on schoolchildren that had been sent to safety in Sweden during WWII; in a series of rooms showing artefacts from the 18th century, several were devoted to reconstructing an 18th-century house featuring domestic artefacts in situ; and my favourite: there was an entire traditional Finnish log cabin. This last example could be smelled before it was seen because it was the genuine article and, since cabins were originally made without any chimneys, it gave off a very strong campfire-like eau de smoke.

Log cabin
It was interesting to look inside the cabin, but it was even better to smell it.

The National Museum also dealt with politics fairly directly, acknowledging Finland’s difficulties with successive external rulers (first the Swedes, then the Russians), then its internal struggles as it sought an identity as an independent nation, and finally more modern challenges associated with the economic crisis and immigration. It was a thoughtful but practical approach that showed pride in national accomplishments without minimising less savoury moments in history or straying into the realm of propaganda. I appreciated the blunt, self-aware approach, which allowed you to interpret the information in whatever way you felt was appropriate and draw your own conclusions accordingly.

Saved art
Pieces scavenged and saved by Sakari Palsi, Olavi Paavolainen, and Yrjo Jylha during the Continuation War. This trio wandered through abandoned villages to preserve precious cultural artefacts that had been left behind when homes were abandoned or were at risk of being destroyed in the fighting.
Finnish presidents
Finland became an independent country in 1918 and is celebrating its centenary all this year. These photos are straight out of Harry Potter: The subjects, Finland’s presidents over the years, all move very subtly every few seconds. It is extremely unnerving when you are not expecting it.

I do not know many Finns personally, though I know enough people who do that I have heard all the classic stereotypes: The Finnish have intensely deadpan humour; they love vodka; their culture revolves around the sauna; they are very direct; they are quite individualistic; they’re all a little crazy (which is always linked to the long days in summer and long nights in winter). I have to say that I saw either elements of, or the roots of, most of these things, both while out and about in Finland in general and while wandering through the National Museum.

A display of sauna ladles
This is only a portion of the entire sauna ladle display. People go to the sauna not just with friends and family, but also with colleagues. Important business and political deals are completed at the sauna. And all of this is supposed to take place without clothing.

I mean that in an appreciative, kind-hearted way rather than a judgmental one. These are a people who live in an incredibly extreme environment, and although there is a decently sized immigrant population, many Finns descended from ancestors who lived in that harsh wilderness for generations upon generations and somehow managed to survive and thrive. You can’t achieve that feat without being at least a little intense, yourself. It is no surprise that the Finns are direct and no-nonsense, or that their culture contains extremes of both colour (I am picturing some of the more outlandish clothing styles I encountered on the street and also remembering this crazy article I saw a few years ago) and darkness (I’m pretty sure even lullabies are heavy metal). The people are shaped by their surroundings.

Museum display of heavy metal music
This great interactive display allowed you to sample from the wide range of heavy metal music produced by Finnish artists.

I know that statement is slightly oversimplified, but I do think there’s a lot of truth in it. And, while the Finnish climate–not to mention those crazy-long winter ‘nights’–is perhaps a little extreme even for me, I did feel an affinity for the country and its people. I never felt self-conscious in the way that I have in some of the other places I’ve visited, and my interactions left me with the sense of a kindred spirit. I have absolutely no idea what anybody was saying, though, so for all I know I was being made fun of the entire time I was there, and just couldn’t tell because nobody ever laughs.

In any case, the National Museum was an extremely educational and enjoyable experience and was a great way to finish up the trip (pun intended!). If you’ve only got a limited amount of time in Helsinki, I can’t think of a better way to get a good introduction and overview to Finnish culture in general. However, I would recommend trying to linger in the city a bit longer than I did so that you can explore some of the many other museums and cultural sites on offer. I’m sad I wasn’t able to squeeze them in during this visit, but I’m hoping to return some day.

