I recently completed an exhausting and whirlwind work tour of the United States from the 17th to the 31st of March. It began with a conference in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), was interrupted by a brief (recreational) stopover in New York, and ended with a week long stay in Austin (Texas).
The conference ran from the 19th to the 21st of March and was hosted by the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). This was my first conference as a graduate student, and I was travelling with both my Supervisor, Mark Nielsen, and a UQ colleague, Siobhan Kennedy. The conference itself is, by reputation, a monster: Over 4000 presentation items were jammed into the bi-annual 3-day event hosted in a convention centre that occupied an entire city block. It was awesome, and exhausting, and eminently valuable. We arrived a day and a half prior to the conference to acclimatize a little (both in terms of jetlag and the temperature) before diving head-long into the conference itself. I wasn’t presenting anything, which afforded me a lot of freedom to meet others and attend other people’s events. I spent easily more than half my time in the poster sessions, talking to fellow grad students and senior academics who were addressing a range of relevant and interesting questions. I met Jöern Klinger (University of Texas at Austin) who is looking at the role of cognitive opacity in overimitation in adults and children. While his methods differ considerably from mine, I too am looking at the role cognitive opacity plays in how we interpret social events, and I found his research very exciting. I met Kirsten Lesage (University of California) who is looking at whether children believe biblical events could actually happen as a function of their religious background and prayer as a causal mechanism. While not central to my primary interests, our conversations lead to other work which did seem very relevant, and I look forward to hearing about in the future. I don’t remember how I came to meet Adam Boyette (Duke University), but he and I shared a lot of higher-level thoughts on how to conduct research on the evolution of culture, particularly in a cross-cultural context. I found his insights uniquely thought-provoking given he has a background in Anthropology (not Psychology). Naturally I met dozens of other interesting early career researchers, too many to list. Though it is worth mentioning that I happened across Professor Jacquie Woolley (University of Texas at Austin), a big name when it comes to children’s understanding of Fantasy/Reality and the Supernatural, presenting her poster. Jacquie graciously and generously offered feedback on upcoming experiment of mine involving supernatural agents. I was fortunate later to again meet her at The University of Texas, where we discussed both her work and my own, and – again, graciously – offered to provide comments on my experiment when it was completed. And thanks to a mutual friend and colleague here at UQ, I met Thalia Goldstein (Pace University) for coffee, who does super interesting work in the field children’s understanding of supernatural agents. I was also afforded the opportunity to catch up with some old friends from UQ, Cam Turner (Durham University) and Jac Davis (Cambridge), who, along with their respective colleagues, helped while away the after-hours in a strange city.
All that said, the absolute highlight of the SRCD conference for me was Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa’s symposia. I thought I had a fairly good forest-level-view of this kind of comparative/primatology literature – but I was wrong. Everything about Matsuzawa’s work, from his data and methods, to his illustrations and concluding thesis, were mindblowing. The video below is not the presentation he gave at SRCD, but one he gave a year earlier in India, but appears to be highly similar.
After this Siobhan and I hurried, by train, from Philly to New York. What’s there to say about New York that hasn’t been said before? It’s big. It’s big in all the ways. I won’t linger on how I spent less than 48 hours in a city that has more words written about it than any other, except to say that I loved Central Park. It’s a phenomenal civic space. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, it has parks, and fields, and playgrounds, and baseball diamonds, and lakes, and places to get lost. The world would be a richer place if each city had a resource like Central Park.
Then I left for Austin to work with Associate Professor Cristine Legare and her lab at the University of Texas at Austin. A collaboration between Cristine, Mark (my supervisor), Rachel Watson-Jones (Cristine’s post-doc), and myself had been progressing slowly over the last year or so. While I had met Cristine and her lab at SRCD, here at Austin I really spent some solid hours with them. We worked our way through some pragmatic issues related to the experiment, built stimulus, toured facilities, and talked science. I was also very lucky to give a talk to her lab and the faculty of UT. I had gone on record earlier, in conversation with Rachel, that I hoped I was shredded – that my work was dismantled bit by bit. Back home, in Queensland, it’s really just Mark and me talking about these ideas; while I appreciate Mark’s insight into this problem at all levels of analysis, here was an opportunity to talk to a large group of people who knew, collectively, far more about the topic of ritual than I could imagine. I presented two experiments currently under review, and two in preparation, and proposed how I thought it furthered our understanding of the topic. It was well received, I think; people liked the ideas, there were a few questions, and no-one had any unanticipated issues with my claims. While I really wanted to be deeply challenged (even if it was public), I suppose the second best outcome is that everyone rather liked what I had to say :p
Picture: ACTUAL SCIENCE. Sometimes in developmental psychology you need to spend a half day building a dragon a lair. That’s just how it works.
While at UT everyone in A/P Legare’s lab, including Rachel, Nicole Wen, Jenn Clegg, Justin Busch, and Alex Etz, were incredibly hospitable, welcoming, and interested in talking theory and science. And also with filling me with food. Lots of food. And I must mention Dan Conroy-Beam, who, along with his partner and small dog, hosted me for the duration of my stay. Dan offered to take me in sight unseen, and very fortuitously, we got along famously. We had a great deal in common, from music to science, and I never once lacked for something interesting to do in Austin.
Science is freaken’ awesome. My supervisor was in a position to pay for my travel (Thanks Mark!), I met a group of like-minded interested people from all over the world at a 3-day conference, where I proceeded to follow some of them home. They then took me in, gave me all the opportunities they could, and listened to my ideas. I know also, given how few people in the world are studying what I’m studying, that I will be running into these same people at conferences, disagreeing with them (and being disagreed with), and learning from them for the foreseeable future. I look forward to this, and the future of a field with these people in it.