Reflections: iBOL8 And The Midnight Sun

Today’s Reflections post was written by one of my doctoral students, Jarrett Phillips, a third-year graduate student in the School of Computer Science’s new Computational Sciences PhD program.

Recently Jarrett travelled to Norway to attend and present some of his research at the 8th International Barcode of Life (iBOL) conference. These are some of his thoughts on the experience.

Previously, I gave you some insight into my trip to South Africa for the 7th International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Conference, which you can read more about here if you haven’t done so already. This time will be no different. Today you will hear all about my (mis)adventures in Norway!

At the last iBOL conference held in Kruger National Park, South Africa, it was revealed that iBOL8 would be held once again in Europe, specifically in urban Trondheim, Norway’s third-largest city and its technological capital, from June 17-20, 2019

Founded in the year 997, Trondheim offers a rich history and culture going all the way back to the Viking Age. In addition, because it lies just below the Arctic Circle, Trondheim experiences nearly 22 hours of sunlight per day starting from about 3 am and lasting until approximately 12 am, a phenomenon known as the midnight sun.

My (mis)adventure began when I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark from Toronto on Friday June 14th with my coadvisor, Dr. Bob Hanner and lab members from both the Hanner and Hebert Labs to catch a connecting flight to Trondheim. Our night flight from Toronto was rather uneventful. As we had a 3-hour layover in Copenhagen Airport, we decided to roam around freely to pass the time. A stop at a small café for some much needed fuel in the form of a delicious sweet poppy seed pastry, saw me carelessly leaving my luggage behind as I paid for my order! Fortunately, it was only a short time later that I realized I could no longer hear the sound of my suitcase dragging behind me and to my horror noticed I no longer had it! Upon carefully retracing my steps, I learned that my luggage was stowed safely away at a nearby information kiosk. Disaster averted. Phew!

Upon arriving in Trondheim the next day, we headed to our hotels. Three hotels were booked out for iBOL8: the conference venue, plus two others, located about 15 minutes away on foot. A few Guelph delegates (including me) opted to stay at the hotel offering both a complimentary breakfast as well as a free evening meal. This definitely helped when it came to expenses.

Norway is by no means a cheap destination in which to travel. Food and drink is expensive, particularly our loyal friend, alcohol. On our first full night in Trondheim prior to the start of the conference, I purchased two rum and cokes for NOK 234, the equivalent of $36.12 CAD! Insane! In contrast, a visit to a nearby authentic pizzeria called Grano (Italian for ‘wheat’), located down the street from my hotel, saw me spending about $36.00 CAD on a medium-sized personal pizza (comprising Boletus mushrooms, truffle salami, black truffle cream and chives), Italian soda (chinotto, specifically) and panna cotta (‘cooked cream’, an Italian dessert made from heavy cream and gelatin) – a bargain!

The first full-day of iBOL8 began on Monday, June 17 after a full day of pre-conference workshops on Sunday. The opening session saw us being mesmerized by the sound of people in traditional Norwegian dress (called ‘bunad’) blowing horns called lur. This was immediately followed by a long round of applause from the audience.

Each morning of the conference was devoted to keynote and plenary sessions; whereas afternoons were filled with parallel session talks and poster presentations. Coffee breaks provided an opportunity to catch up with old colleagues and network with new ones.

My oral presentation was scheduled for Monday afternoon. I was the penultimate researcher to give a talk in the “Building the Reference Library of Life II” session. The title of my talk, based on my current PhD work, was “HACSim: Iterative extrapolation of haplotype accumulation curves for assessment of intraspecific COI DNA barcode sampling completeness” – a mouthful. During the talk I spoke about an R package I developed to estimate sample sizes for genetic diversity assessment using DNA barcoding. I was a bit late starting, as the speaker immediately before me went WAY over time (hitting the 20-minute mark), despite repeated cues by the session moderator to wrap things up. (In my personal opinion, the chair could have been a bit more aggressive). One delegate, who shall remain nameless, was not in the least pleased with the presenter, as the rules were abundantly clear. We were specifically allocated 12 minutes to present, followed by three minutes for questions. Despite this, my talk went rather smoothly. I received only one question (as there was likely no time for others).

The day’s activities were followed a few hours later by a welcome reception at the historic Nidaros Cathedral and adjacent Archbishop’s Palace – the former of which was founded in 1070 to honour King Olav II, the patron saint of Norway. We were entertained first by an organ recital. A networking session followed where local delicacies were served, which included, among others, smoked salmon, rye bread and a variety dried meats. Some people left early to go salsa dancing (I skipped out on that one). Regardless, I had a lot of fun.

Tuesday’s plenary saw the “Father of DNA Barcoding”, Paul Hebert, unveil his $180-million-dollar project called BIOSCAN that seeks to characterize species’ diversity and interactions across 2500 sites around the world, especially those in the Arctic, Europe and Costa Rica. Thus far, the 7-year project involves over 1000 researchers from 30 different countries.

The Gala dinner on Wednesday night was also memorable. Following a (I imagine) much-needed champagne aperitif, dinner opened with an instrumental quartet on violins and cellos. Following this, delegates were treated to a full 3-course meal consisting of celery root soup with herb oil drizzle, pork loin with salt-baked potatoes and green beans, and a strawberry gelatin dessert to finish.  Meals were accompanied with A LOT of wine. After all was said and done, for those not yet exhausted, the party moved upstairs to the sky bar in order to view the midnight sun. The drinking, mingling and (what happens in Trondeheim stays in Trondheim) drunken antics continued well into early Thursday morning. On a personal note, I ran into one attendee (not sure of the alcohol level) who saw my talk and said it was one of the best he’s seen so far and that he took a photo of every slide! He said he is excited to try out HACSim on his own species barcode data! The party finally ended around 4 am (shortly after the midnight sun). The party was loads of fun! A few of us (myself included) left around 2 am to walk back to our hotel. A number of colleagues had last-minute preparations and/or changes to make to presentations for their talks on the last full-day of the conference. The morning plenary session saw many attendees skipping out due to fatigue and/or self-inflicted ‘flu’.

Highlighting the closing remarks was the announcement of the next iBOL conference. Delegates were anxious to know where iBOL9 would be held in 2021. The verdict: Costa Rica, where we will be staying at the all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort and Spa in Playa Conchal. Apparently, the entire resort will be booked out just for us! What a way to end iBOL8 and a great week in Norway!

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