One of the best things about doing a science-related PhD is that travelling abroad to attend international conferences is positively encouraged. These meetings are invaluable opportunities to gain experience in presenting work in front of academic audiences; network with colleagues from around the world; pick up new ideas for future experiments and to scout out future jobs. And of course, it’s a great excuse to visit somewhere new!
This July, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology, which is hosted by a different city each year. This time the venue was Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden. I didn’t have a clue what to expect, with my impressions of Sweden being limited to Abba and IKEA. But to my surprise, I found myself falling totally in love with this beautiful country and the Nordic way of life.
So, what’s to like about Sweden?
Gorgeously beautiful scenery
Flying in to Gothenburg, I marvelled at the carpets of trees undulating out below like a woolly green carpet. Even in the city itself, green spaces could be found everywhere, including a traditional English-style Rose Garden, a giant glasshouse and green parks straddling the river Göta älv. I was even able to get up close and personal to Sweden’s national animal, the moose, at Slottsskogen Park only a short tram ride out of the main town centre. After the conference, I stayed on two nights to visit the nearby Kosterhavets marine national park: a collection of tiny, traffic-free islands awash with wild flowers and lush forests, surrounded by some of the most biodiverse seas on the planet. It made for some terrific walks and a real ‘away from it all’ experience.
A true sense of fun and family
I don’t remember seeing a single grumpy looking person during my time in Sweden….although just possibly, the fact that the conference venue was opposite a theme park and an indoor rainforest may have had something to do with that! Instead, everyone was very helpful, smiley and friendly and never gave the impression that you were being awkward or an inconvenience (even when I accidentally locked myself out of my hotel room!) Everywhere has a real family-oriented approach too. Even at posh restaurants, children were very much part of the proceedings (definitely not just ‘seen and not heard’) and the hotel was equipped with multiple play areas, climbing frames, games rooms and even a kid’s cinema to keep everyone amused.
Highly active lifestyle
In Gothenburg you need to be careful when crossing the road: everywhere, people are running, cycling or power-walking along. Sitting still didn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda. This impression was only heightened by the fact there was an International Handball Contest on – every other person at the hotel seemed to be as lean and toned as an Olympic athlete. It could give one an inferiority complex after a while… but everyone is so friendly, you don’t really mind!
Oh that wonderful food….
In Sweden, eating healthily is never a chore – not when the ingredients are so fresh and tasty. Instead of using sugar and fat, basic ingredients were transformed with delicate spicing, vegetable veloutés and even berries. It wasn’t all seafood either (although I must have eaten my bodyweight in salmon!): there were wonderfully soft cheeses, moreish meatballs, delicate pastries and traditional Gothenburg Punschrulle: green marzipan rolls dipped in dark chocolate and stuffed with crushed cookies, cacao and butter.
It can be very easy to get through your PhD without making the effort to get to a major conference but it really is worth going if you can. Besides the opportunity to improve your job prospects and research progress, it offers cultural experiences which are a key part of personal development. I wouldn’t have gone to Sweden otherwise but I am so glad I did… and I have a feeling I will be returning one day.
Now if you excuse me… Do you think Tesco will sell Punschrulle?