Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sleepless in Sarasota

Down in Sarasota, Florida, this week they’re holding the 31st annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences. AChemS is the big science confab for the smell and taste crowd and it attracts a hodge-podge of biologists, physiologists, chemists, and assorted behavioral types: insect people, fish people and, of course, human people.

As scientific meetings go it’s small potatoes: about 800 attendees packed into a run-of-the-mill Hyatt on the wrong coast of Florida in the less expensive season (we’re talking tweedy academic researchers here, not corporate expense accounts). Nevertheless, the meeting is the heart and soul of sensory science: it’s where the field comes together to catch up, take stock, and constantly reinvent itself. 

I’ve been attending AChemS steadily since I was a post-doc and over the years parts of the experience have become a generic blur. I can close my eyes and count the exact number of strides from the airport escalator to the rental car counter. Exiting the terminal is a fixed sequence: the swish of the automatic glass doors, the sudden glare, the blast of heavy, wet heat. Then comes the Avis new-car smell—compact models the size and temperature of toaster ovens in the early years, later a string of hefty convertibles: a Mustang or Mitsubishi in I’m-a-tourist-come-ticket-me colors. A pause at the first traffic light—across from the Ringling Clown College—and then it’s time to punch up some classical tunes: Cosi fan tutte, Talking Heads, whatever’s at hand.

Some things change. Age and boredom (are they different?) gradually overtake one’s peers. The traditional ride up the highway to the Peek-A-Boo Lounge in Bradenton becomes less well-attended: topless bars are not the kind of thing one does when one is up for tenure. Even the dinner-hour outings in search of interesting food become less adventurous and then not outings at all—people start to settle for the hotel restaurant (not me, thank you).

AChemS has its own daily rhythm: early morning poster sessions full of freshly showered presenters eager to submerge you in a torrent of minutiae about the response time of trigeminal nerve fibers in the frog to stimulation with sub-nanomolar quantities of . . . hunh? You stare blankly and politely until the caffeine in the heavy hotel mug triggers a response in your own synapses. Slide sessions are the premiere presentation venue. With years of practice one can crack the door to the ballroom and know immediately whether the session is worthwhile: if the crowd is small and most people are seated at the back of the hall, one can safely skip it.

Sometimes the talks are compelling, the topics controversial, or the findings hot and newsworthy. If so, the conversations carry on after the last dutiful grad student has pulled the last pushpins from his frog poster at 11:00 p.m. and everyone migrates to the Boathouse, the Hyatt’s semi-detached restaurant and bar, perched on pilings in the dark green brackish water of the marina. Back in the day the air was thick with cigarette smoke and the exhaust fumes of power boats idling at the dock. Packed around the bar, presided over year after year by the goofy, ever-smiling, never-aging Bobby, extremely tan boat people would rub shoulders with science nerds. Tell a boat person that you study the sense of smell and he would often just laugh out loud—which, if you think about it, is probably the best possible response.

By legend, and in actual fact, some of the best science was transacted after midnight in the noisy confines of the Boathouse bar. Being a night owl, I always felt sorry for the young graduate students and newly married assistant professors who would retire early in order to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the next morning’s poster session. Didn’t they get it? The minutiae of frog trigeminal nerve responses can wash over you just as well hung-over as sober.

With last call, and then after Bobby’s for real I mean it last call, the hard core of the world’s sensory intelligensia would stagger forth into the balmy Gulf Coast air of two in the morning. With high enough animal spirits a group might head out past the ghostly, decaying tower of the Ringling Hotel to the nearby Denny’s for hash browns and omelettes.

Then, for me, came the most magical part of the meeting: walking into the deserted Hyatt parking lot at 3 a.m., powering down the convertible top, and sucking in the sweet, dense fragrance of night-blooming jessamine from nearby shrubs. Off into the empty streets, past automatic lawn sprinklers spewing musty water, past the cop hidden in the palmettos above St. Armand’s Circle, down along Lido beach and into my off-site motel, far from the eggheads and boat people, close enough to the breakers to be lulled to sleep by the sound of waves.

This may be the last hurrah in Sarasota: they demolished the Ringling Hotel, bulldozed the Denny’s, and shuttered the Boathouse. Next year AChemS moves to St. Petersburg. As for me, I’ll miss the 31st annual meeting—I’m in Los Angeles to meet my reading public at the Festival of Books.

With any luck I may fall asleep to the sounds of a different sea. I wonder if it will smell as sweet.


Olfacta said...

Trust me, it won't.

My grandmother lived in Bradenton, and we went there several times a year. Like the rest of Florida, it used to be wonderful; she had a yard full of fruit trees, grew hibiscus and was a painter. Now Bradenton is full of retirees from Michagan in ripstop nylon track suits driving motorhomes at 10 mph down Cortez Blvd.

Oh well.

Great post! I always wondered what those confabs were like.

Avery Gilbert said...


Know what you mean about FLA. I miss being at the meeting but at the same time it was becoming sort of an out-of-body experience. The interaction with fellow scientists is what it's all about--the setting has a strange air of unreality about it. (And I didn't even mention the Hyatt's new fake rock grotto and hot tub . . .)