Remembering 9/11

The country is marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and unlike most people, the events of 9/11 were very much associated with Microbiology for me.  I was a Research Instructor  in a fungal pathogenesis lab at the University of Virginia at the time, and during the Spring of 2001 I applied to attend an international conference on fungal biology, that was to be held in the Alps east of Innsbruck, Austria at the end of the summer. It was an excellent opportunity for me: the lab had recently published a manuscript on an exciting new gene in Candida albicans, the most significant nosocomial fungal pathogen, and this conference offered me the opportunity to present those results to colleagues I had only recognized by their names in other manuscripts. Plus, since the University was going to pay for my registration, travel, and housing for the conference, we arranged for my wife to take off time from work so that she could go as well. That was the first time that we had ever traveled out of the country together (excepting going to Toronto when we got married), and it was the first extended time for leaving our girls with Grandma.

The conference was fantastic. Everyone was describing and arguing over what every bit of data meant, and how it should be interpreted. I presented a poster detailing my recent work identifying a gene product that affects the ability of fungal cells to adhere to human tissue, and received extremely helpful feedback from other researchers. After three solid days of research talks lasting 10 to 12 hours each day, the organizers of the conference relented just a bit with the schedule on Tuesday afternoon, and arranged for the group to tour old Innsbruck. Innsbruck is a classic medieval city, with all of the charm and history that you would expect from a place that has been continuously inhabited for several thousand years. We did the touristy thing for several hours, and now have two prints in our house from there.

Joan and I got back to the tour bus that would return us to Seefeld with the rest of the attendees in the late afternoon, which would have been about 10 AM Eastern Time. The bus driver (an Austrian) was listening intently to the radio, which was of course in German. My single year of high school German was not up to the task of translating, but one of the conference attendees was German and was translating for us. Information was incredibly disjointed: no one could tell exactly what had happened, but that it was like nothing we had ever seen before. Everyone was hushed during the hour bus ride back, but CNN back at the conference center showed us all the pictures that we now all associate with that day.

Dinner that evening was quiet, but the conference reconvened after dinner to discuss what to do, and the consensus was that we should continue with the meeting. Part of that was a very pragmatic decision. Air travel even in Europe was locked down, so no one was going anywhere the next day anyway. But a lot of it was more complex than that. The science discussed at that meeting was global in origin, with attendees from many countries. By putting the science first above nationality, we bridge barriers between us, for the betterment of all. Scientists don’t work in a vacuum, and it is the free exchange of ideas at scientific conferences that has allowed modern medicine to progress at a prodigious rate.

The meeting finished up at the end of the week. Air travel between Europe and the US had not been resumed, so Joan and I spent several days waiting to fly back home in the village of Cittiglio, a lovely town in Northern Italy near the Swiss border. When we ever get back to Europe, the Italian Lake District will be one of our primary stopping points, as the people and the countryside are beautiful. After another half week, we got the news that our airline had a flight back to Dulles airport in Washington, and we returned.

It’s hard to complain about an enforced extended vacation in a Europe, but we missed our children, our families, and our country. However, I am happy that the excitement of the conference continued to hold even after the events of that terrible day. With us at least, the language of infection, pathogenesis, and treatment was more important than the boundaries between ideology.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on September 11, 2011, in Meta. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It must have been hard to be so far from home and away from your children at such a time. However, there must also have been some comfort in being part of a global community, and yes, I understand completely the importance of putting science above the ideology of nationality, for the betterment of all humanity. If we had stronger ties among all humanity, there wouldn’t be events like 9/11.

    • Thanks Dianne. It actually was hard for me to turn off CNN that first evening, until I realized that Americans were actually a minority at that conference.

  2. A really great essay! A thoughtful meditation on both home, family, but most especially on the humanistic aspects of science.

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