A Week in Montpellier.

I shamelessly stole this photo from my friend Min Ya’s facebook page. Thanks for taking photos, Minya! These are just a very few MEME (my program: evobio.eu) people I met this week: me, Nikki and Kristel from the Netherlands, Daniel from Mexico and Portugal, Paul from the Netherlands, and Katie from England. All but Paul are newbies in the MEME masters program; when Daniel, Katie, and I head to Uppsala in a few days, Paul will be there finishing some things up to graduate and he will be able to show us around.

Before going on, I should explain a bit about my program. It’s evolutionary biology, which I’m really excited about. I’ve been an ecologist for all of my scientific “career” (HAHA) but I have realized that I find evolution really fascinating at a large scale. Okay, that isn’t anything new. What’s new maybe is that I also realized that knowing some genetic techniques would be really important to be able to answer some bigger, more interesting research questions, and also that having those skills will make me a much more competitive applicant for ecology jobs. So, evolutionary masters degree, here I come! Our program is two years, or four semesters, and you pretty much have to switch campuses (there are four main ones to choose from, or you can do an “external project” anywhere else as long as someone from one of the four universities signs on as a co-advisor) every semester, and attend at least two different schools. We will be traveling a lot.

In all, almost 50 students were in Montpellier for the week along with five or six or so coordinators. And they were all awesome! The biggest contingents were from the Netherlands, Colombia, and Mexico. I am the only American in my class but there are a few in the years above me, and a few Canadians too. Mostly, though, it’s people from other places. That’s already taught me things like…. in the U.S. college takes a year longer than everywhere else. Yet another reason I feel kind of old. There are two students in the year ahead of me who are actually 20 years old. They must be geniuses.

Our program was a combination of things for different people: orientation on the first day for us newbies, graduation on the last day for the oldest students, lectures and outings and a journal club in the middle for all of us. The first day was learning about the different campuses, what research opportunities there are, how we can fulfill all the various requirements from each university to get our two masters degrees (that’s right, I’m going to be a double-master when I am through with all of this). For each university, one of the coordinators gave a presentation and then a few students talked about what it was like to live there, what trips to go on during the weekends, how to find housing, and what to do in your spare time. At the end of each of the four university’s presentation I was convinced that THAT was where I wanted to go.

So: I am off to Uppsala, which sounds like it is definitely one of the favorite places of everyone who has been there. After that my tentative plan is to do spring in Montpellier, next fall in Munich, and then my final term back in Uppsala. But as the older MEMEs have told me, plans will change and evolve and mutate (ha!) a million times between now and then.

On day two, we had lectures by a few of the Montpellier faculty. All were interesting; my favorite one was by Sonia Kefi, who looks at patterns at the landscape level and what makes those systems resilient to change – or where the tipping point is in processes like desertification. I am thinking of how I can blend that with evolution to do a project, although there are also so many other interesting things in Montpellier I could work with (like Tour de Valas). You can see more about Kefi’s work at her website.

We also had presentations by all of us newbies about what we have done so far – both in science and in life. None of us were sure what to talk about. I put up some pictures of me skiing, which I think confused people (less so, though, than when they saw that I had my ski bag with me: “you are never going to have time to use those!”). Other people talked about where they’ve traveled, what their favorite movies are, or some things about their country. I learned that so many of my new classmates have already done amazing research, and been all over the world. We are a pretty cool group of people, if I do say so myself.

Then we went to Tour de Valat, which I wrote about. On the final day, a few of the graduating students defended their thesis projects. It was so interesting to see that they worked on – one was looking at using genetic sampling to estimate population size of primate communities, one at the evolution of trees depending on fire regime, another at the important of self-pollination in a plant community. Completely different topics, highlighting that we all have the ability to really do whatever research interests us. What is better than that!

Finally, we had a journal club – several groups of students were assigned to each of seven articles and had to present the papers to the rest of the group. All in all, this was a good way for me to ease back into school. I haven’t been in school for three years. I’ve read papers and helped edit them in our lab in Oregon, but it is one thing to look at how a paper is written when you know everything about the project was about and how everything was done beforehand. It’s something else to read about an experiment you are completely unfamiliar with – sometimes completely, if it’s modeling or genetics – and parse everything out. That I haven’t done as much in the last few years.

Most fun, of course, was getting to know the other students. Every night we would sit outside our dorm rooms and just talk and drink wine. It is such a fun group of people! We are going to have a really good time in the next two years. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, when you automatically and instantly make friends with people and are inseparable. Because we were all fairly bewildered – only two of the incoming students had ever been to Montpellier before – we moved as a herd, fifteen-strong, wandering to the supermarket, cafes, the campus, back home. One night all fifty of us were supposed to go have a picnic on the beach but we missed the bus, so there was a long straggling line of us walking the 20 minutes along the road to get to Carnon. I’m sure it was a sort of funny sight.

It is sad that we are splitting apart and heading off to campuses all over Europe and even America (a few second-year students are going to Harvard for the fall), but I love the people who will be in Uppsala with me, and we will see some people again at a winter school in January. And we’ll visit each other. The absence will make it more exciting when we re-shuffle to different campuses in the spring, too – we will get to see people for the first time in several months.

One thought on “A Week in Montpellier.

  1. Uppsala is beautiful! If you have a few days off I recommend taking the overnight train up to Abisko National Park above the arctic circle. Plenty of mountains to climb in the midnight sun and (I’m told) one of the world’s best places for northern lights in the endless darkness of winter. Plenty of skiing options too.

    I’m a little sad we never managed to see each other again while you were in Oregon. And now Vermont, France, Sweden, Germany… Your life moves too fast for me 🙂

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