It's mid-November and I'm attending the American College of Veterinary Pathologists' annual meeting where I will present my research on the Vancouver Rat Project.
I still have some finishing touches to do on my presentation, but the pull of this place anchors me to my seat a little longer. It's my first time in Montréal, and so far, my inaugural visit is off to a good start.
As I step onto the stage, my stomach plummets to my feet — the feeling you get from the first drop on a roller-coaster ride. My palms are sweaty, my heart is pounding in my chest and my heels are too high—but at least I can see over the podium. The room is nearly full and there's a little voice in my head playing homage to a deep, instinctual need to run.
Instead, I take a deep breath and begin. In a lucky twist of fate, the screen is positioned in the corner, away from where I stand with my knees knocking. The audience isn't looking at me; instead they all have their heads turned toward the screen. This helps.
I hit my speaking stride near the end of the introduction—why you should care about disease in wild rodents, particularly rats. They even laugh at my oft-used joke that the pelt of black rats would make more luxurious fur coats compared to brown rats.
Suddenly, the moderator to my left stands. I stop. This isn't supposed to happen!
My presentation, done in Prezi format, isn't projecting properly. The audience is only seeing a quarter of what is supposed to be shown for each view. Despite three test runs and multiple assurances from the technology staff that this new presentation style will work, it hasn't.
Luckily, the problem is solved quickly and my zooming, interactive presentation on the stomach pathology associated with a worm infection continues. But after the interruption, I feel rushed, flustered and mostly disappointed that my technology gamble didn't pay off. The buzzer rings — no time for questions.
I return to my seat, deflated. The other two students competing for the ACVP/AAVLD Travel Award in Diagnostic Pathology are cool, calm and collected. Not a word or hair is out of place during their presentations.
Pitching My Poster
At each coffee break during the four-day conference, I rush to where the scientific posters are displayed. I stand beside my poster that describes the respiratory pathology found in wild rats from Vancouver. In addition to interesting statistics and new scientific findings, I have lots of pretty purple and pink microscopic pictures.
Scientific poster sessions are the bread and butter of graduate student life and an important feature of many scientific meetings. In theory, other scientists will come by to talk to me about my findings. I'm also in a competition for graduate students, and the judges will visit during one of these breaks.
Speaking to these strangers isn't any worse than my terrifying presentation experience, but I'm still anxious about putting my research under the microscope and opening myself up to criticism and critique from experts in my field.
It's during one of these breaks that I notice a spelling mistake on my poster. The "y" in Mycoplasma has mysteriously found itself on the wrong side of the "c," and it now stands out like a blue-footed booby in a lineup of mallard ducks. This wayward letter sure wasn't obvious during the countless rounds of edits and drafts!
But I carry on, meeting researchers from around the world. Most people want to compare what I found in wild rats to pathology seen in laboratory rats, which isn't surprising given that they are the same species. A few kind-hearted souls reassure me that my presentation was fine. Some even want to know about Prezi.
The poster session is also a good chance to meet and talk to fellow veterinary pathology residents who are preparing for the ACVP board examination. Among the crowd are three other WCVM residents: Drs. Kim Patullo, Krystina Musil and Steven Mills (my office mate).
There must be a mistake — that's my first thought when the big screen shows my name as winner of the ACVP/AAVLD Travel Award in Diagnostic Pathology. Didn't they notice my quaking knees and quivering voice?
With total disbelief, I accept the award and smile for the awards photo. Steven and I also receive Young Investigator Awards for our research posters. I'm overwhelmed and honoured by the recognition — although I still wonder if they named the right graduate student.
But perhaps the technical glitch, my blue-footed booby of a spelling error and the other mistakes I made during this conference were disproportionally magnified in my mind's eye. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't so bad after all.
Search "Rothenburger" to read more about Dr. Jamie Rothenburger's adventures as a graduate student and senior resident at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).