The memories of our European adventures are still fresh in my mind. The bustling cities with cobbled alleys and markets filled with smells of hot chocolate and fried sausages, the snow-covered countryside zooming past as Kierstin and I fell into other worlds created by words on pages, and the expansive green meadows right outside our quaint bed and breakfast bay window all remain vivid, a happy reminder of a wonderful trip. The memories creep up in every day conversation as we relate to someone else’s vacation or describe a time that we tried something new. Phrases like “Oh, when we were in Europe…” or “That sounds just like when we _____ in France!” became more common in our vernacular. I had suggested that we start trying out, “The last time that we were in Europe…” It would be technically true, but the joke was that people might insinuate that we were so cultured and haughty since we traveled across the Atlantic so much that we were bored of it. As it turns out, by some lucky happenstances and quick action, I’ll soon have to distinguish between the last time that I went to Europe and the first time that I went.
Last week was the annual review meeting for the chemical company that is funding my research. Japanese researchers and businessmen come dressed in pressed suits and shined shoes, and researchers and professors at UCSB don similarly impressive attire, hoping to wow our industry partners with exciting research results. The hosts (us) provide elaborate lunches and dinners, where the best silverware is set upon white tablecloths and you have to think about which fork is for what course of the meal. The week of schmoozing ends with an eight hour meeting; each research group presents their most impressive results and attempts to convince the Japanese chemical company how our research can translate into higher profits. During lunch on Friday, I sat with my research group and a visiting Japanese researcher. It was just a typical lunch with conversation rising and falling like the waves crashing into the beach nearby. It just so happened that two people left my table and two others took their place, and without the combination of all of these factors, the events that would unravel in the next few days would have never happened.
A researcher from another group at UCSB and a professor sat down across from each other and started talking about a fellowship application. There was talk of London and all expenses paid and nearly guaranteed acceptance. I asked what they were referring to, and they described International Center for Materials Research and its International Research Fellowship: $5000 of travel and expenses for any short duration at an institution abroad. As long as international collaboration could be justified, just about any coherent application would be accepted. I knew about this program already; one of my labmates had applied a few years ago and traveled to Germany. It was in the back of my mind, and I knew I would apply in the future after I had established myself in the field and made some international connections. In fact, I had been reading some papers written by a Germany professor, hoping to reach out to him someday and see if we could start a collaboration.
As I explained this to my lunching companions, the professor interjected, “If you want to go, you’ll have to apply now. The program is done in July.” I asked him to clarify, “You mean that this round of applications will end in July, or the program is running out of money?” He explained, “It’s done. Now is the last chance.” He encouraged me to give it a shot, basically saying that they program was just throwing money at any application as long as the international component was justified. I couldn’t just go work with someone because I wanted to travel abroad; I had to have a real reason to show why I need their lab for my research. To me, it didn’t matter. I knew that I would find something that was unique, and I would apply for the program.
I sent an email, a cold call. I didn’t expect to get a reply and planned on calling, asking other professors who might know this professor, or even finding another group to work with. None of my backup plans were necessary though. The professor from Germany replied two days later, expressing his interest in my proposal and encouraging me to apply for the fellowship. The next day, I wrote a draft for the proposal and met with my advisor to ask for a letter of support, the final requirement of the short application. I was nervous about this; my advisor could have interpreted the trip as a vacation, just me gallivanting around Europe and skirting my research responsibilities. He was extremely receptive though; I barely dove into my spiel of explaining why I should go and why it would be important when he interrupted me with a “Yes, do it.” I completed my application and submitted it the next morning. Only a day later, I heard back from the application committee: “CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!!!”, the email started (Yes, NINE exclamation points!) I was elated. I was going to Germany, and UCSB was going to pay for it (again). This time, I would get $5000 for travel, lodging, and food. And I will collaborate with brilliant experts who will further my research and give me a helping hand in expanding our bubble of knowledge.
If you follow the timeline, I heard about the fellowship last Friday. I sent an email the next morning. The professor from Germany replied on Monday, and we spent the next couple of days chatting and working out kinks in the plan. I met with my advisor on Tuesday and submitted the application on Wednesday morning. They replied with my award notification on Thursday. A week earlier, there wasn’t even a seed of an idea that I would be going out of the country in the foreseeable future. Now, I’m leaving for Germany in about a month. It took a lot of luck. The professor that I will be working with had to have time within the next couple of months to work with me for a few weeks. But first, I had to contact this professor, someone who I had never spoken to and only had learned that he existed about a week earlier. But first, I had to learn that the program was ending and start the application process right away. But first, two people, a researcher and a professor had to sit at my table and start chatting about the application (and I found out later that the researcher only had learned about the program when she had dinner with this professor and another professor at a conference a few months earlier.) But first, but first, but first…Of course, it could go on and on. The paths we take sometimes have amazing opportunities to be seized, and this was the ultimate Carpe Diem for me. I can’t wait for the next time that I go to Europe.