Learning the True Meaning of ‘Fellowship’ at PhysCon

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Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Congress (PhysCon)

November 3, 2016 to November 5, 2016

San Francisco, CA

Meeting host:

Sigma Pi Sigma


Graham Van Goffrier

SPS Chapter:

Students en route to one of PhysCon's four tour sites.The term ‘congress’ comes from the Latin gredi, to walk, and con-, together. To walk together. At the 2016 Quadrennial Physics Congress, nearly 1,200 undergraduate students from all corners of the nation walked together for the first time. They walked from esteemed plenary speeches to team-focused workshops, from world-famous research facilities to the hotel swimming pool. Watching this sea of students begin to mix, I was reminded of my freshman orientation at college almost three years ago. Yet, the attendees of this Congress were by no means typical college students. The majority of those I met were actively involved with high-caliber research at their home institutions, ranging across all disciplines of science, mathematics, and engineering. Many presented their work at one of two sprawling conference poster sessions, and for a significant proportion, this was their first occasion to do so. I met student athletes, skilled artists, and dynamic leaders; simply looking around the dinner table or along the aisle of the tour bus, every person shone in their own unique way.

What all these diverse students shared was an incompressible will to learn without bound, to explore the natural world, and to shape their own futures. These three goals, as I came to realize while at the Congress, do not lend themselves well to flying solo. Collaboration and the free sharing of ideas are essential tenets of the scientific community, and I observed that all 1,200 student attendees had taken such principles to heart. Several conference speakers described this quality with a single word: ‘fellowship’.

I was fortunate enough to travel to San Francisco with seven fellow UMaine students, and can imagine PhysCon might have been more than a little scary if travelling solo, as the lone representative from your school. Thinking back to the dozens and dozens of attendees whom I met and talked to at length, I had a tough time recalling any such lone representatives, save a few who had mentioned the fact in conversation. The simple explanation for this phenomenon is that these brave adventurers participated just as much as everyone else, and never seemed alone at all! The meals, poster sessions, and all other arranged activities made new friends and icebreaker conversations unavoidable. I know from direct experience that many school groups were hard-pressed to keep their own students together once so many new friendships had been forged. This mixing and mingling did not have to be suggested to attendees; for them it was an automatic reflex to reach out to strangers, and shake their hands. This outstretched hand is fellowship.

Author and SPS Member Graham Van Goffrier.Professor S. James Gates, Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, gave his plenary speech to attendees on the final morning of the Congress. His words uniquely inspired a great many students, as evidenced by the crowd of eager questioners who gathered around him immediately after his talk. Throughout the day, I noticed him on multiple occasions, always deep in conversation with a student or two, and was very struck by his genuine concern for the future generation of physicists. Professor Gates recalled one event in particular from PhysCon that stood out in his memory:

“At one point after my presentation, I was simply sitting on a set of terrace-garden like benches in the hotel and a group of students began to take seats around me to ask various questions.

The group grew to be over a dozen. one point, a conference photographer stood in the background and took pictures of this activity.  The group broke up, he came over to me and said something using the phrase ‘Socratic-like gathering’ in reference to the Greek philosopher Socrates. I had not thought of it before that, but when he said it, an image immediately sprang into my mind's eye.

Artistic rendering of students gathering around Socrates.

The resemblance is truly uncanny. I was immediately reminded of ancient times when philosopher scientists met out in nature to discuss all manner of things. A conference setting of this kind allows students and their mentors to interact in ways not possible in the standard classroom. A constant openness to asking and answering questions is a defining quality of scientists, and also most certainly of PhysCon student attendees. This openness is fellowship.

From my own experience at the Congress, I too have one memory that stands in a class by itself. As some attendees will remember, Somebody created a group conversation on the messaging app GroupMe was created the evening we all arrived in San Francisco. Many of us in the group chat never met in person, but we chatted about our experiences, shared jokes, and learned a little about each other. Chance meetings and greetings increased the membership in this diverse collection, which at present stands at over fifty members. I have no doubt that some of these fellow students, strangers not so long ago, will be my lifelong friends.

On the final evening, just before the very energizing dance party, my classmate Logan Boyd and I headed down to the hotel lobby for dinner. We decided, just for fun, to send an open invitation to the group chat, in case anyone else was feeling hungry. There was an immediate chorus of replies, and some minutes later, eight of us were breaking bread at a long restaurant table. Most of those present had previously met only one or two of the others, but shy introductions quickly grew into boisterous conversations about physics, future careers, and our lives. I cannot think of an environment other than PhysCon where this dinner would have felt so natural. This environment is fellowship.

Although I freely admit that fellowship has its limits: We eight budding physicists spent a solid 15 minutes trying and failing to split the check!