A hidden cost of conferences

I was at a conference last week; hence the lack of a weekly blog post. I had the best of intentions, thinking I would perhaps live-blog the conference, or at least get a post out last week talking about the top sessions, inspiration and ideas. The fact that I wasn’t able to do any of that and I’m still recharging gave me the topic for this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have multiple sclerosis. Chronic fatigue is a standard symptom. I have learned about managing my fatigue, not taking on too much or pushing myself beyond my limits. I’ve also had to reconsider what those limits are, ask for help, adapt and prioritise. My family and friends keep an eye on me, reminding me when I forget to take care of myself. My employer has been incredibly supportive in allowing me to work flexibly, so I can manage more things than you might expect, including doing a part-time PhD while working full time. I am very fortunate as I can still get out and about.

Then come the conferences with associated travel, increased social interaction, presentations and workshops. Conferences are an excellent way to share your research and meet new people, but they carry a hidden cost for me in the impact on my health. As an example, the conference last week was excellent and I was looking forward to it. Air-travel was required, but I was armed with tea tree oil and haven’t caught a cold. I sensibly opted to go to bed instead of attending the conference dinner. I had included additional time to sleep, scheduled a day off when I got back home, and my out-of-office message said I would respond to emails when I was able. Even with careful planning, it is a week later and I am aware that it will take me at least another three weeks to return to normal functioning energy levels. In the meantime, I am taking it easy – I see it as putting my dodgy battery on trickle charge 🙂

This blog site is entitled “The Sustainable Academic” and conferences negatively impact my academic sustainability in two ways. One – the environmental cost of travel. Two – the physical cost of attending. As with all my colleagues, I have to select the best conferences that meet my research needs. We all have limited budgets and time, so this choice is carefully made. What options are available to cover my additional costs?

One option is to increase and improve opportunities to connect online. The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) run an online winter conference. The Networked Learning conference has run online “hot seats” (discussions and presentations) in the past and plans to run these in the future. At this point, you may be saying to yourself “…but these events are for people already interested in engaging online”. True, but the lessons learned from these can be extended into other areas. An excellent example of a wise use of technology is the Virtually Connecting option. The aim is widening participation so that any who are unable to attend can have an online chat with key presenters and ask questions. If there is a conference you want to attend and can’t, you can contact the team and see if something can be organised. You can become a buddy (of many kinds) to help increase the number of events where this option is available. I had the good fortune to participate in a session last week and could see the incredible potential.

It is true that meeting in the same location will be the preferred choice for many. Personally, I’m excited about virtually connecting to the Festival of Learning in Vancouver next week!  For those wondering about the experience of living digitally, see @Annakwood’s excellent blog post: http://learningfrome-learning.blogspot.co.uk/2018/04/10-years-of-living-life-digitally.html #MillionsMissing.

Right, that’s me for today. I will blog about last week’s conference in future posts, but for now, I’m off to tuck myself up and get busy recharging 🙂


My Immortal Microbiome

This post neatly links to the previous one on digital compost; you would think I planned it! With digital compost, I expanded on a metaphor for the digital footprint of places and the more-than-human. With my immortal microbiome, I’m focusing on the biota that exist in and on my body, a wonderful network that lives in the liminal spaces between what I view as “my body” and perceive as my “external environment”.

My husband, Gavin, and I recently participated in the International Microbiome Study (http://imsms.org/home/) via the Anne Rowling Clinic. The aim is to compare the microbiomes of two people who live together, one with MS and one without. The team are investigating and comparing our gut flora, given that we live mainly in the same environment and eat roughly the same food. We gave blood and stool samples which will be stored at the main research lab in San Francisco. I joked that it is not my heart I have left in San Francisco!