In fact, though it won’t give me an opportunity to see more of Helsinki, I do have another trip to Finland coming up at the end of August. This time, I will be heading out into the wilds. Will the change in scenery alter my appreciation of the country and its people? Will spending time in the Finnish forest make me more laconic? Will I develop a love of saunas and swimming in very cold water? Stay tuned to find out…

Finland 2018 (Part 1a): Jyvaskyla

By complete accident, 2018 has turned out to be the year of travel, featuring everything from short weekend getaways to the countryside for the purposes of hearing nightjars vocalizing on the heath to much longer jaunts halfway around the world for work. One of the few trips I’d actually been aware of and planning for fairly well in advance was a visit to Finland with some friends, one of whom took the lead in planning the entire affair; I just said ‘yes, that sounds great!’ to all of her suggestions and then handed over money whenever she asked. A few months after that trip was first conceived, I was offered an opportunity to contribute to a symposium at a conference that also happened to be in Finland—as it turns out, in pretty much the same portion of the country. So it happened that, having never been to Finland in my life (and having previously been to Scandinavia only once), I found myself visiting twice in one year, going to the Lakeland area both times. I’m not usually so disorganized, but this is the kind of unexpected thing that happens when you are working too hard to pay attention to details.

That said, it’s not exactly like this was a regrettable mistake. Finland is awfully pretty, and mid-June is a fantastic time to visit. My final destination was Jyvaskyla, which I reached by train. I rode a local train to Tikkurila, about 15 minutes from the airport, and disembarked there to wait for the inter-city train. I wasn’t properly in the countryside yet, but already the air was clear and fresh and wholesome. Although the sun was shining brightly, the air was that comfortable sort of magical moderate temperature where you could wear anything from a sleeveless shirt to a hoodie and be comfortable.

Lake Jyvasjarvi, Finland

Although the ride to Jyvaskyla was fairly lengthy, it was very pleasant—not just because the seats were comfortable (wide, with head rests that didn’t bend my neck and with footrests to help my knees!), but because the landscape outside the window was so picturesque. There was something sort of familiar about it, which I at first attributed to the fact that I’ve read books and seen movies set in Scandinavia. But then I realized: It looks exactlylike the parts of Minnesota that I have visited. The evergreens—many (all?) of which I know are plantations rather than original natural forest—are stately; the lakes (which increased in number the further north we travelled) are an eerie black that contrasts beautifully with the surrounding vegetation; the homes, built in the traditional style, are welcoming; and the endless lupines are enchanting. The scenery was gorgeous…

…and then the train pulled in to Jyvaskyla. I’m not saying that Jyvaskyla is the leastattractive place I’ve ever been, but I amsaying that it isn’t the most attractive, and it certainly didn’t live up to the precedent set by the countryside we passed on the way to the city. It has an attractive square with an old church/town hall in the middle and some grounds where people can (and did) lounge in the sun, and there are some residential neighbourhoods with more of those beautiful, inviting Finnish-style homes in a rainbow of cheerful colours. There is a fantastic ‘activity trail’ (this is actually what it’s called—reflecting the fact that people don’t just bike and run but also do more unconventional activities like cross-country rollerblading) that runs all around Lake Jyvasjarvi. There are also some great cultural facilities, such as the events venue where my conference was held, the University of Jyvaskyla, and a selection of museums (more on which later). But so many of these were built in an extremely modern, functional style. Although Finland achieved independence from Russia in 1918, Jyvaskyla, at least, still very much has the look and feel of mid-century Soviet territory.

Lots of this sort of angular, modern-looking thing in Jyvaskyla. I disliked most of it but obviously this one amused me because it looked like a Star Trek comms badge.

My hotel was right in the middle of this sea of concrete blocks, which was a bummer in terms of aesthetics but quite handy in terms of access to the train station (5 minutes away) and the conference venue (an additional 5 minutes beyond the station). I was also right around the corner from a great grocery store, which was convenient given that I had deliberately selected accommodation with a ‘kitchenette’. I put that word in quotation marks because it was described as a kitchenette—which, in my mind, involves a particular bare-minimum set of appliances and resources—but consisted merely of a kettle, a microwave, and an empty and never-quite-cold minibar fridge.

