Gravity's Rainbow

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Conferences are a minefield of migraine triggers



I went to the Evolution meeting last week in Ottawa and had a great time. Everything I had to say about how great ESA meetings are applied there, too (if you replace “ecology” with “evolution”):

I love hearing about the latest research in my particular subfield, and I’m inspired by research seemingly unrelated to mine. I love meeting the scientists behind the research I admire. I love presenting and discussing my research with scientists who know about four million times more than me. I love all the dinners and coffee breaks spent geeking out about ecology and catching up with friends and colleagues.  Basically, ESA is more fun than Christmas.

Going to conferences is one of my favorite parts of being a scientist, and I’m thrilled that I’ve gotten to go to so many. Anything that happens at a conference that keeps me away from all the cool talks and fun conversations is sad, and getting a migraine at a conference most definitely throws a wrench in my exciting science-y plans. Unfortunately, there are a lot of migraine triggers associated with going to a conference. Below is a long list of those triggers and how I try to deal with them. If you have migraines or other health issues or are interested in the minutiae of living with a chronic illness, read on, otherwise you may want to skip to the end.


The first and biggest issue is travelling to the conference, which generally involves an airplane. About the time your ears start popping, I start getting a migraine. I very carefully plan the timing of my medication prior to the flight and make a detailed plan for my travel from door to door. I don’t want to have to figure out how the buses work in a new city when I’m so nauseated I can’t see straight. Even if my meds work perfectly and I don’t end up feeling like I’m going to die on a flight, it still takes me a bit of time to recover. If possible, I like to arrive the day before the conference starts – otherwise I’m likely to miss the first day entirely or still be experiencing migraine postdrome – spacey and emotional is not the mood you want to meet potential employers and collaborators in.


Food is the next big problem. I need to eat fresh, healthy food frequently (every 2-3 hours) and without much variation in timing day to day. While traveling or at the conference, the availability of such food can be quite limited and the timing of meals is dependent on things like the conference program or whether or not your dinner companions run into their science hero in the hallway on the way out of the conference center. Once you actually get to a restaurant, it’s usually swamped if it’s anywhere near the convention center and you can end up waiting a looooong time for food. My solution to this problem is to always have an excess of  good food stashed in my bag. It can be difficult or impossible to travel with all the food I need for a weeklong conference, so I seek out grocery stores and small markets with good prepared salads and sandwiches near the convention center and stock up. Having a hotel room with a fridge really helps, because then I can go shopping only once or twice. Almonds and apples stand up well in a conference tote bag. Naked juice is a lifesaver. Well packaged vegetarian sandwiches and salads make excellent small meals. This allows me to eat non-migraine inducing food on the schedule my migraines demand. I still eat out because that’s half of the fun/networking of a conference; I’m just doing it more explicitly for the people than the food.

Conferences and hotels often provide at least some food. Unfortunately, the timing or type of food usually means I can’t rely on it. Since you can’t be reimbursed for meals provided by the conference or hotel, this often adds significantly to my out-of-pocket expenses.

Sleeping & low energy

A lot of scientists have funny stories of staying in terrible and overcrowded accommodations to cut costs while attending conferences. I probably won’t. Adjusting the time I go to bed and wake up and/or the length of time I sleep is a sure way to give myself a migraine. I can definitely do an overcrowded room as long as I’ve got a semi-comfortable surface to sleep on – give me an eyemask, earplugs, and a benedryl, and I can sleep through a lot of rustling covers and late night showers. What’s more important is the temperature of the room. I cannot sleep when it’s hot and being hot can give me a migraine very quickly regardless of sleep issues. Since conference housing is often old dorms which can have inadequate or no air conditioning, usually I have to suck it up and pay extra for a hotel. I also have to make sure I’m not sharing a room with people who think 25C/77F is room temperature (I’m looking at you, Cameroonian friends).

I ignore new time zones as much as I can to make the smallest adjustments to my sleep schedule as possible. Sometimes this means I get up at 4am every day at the conference. If the time change is very large, I slowly shift my sleep schedule over the week before the conference.I try to take sleep into account when I schedule my flight to avoid disruptions to my sleep schedule; this can add a fair amount to travel costs.

Conference schedules are jam packed with presentations, meetings, entertainment, and schmoozing. It’s not unusual for large ones to have events booked solid from 7 am to 11 pm. I don’t think anyone could survive a week going to something every available minute of a conference and most people are exhausted even after skipping a lot of events. But I still attend far less than the average conference attendee. I don’t let the conference schedule interfere with the times I need to go to bed and wake up. I also have considerably less physical energy than the average 20 something and am a bit of an introvert as well. I can only take in 3 or 4 hours of talks each day. To avoid exhaustion and migraines, I make time to wander off somewhere cool and quiet every day, and I take a nap every afternoon.

New climate

The first requirement for grad schools I applied to was a climate where large and/or rapid swings in barometric pressure – my biggest uncontrollable migraine trigger – were rare. Conference organizers don’t  take my personal migraine triggers into account, and conferences are usually in places that have much larger pressure swings than is good for me. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about this. Sometimes location combined with time of year means I just don’t go to a conference. Sometimes I cross my fingers and take a lot of drugs. (Usually that leads to a lot of time stuck in my hotel room feeling awful.)

Getting too hot or too cold can also give me a migraine. Getting too hot is definitely worse. It’s harder to avoid temperature extremes while traveling than while at home where I have more control over my environment and schedule (avoid going outside in the afternoon in the summer, for example). Layering, somewhat embarrassing products like the cool-tie, and avoiding the riskiest settings (e.g. midwestern conference field trips in August) are the best strategies I’ve come up with.

I also wear a big old lady hat and lots of sunscreen. Sunburns suck and, of course, can give me a migraine..


Conferences are busy and tiring events for everyone who attends, but can be especially hard if you’ve got health problems. Things that would be minor inconveniences or discomforts for other people can lead to days of awful pain and vomiting for me. While I love conferences and get a lot out of going to them, migraines mean that I attend fewer sessions and meet fewer people. I worry that my colleagues and acquaintances think I’m wasting time/money or slacking off. But by discussing the sorts of things I detail above or by being inflexible about so many things, I feel like I’m coming off as whiny and weak. I’m still working on how to communicate the boundaries I live within without garnering annoyance or pity. Plus, a lot of my avoidance strategies make attending conferences more expensive, which is awkward to explain to my PI and even more awkward to explain to other grad students staying in terrible, un-airconditioned dorms.

While conferences are exciting and make me feel inspired about research, sometimes they also reinforce the ways being sick sucks. I cannot overemphasize how important it is for my motivation and confidence that I connect with successful scientists who also struggle with some kind of chronic illness. Early in my undergraduate science career, I found out that an ecology professor I really admired had some health issues. I probably wouldn’t have gone to grad school without her example and advice. And at the evolution meeting I met another graduate student with migraines who nipped some budding feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and isolation in the bud with some excellent migraine humor.

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