I am keen to see how this study progresses. It was pretty much painless thanks to a great phlebotomist and the kit for taking the stool sample was fun to use and appealed to my inner MacGyver. There was a food survey and I’m a survey geek, so was delighted to work my way through it. I also get a kick out of the fact that part of me is getting to visit somewhere new in the world, as I’ve never been to San Fran. But I digress…

What was most interesting at the outset was the consent form and we both discussed this at length before signing up for the study. We have essentially gifted our DNA and microbiomes to the research team to be sequenced and cultured and kept in perpetuity for health-related research. Somewhere in a lab, a unique portion of us lives and is cared for, ready and on standby to help research teams better understand the organisms that are part of us.

Linking back to the post on digital compost, this is a whole deeper level of data that gets right to the coding of what makes us. It also calls into question what is “us”, the two people who share a life and a home, or the trillions of microbes that co-exist with our “selves”. More accurately, perhaps we are a community, an extension of the participatory, relational understanding that I touched on previously. Reading Timothy Morton’s Humankind this week, linking his discussion on symbiosis and the “symbiotic real” with Donna Haraway’s exploration of symbiogenesis, I can see it is more than this.

I like this quote (Morton, 2017; p.40):

“Human” means me plus my nonhuman prostheses and symbionts, such as my bacterial microbiome and my technological gadgets, an entity that cannot be determined in advance within a thin, rigid outline or rigidly demarcated from the symbiotic real. The human is what I call a “hyperobject”: a bundle of entities massively distributed in time and space that forms an entity in its own right, one that is impossible for humans to see or touch directly.

What I define as “me” is a symbiosis, a biosphere, operating in a “hum of solidarity”. There is no firm, fixed boundary, no inside/outside; instead at most a permeable  membrane, ebb and flow between what appears to be me and me-as-part-of “the loose connectivity of the symbiotic real” (p.2). Does that mean there is no “me”? Even “I” don’t know what “Sharon” truly is, but there is a plethora of Sharon-data. To paraphrase Tim, what the team in San Francisco will have is definitely a lot of Sharon-data, it isn’t raindrop-data or blue-whale-data, though there may be a fair whack of daffodil and earthworm. But it will not be “Sharon”.

At the start of this post, I talked about the “network” of my microbiome. Over the week, with Tim’s help, I understand that it is more truly a network of solidarity, a collective, a doing-being, a deep inter-relatedness. Kindness and kin-ness have returned. Miriam Lueck Avery’s TED talk is a good way to finish this week’s post; unsurprisingly, I particularly like the “medicine as gardening” idea!

Image is: “Bacteriaby Caroline Davis2010. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0. Original source via Flickr


Morton, T. (2017). Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso Books. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2465-humankind

Sustainable Dying – Re-use and Recycle

This article on organ donation reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a few months before he passed away. Planet with plant from Pixabay.com

His mum had donated her body to science, and he planned to do the same himself. Then we saw an article about donating your body, and realised that we hadn’t taken any of the steps to ensure that could take place – no forms completed, no notification made, not enough time left. He knew then that it was not an option for him.

I’ve always carried my donor card, but realising that it might not be enough, I’ve ensured in as many ways as I can that it is clear I am happy to be an organ donor should my varied odds and sods be of value when I no longer require their services.

I like to think my organs would be happy to have a second life, to be reused and recycled to help someone else. Previous owner: one careful lady driver 🙂

I also have multiple sclerosis, and again in the newspaper spotted a piece about brain donation to help with research. A talk with my specialist confirmed the details, and I have now signed up to the UK MS Tissue Bank. I particularly like the idea that my brain and spinal cord may get the opportunity to travel around the world if they are assigned to a project outwith the UK, which is certainly possible. I think they’d enjoy the trip, and why should they stop living simply because the energy that makes me ‘me’ is no longer residing here?

Two things to note: 

  1. the letter from the Cambridge medical students and the life stories of those who have benefitted from transplants in the articles mentioned above are inspiring – as are the stories of those brave enough to give a living donation (I’m not that brave!)
  2. don’t underestimate the strength, love and understanding of your family – choosing to donate needs their acceptance and agreement too

So go on, give your fantastic body the option to go on doing good after you’ve moved on to pastures new 🙂 

NHS How_to_become_a_donor