It is worth describing my hotel in a little more detail, because it was weird in other ways. It had no reception desk, no check-in or -out, and no keys. On the day of my arrival in Jyvaskyla, I was emailed a door code that enabled me to pass through four portals: a barred gate giving access to the front door, the front door itself, a door to my floor, and the door to my room. The hotel was easy to spot from the sidewalk because it was labelled quite clearly, but then the main door was hidden away around to the side in a gated parking lot. There was nothing wrong with it and I never had any trouble with anyone, but it all somehow felt a bit seedy. My room had two single beds, both of which were permanently attached to the floor, positioned side-by-side under a wall-mounted reading light at just the right height to prevent you from sitting up comfortably in bed. There was also a dining table at which there were two chairs and two single-sized futons folded up into seats; none of these was very comfortable to sit on for very long. Oddly, the room also featured an unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) large television, and there was a hairdryer that I could plug into an outlet in the bathroom, so it wasn’t a totally ascetic existence—though I also wouldn’t describe it as comfortable.

In case you are wondering how I dealt with the matter of sustenance, I will tell you now that my solutions were inspired. Taking a cue from the other former rulers of Finland, Sweden, I bought supplies for smorgasbords: some of the seemingly infinite types of wholesome cracker (sturdy enough to build with, I think); some soft cheese; cucumbers; tomatoes; and shredded cabbage salad. To construct and contain these, I also purchased a set of transportable cutlery from a camping store, and a collapsible bowl. A matching collapsible cup gave me something out of which to drink my raspberry-flavoured sparkling water (purchased by accident because I had no idea what the label said but could tell the water contained bubbles, which is what I was after), and I already had a travel mug out of which to drink tea and some cup-of-soup mixes. The bowl could be reused for yogurt and granola at breakfast, which I also supplemented with a steady supply of fresh fruit. I even splurged and bought a pack of reusable plastic containers so I could take my lunch to go and whip up a batch of trail mix. The best part? All that culinary equipment—plus a scrub-brush I’d bought to help me do dishes in my bathroom sink—returned home to the UK with me. Best souvenirs ever, am I right?

Smorgasbord dining. Don’t be jealous of my mad food prep skills.

You maybe are thinking that, brilliant as this solution was, it sounds like something you’d do as a PhD student rather than a full-time employee. To that I would say: yes, probably, but I really hate eating out over and over because I have a very sensitive stomach and inevitably I wind up feeling unwell when I have to cede control of my diet to strangers. Also, Scandinavia is not cheap. Finland was not as bad as I expected, actually, but I spent more than I would have liked just on a few basic ingredients, so I can’t imagine how much it would have cost to have purchased a full meal multiple times a day for the entire duration of my stay. At this point, I probably could go without eating smorgasbords for the rest of 2018, but actually it was quite pleasant while I was doing it.

It was a bummer that my hotel wasn’t a bit more lavish (or, really, even fractionally lavish at all), because I ended up spending a fair amount of time there. To someone without a vehicle providing access into the surrounding countryside, there is a limited amount of entertainment to be found within Jyvaskyla itself – and I did partake of these things, which I will describe in more detail later. Those didn’t take that much time, though, plus I was on deadline to write a magazine article. I needed to read quite a bit of research before actually composing the piece, and I had always intended to use a portion of my Finland getaway to accomplish this. I had imagined that it would happen under slightly more comfortable conditions, but, having recently weathered such a hectic, non-stop period at work, it felt incredibly decadent and indulgent to be able to just sit, and read, and think, and create. As with the food I was eating, simple and uncomplicated did not mean unappealing.

Uncomplicated, but very appealing

So what did I do when I ventured out of my little dorm-style room?

