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I Took My Nerd Talents to Montreal

Written by: Melissa J. Miller-Felton

There I was, occupying my Afrocentric corner of the junior researcher part of the Storymodelers lab. I look up at the sound of my name and, “Do you want to go to the ISA Conference?” Never mind the fact that I don’t know what ISA stands for (yet!)…It’s in Montreal! It sounds academic enough to commit.

Immediately, I know this is my opportunity to take shameless selfies with scholars I’ve cited. My actual response, “Yes, I think my schedule is open. I’m excited about the opportunity to hear about the latest research in our disciplines.” That had to sound professional-book me!

The day finally came for me to fly to Montreal; I was totally elated. Elated because I was not presenting; the pressure was off. It was an opportunity for me to be a spectator and tourist - in the name of research of course. By this time, I figured out that ISA stands for International Studies Association.

This conference was huge. This year’s theme was, “Real Struggles, High Stakes: Cooperation, Contention, & Creativity.” There were over 7,000 contributors of research, 4,728 participants, over 1,000 panels and roundtables, and 1,220 program items that spanned across three closely distanced venues [1]. Looking through the program reminded me of the menu at the Cheesecake Factory. There were so many good options - presenters from places like Harvard and Oxford - how could I go wrong, but also how to choose? Here’s how I narrowed it down into manageable pieces.

Imitation is a form of learning. Since this was my first major conference, I thought it would be wise to shadow my Storymodelers lab supervisors; I got some instant workable suggestions through observation. First, we went over the program to decide which topics were appealing. We broke them up into categories: (1) research similar to our work in the lab, (2) research interests, and (3) innovative research methods that can be reimagined. As we sat in on different panels, it was evident that the commentary from the audience was just as valuable as those from the panelists. Afterward, I watched as the senior researchers connected with both parties for meaningful discussion and networking. This was the in-practice lesson I needed to venture out on my own.

Learn the language. When growing an expertise, it is necessary to learn and understand the language within the discipline. In my case, I understood some of the lingo, but there were many unfamiliar terms, some that could be found in the dictionary and others that had been coined by researchers. I wrote them down to look up definitions on my own and to have at the ready for conversation starters during social periods. It was also a great way to learn how to make words like epistemology, ontology, and empirical workable in both dialogue and context.

Form an academic network. An important part of shadowing was learning how to “find my people.” Simply put: finding and networking with people who share similar research interests and academic passions. I started with the Pan-African panel. Since this is an area of interest, it was an opportunity to gauge my knowledge of content and methods. My go-to way of engaging with a panelist was to introduce myself and start with something interesting from their work or comments. I was also brave enough to ask for clarification or admit when I did not understand something. It became easier with practice.

I left that conference pleasantly surprised to find out that, like mine, much of the research was preliminary, and they were also there to be stimulated by the work of others. This was both humbling and inspiring. Expertise did not feel unattainable, but very much in reach with time and consistency.

[1] International Studies Association Program Booklet. (2023). Retrieved from: Booklet-Events.pdf (

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