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Durham University

Department of Geography

Natasha Barlow at the Google Science Summer Camp 'SciFoo'

Checking emails when half-awake is never a good idea, especially as it risks deleting important messages, which through bleary eyes you think are spam. This was very nearly one of those moments!

Fortunately I kept reading, whilst trying to wake up, and it started to sink in, I had been invited to spend a weekend in June at the Google Campus at the 2015 SciFoo Camp. This, it turns out, is a good way to wake up quickly!

What is SciFoo? For the past 10 years Digital Science, Google, O'Reilly Media and Nature have organised an annual Science Foo Camp ("SciFoo" for short). Each year, the event brings together 250 people from around the world, who undertake groundbreaking work in diverse areas of science and technology.

Attendance to SciFoo is by invitation only and includes researchers, technologists, writers, educators, artists, policy makers, investors and other thought-leaders for a weekend of unbridled discussion, demonstration and debate. An informal set up, with no predefined agenda, leaves attendees to collaboratively create one during the weekend. A format that left me both excited and intrigued as to what would be discussed!

On Friday evening, buses took campers from their hotel on the edge of the Stanford Campus to Google. I still thought my invitation might have been a mistake, until I picked up a name badge that clearly said 'Natasha Barlow' and they let me in the building! Pre-camp Tweeting had already broken down barriers and I enjoyed a pre-dinner drink with several people I had previously only met in the digital world.

Following dinner it was time for fuller introductions, with the SciFoo Camp team from Digital Science, Google and O'Reilly Media encouraging us to be extrovert even if you are an introvert, to talk rather than tweet and enjoy engaging with people from disciplines you wouldn’t normally meet. It turned out all these things came true over the weekend.

There was huge variety of people present; with areas such as genetics, astrophysics, psychology and science communication all well represented. The women from the Indian Space Research Organisation rightly got the largest cheer. As a geographer I was very much in a minority, with only a geologist from the oil industry and the climate scientist, Michael Mann, having obvious direct overlap with my research. At first this seemed daunting, but in the end it turned out to be an advantage, as I spent the weekend speaking with a very diverse range of people, with whom there were many overlapping interests.

Thanks to the many fascinating sessions proposed and a plethora of mysterious titles, there was an almost overwhelming choice of sessions to attend. However, it was fully accepted people could come and leave sessions as they wished. Every session I joined was so interesting, even if it something I knew nothing about, I always stayed.

During the following whirlwind Saturday and Sunday I saw a 3D Google Earth visualisation, discussed the benefits and risks of drones in research and society, the challenges of research funding, potential overreliance on technology, creating false memories, producing dialogues in science and relating them to policy and the public, and 3D mapping of coral reefs.

I also saw five-minute talks on oil exploration, cancer research and thermodynamics in small devices, as well as attending an impassioned debate about women in science - it was a busy weekend! A particular personal highlight was a small-group session with Google's Alan Eustace informally discussing his jump from the stratosphere.

As ever, some of the best discussions are over coffees, beers and the endless food. Conversations ranged from the use of radiocarbon bomb-spike dating in preventing illegal ivory trade, to the right to die, quantum computing, extrapolating understanding of time and space in astronomy, future careers of postdoctoral researchers, using Earth-climate models to understand extra-terrestrial life, material science and how you would draw the perfect circle!

Sometimes the pressures of modern research and University life means you become focused on a particular area of research, and it can be hard to engage a really wide range of activities. SciFoo provided a forum to understand what’s going on in the world beyond your own discipline. There were no boundaries; Noble prize winners and billionaires mixed on the same level as postdoctoral researchers such as myself.

My love for science and technology was furthered and SciFoo provided a timely reminder how important it is to engage with as many people as possible. Always look beyond the direct benefit of your own work and remember your own personal development and mental stimulation.

All that's left is to thank the SciFoo organisers for the invitation to a wonderful, unforgettable weekend.

Natasha’s visit to SciFoo was very kindly supported by Durham University Department of Geography and Professor Antony Long.