I recently went to America for the first time in my life. I’ve always been much more motivated to go places where there is really old, tangible history; places like Japan (which obviously I’ve been to a bunch) and Europe. So, America from that perspective wasn’t as appealing. I had also heard all the obvious stereotypes about guns and huge servings of not-very-healthy (or tasty) food, neither of which I am particularly keen on.
Anyway, I got the chance to travel to Atlanta for a week for work, as part of a travel-funding Fellowship. (Note: If you want to read a little more about the Fellowship and my visit to the CDC, which was my reason for visiting Atlant, I’ll leave it at the bottom!) I’m actually travelling for about three months as part of this, America was just my first stop.
It was essentially 24 hours travel from Melbourne to Atlanta. I flew out on a Thursday morning, then it was fourteen hours to Los Angeles, four hours stopover, and another four to Atlanta (despite this, because of time zone trickery it was only Thursday evening when I arrived). It’s a big trip. But then again, from Australia, most trips are.
I stayed at a little airbnb place in Druid Hills, the same area as the CDC (~30 min walk) and Emory university. It was such a gorgeous area, and just like so many of the American movies I’ve seen. Beautiful houses everywhere, with a lot of white weatherboard, but very few fences and so much greenery. Cute lanterns fixed near the entrance way, armchairs and swing-chairs on the front porches, and rope swings hanging from huge trees in the garden.
So many of these things were novelties for me. I mean, we have porches in Australia, but usually they are surrounded by dead, dry grass these days or in the more regional/outback areas. And most of the suburban houses in Australia have fences, clearly dividing off the property, but I didn’t see much of that in Atlanta (or at least in Druid Hills). I really loved a lot of the houses so wanted to take photos, but also didn’t want to seem like some creepy person photographing peoples’ homes. I tried to hover between these two, which probably resulted in me looking even more suspicious, trying to get photos quickly and surreptitiously, and also therefore not managing to get very good photos.
The first proper day (Friday) I spent wandering around the local area, sourcing coffee and some groceries to get me through the week (as I didn’t want to be going out to dinner every single night). This meant I got to see a bit of the Emory area, as well as my first squirrels of the trip! There is a chance that I also saw a chipmunk, but realistically all I saw was a fluffy blur that was maaaybe half the size of a squirrel, and a blur that could possibly be a chipmunk doesn’t really count. I’ll just point out now that we don’t have any squirrels or chipmunks in Australia so if you see an Australian losing it over a squirrel sighting, that’s why. A lot of people I’ve mentioned this to are surprised we don’t have squirrels in Australia, so I wonder what they thought about Australians before, because it would be really weird if we had them and still freaked out about them whenever we saw one.
Saturday the weather was beautiful so I spent a few hours walking around again. Walking is one of my favourite ways to time in a new place, you can orient yourself, and also enjoy the local area. I did a huge loop around the town and past Lullwater preserve and Candler lake, where I saw more squirrels, some ducks, and even a couple of turtles. Plus there were these brilliantly pink and purple blossoms coming out everywhere. There were also a surprising number of bright red leaves that confused me because it was supposed to be spring and yet here were these apparent autumn leaves? Turns out the maples, that grow in that area, have one colour of red for spring and an even more intense red in autumn. #treefacts
Another big thing I had to get used to in America was the cars driving on the opposite side of the road to Australia. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to do this, but it’s the most I’ve noticed it – maybe because in other places I don’t walk around so many cars? Or maybe because I was going to and from a workplace most days I kind of fell into auto mode. Either way I found myself frequently about to step into the road only having looked properly in the direction cars would come from back home. As it turned out, this was actually really good practice as my next stop after Atlanta was Amsterdam, also driving on the opposite of the road but filled with bicycles, which are much smaller and quieter and way easier to miss! Am pretty glad I “trained” in Atlanta otherwise there is a reasonable chance I would have been collected by a bicycle, especially on my first, sleep deprived day in Amsterdam.
Throughout the rest of my week in Atlanta I met lots of lovely, friendly people, had some super tasty burgers (including trying the Impossible burger which is made by a company that does vegetarian/vegan alternative meat etc which I only realised afterwards when someone told me otherwise I’d never have known it wasn’t meat) and some delicious craft beers. I walked to and from the CDC every day and spotted numerous squirrels and gorgeous spring flowers. No chipmunks unfortunately, but now that I’ve been to America once and really enjoyed my time there I feel like I’ll have future chances to check out the chipmunks! Also, being primarily a work trip I didn’t have tons of time to sightsee much further afield so this will definitely be going back on my bucket list!
The Fellowship and my CDC visit
The Fellowship was awarded to me, to fund me going overseas to one or more places to learn and/or research things that could benefit the state of Victoria back home, and that I couldn’t learn where I was.
If you don’t know, I’m a postdoctoral researcher with a public health lab in Melbourne. My main job is monitoring and tracking possible disease outbreaks using genome sequencing – I like to call myself a bacterial detective. It essentially means I spend a fair bit of time sitting in front of a computer, comparing bacterial DNA to see if they are similar (possible transmission, should investigate further) or not (probably not transmitted, onto the next case).
So, with my fellowship funding, I decided to go travel to some of the biggest public health groups in the world, to see how they do the sorts of things I do and to learn what works/what doesn’t work/what recommendations they have, so I can do my job even better.
First stop? The CDC. Although it’s at the start of my trip this was quite possibly the science highlight for me. I’m a massive nerd and love bacteria and outbreaks (which I know sounds bad), so the CDC for me is a bit like someone who is training to be an astronaut visiting NASA.
The CDC is the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s based in Atlanta. If you’ve ever played the boardgame Pandemic (which you absolutely should, by the way), it starts in Atlanta, because that is where the CDC is.
I spent five days at the CDC. I am extremely grateful to the people who hosted me, as I had to be signed in and out every day, and escorted everywhere, which meant a hassle and a lot of effort for those who volunteered to do this. They also helped organise the whole week, making sure I could get the most out of it. I’d love to visit again one day, it was a brilliant experience and my head is brimming with so many ideas of things I can implement in my research back home.