The ECCB conference. This is why I went to Finland to begin with, and obviously it would have been remiss of me to skip my own talk. I was one of eight people in a symposium dedicated to thinking about how science communication (‘scicomm’) can achieve conservation goals by helping people connect with nature. I had the dubious honour of being the first speaker, but I think I did a decent job setting the tone. The room was packed, which was gratifying even though I suspect the audience was perhaps more interested in some of the more globally recognizable contributors. I haven’t spoken at this sort of conference for a few years and had therefore never observed the new live-tweet culture from the lectern; it was so strange to see a dozen people lift up their phones and take a photo every time I changed slides—but it was also encouraging, since I could see that people were engaged and interested. I did some live-tweeting of my own during my fellow presenters’ talks, partly to help draw attention to the event, partly to pass on useful tidbits to some of the scicomm-lovers who follow me online, and partly to create a record of advice that I could later consult myself.

Selfie taken in the symposium room in between speakers

I also attended a keynote lecture by the poet-scientist Madhur Anand, who read some of her poems, talked about the process of writing them and blending science with verse, and, in turn, verse with conservation action, more generally, and then answered questions from the audience. Although I am neither shy nor lacking in confidence, I hate asking questions in a conference setting (I did not have a good experience my first time around, and I think it has haunted me ever since). However, I did pluck up my courage to ask Madhur the following: I’ve read a lot about how there has been an increase in the popularity of poetry, and yet when I chat with friends and colleagues, I get the sense that I’m in a minority as a regular reader of verse. How does this compare with the sense you have of your audience / potential audience, and what does that make you think about using poetry as a means of scicomm intended to influence public opinions about nature and science? She confirmed my impression that, while poetry may be increasingly popular, it’s not really at Stephen King levels of sales—though there are some extremely popular ‘Insta poets’ (e.g., Rupi Kaur) who are changing this. She also pointed out that quality may outweigh quantity when it comes to the scicomm value of poetry; where it has been incorporated into projects, it has been very impactful because of how strongly it affects people’s emotions and opinions. It was a thoughtful and interesting answer towards the end of a thoughtful and interesting talk, and I look forward to reading her book A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes.

Thinking about how poetry can help us understand complicated concepts in surprisingly accessible ways

Lake Jyvasjarvi. I had originally planned to hike all the way around the lake using the activity trail, but I ended up doing the western loop twice rather than the whole thing once. The section that I selected seemed to run through more wooded areas, which was nice not just for the sake of aesthetics, but also for shade and protection from the sun; I had forgotten to pack sun cream (this is not a supply that seems essential for a trip to northern Europe) and was acutely aware of how close and intense the sun felt even on cooler days. Starting at an access point near the conference centre, I a) walked west along the northern edge of the lake, b) headed down to the University of Jyvaskyla campus where there is a suspension bridge that allows you to cross to the other side and head through the trees for a while, before c) coming back to another bridge that you can either head under for some additional walking (to do the full loop around the lake) or cross over to return to where you started. I could never really lose myself in nature because the city is still very much right therealong the entire pathway, but it was still very calming to be by the water, and there was some good wildlife viewing to be had: I saw fieldfares and redwings in their summer habitat, a mama great-horned grebe with a chick on her back, a lady mallard leading her ducklings to water, a common toad (the first toad I’ve seen in the wild in years), and more chaffinches than I have ever seen in my life. It was great to be able to strike out from my hotel room and have such a spacious and pleasant walking path so close by. All cities should have something similar.

Lupines along the path

The Craft Museum of Finland. There is, as I said, only a limited number of options for organized outings in Jyvaskyla, so it’s not entirely surprising that the Finnish Craft Museum makes all the ‘Top 10 Things to Do in Jyvaskyla’ lists. However, it genuinely is a top-ten destination, and is one of the most enjoyable museums I have ever visited. It has three main types of exhibit:

  1. Static displays providing information on a range of different crafting genres that are and have been important within Finland (e.g., spinning, weaving, knitting).
  2. Static displays on traditional Finnish dress (which may seem unrelated except when you consider the fact that a) both the costumes and the materials used to make them have been, and to some extent still are, constructed by hand, and b) the entire idea of a national costume, and what different types of national costumes arose in different areas and in different eras, is itself a bespoke creation.
  3. Rotating displays showcasing…whatever is deemed interesting and relevant. During my visit, there was a collection of ‘outsider art’ from contemporary crafters who are not really part of any formal artistic or crafting movement or community—in other words, people whose work is often called ‘folk art’ rather than ‘real’ art, even though many (including me) would argue this is an arbitrary and condescending distinction.

The Museum isn’t very large, physically, and yet, thanks to a clever use of space, it manages to fit in quite a bit; it kept me entertained for several hours because I felt compelled to read every last plaque and interact with every last hands-on display. One thing I particularly liked was how there were drawers of ‘extras’ underneath many displays, such that if you were intrigued by a particular exhibit, you could see additional examples or find out more about techniques / context by sliding open the drawers to view the supplementary information. There was also a craft room where you could go in and experiment with different activities and techniques—including fairly advanced things like soldering and whittling.

A selection of Finnish national costumes
A felted crafter and the source of her wool

Not to be materialistic, but the Craft Museum has a wonderful gift shop full of unique handmade items; it also leads next door to a larger associated independent shop that has an even wider range of artisan items ranging from food and luxury toiletries to ceramics, hand-printed tea towels, and upscale clothing. I wanted somany things, both for myself and to take home as gifts, but I had almost no spare space in my luggage (especially once you factored in the dishware I had purchased and would need to transport home)—plus the prices were exorbitant. I love to support artists and I understand why they charge what they do, but it’s costly enough in my own currency; trying to afford it despite unfavourable exchange rates in a very expensive country was just more than I could manage. Maybe I can save up for a splurge during my next trip to Finland.

The Alvar Aalto Museum. In my wildest dreams, I would never have expected to enjoy a museum devoted to architecture and design. I visited the Alvar Aalto Museum not because I had ever heard of Aalto (I hadn’t, though he is internationally renowned) or because I had a particular interest in his work, but because the museum was so close and got exceptionally high reviews online. Entry was only €6 so I figured I had nothing to lose. Another way to look at it is that I also had an opportunity to gain quite a lot, which I did—in particular, knowledge of and respect for Alvar Aalto and his impressive work. I had such a great time that I got home and composed a lengthy Twitter thread just to share my excitement. I have reproduced it here for those who didn’t catch it the first time around (i.e., pretty much everyone):

 

As I was wandering through the museum (which is also incredibly well designed, as you might expect given the focus of the venue), I had a flashback to 6thgrade when my wonderful art teacher (shoutout to Mr Stobart!) introduced us to the basics of drafting and set us loose on designing blueprints of our dream homes. I can still picture the project I produced for class; I also remember enjoying the activity so much that I kept designing house after house for months afterwards. Obviously, given that I went on to be a scientist rather than an architect or engineer, I eventually grew out of my design phase, but the appreciation for clever and attractively shaped buildings has remained. It was fun to take a few hours to reacquaint myself with my interest in this topic.

I encountered quite a bit of unusual and intriguing street art in Jyvaskyla

The one obvious thing I didn’t do in Jyvaskyla was properly visit the university campus and explore the facilities there—including the natural history museum. However, given what I do for a living, I figured I have had more than enough experience with university campuses; plus, I was already planning to visit an even larger museum in Helsinki at the end of the trip, so ultimately I couldn’t feel too guilty about leaving this one destination off my itinerary.

Thus, despite the amount of time I’d spent holed up in my hotel room doing nerd work, I felt pretty satisfied with my stay in Jyvaskyla. I had gone for quality over quantity in terms of activities, which allowed me to experience those fewer things at a less exhausting pace, and therefore in a deeper, more memorable way. This is often something we either don’t do when traveling, or don’t have the luxury of doing, and it was a good reminder to myself that I am not just permitted to take it easy, but will, in fact, probably benefit from doing so.

Stay tuned for the next instalment to find out whether I internalized this lesson sufficiently to put it into action when I relocated to Helsinki for the final two days of my trip…