Friday, June 24, 2011

Meeting Great People in Travels to and from Berkeley

As it is often said, the journey is as important as reaching your destination.

When the email arrived from United the night before I was to fly to San Francisco, after my daughter had me watch the movie, The Terminal, with Tom Hanks, I suspected the worst, but I was just being rerouted through DC rather than flying through Chicago. Given the "computer glitch" of last week which resulted in 36 flight cancellations and some negative press plus inconvenience to many travelers, most likely United was still catching up.

When I asked and received aisle bulk head (and exit row) seats and great seat-mates on both legs of my journey (just lucked out) I was more than pleased. On the flight to Dulles from Bradley (Hartford/Springfield) I sat next to a Principal Scientist from a top pharmaceutical company who had gone to URI, Yale, and who had had a postdoc at Dana Farber. He researches anti-viral drugs, and his company provides drugs for free to Africa. The conversation never stopped and the flight was much too short so we exchanged business cards. We even discussed mergers and acquisitions in this industry and how, in his case, luckily, the acquiring company knew to keep the scientific talent and to reward accordingly.

On the flight to San Francisco, I sat next to a college student who had gone for a year to a boarding school in a very isolated wooded location and he was off to a series of techno rave concerts in Las Vegas. His curiosity, love of languages, and travel experiences were fun and refreshing -- we bonded on discussions of what makes Italy so special!

After about 12 hours since leaving my home in Amherst, I arrived in the San Francisco airport only to be told by a taxi driver that the traffic to Berkeley was so bad that he would not take me there (the only other similar experience I had ever had was in Athens, Greece, when a taxi driver refused to take me because I did not have the exact change, despite my pleas to even pay him more).

At this point, I was rather tired, but I figured, why not try another mode of transportation, and since I had never ridden BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) but had heard and read a lot about it, I decided to go that route. I received a nice map at the information desk (but it was missing the crucial link of how to actually to get to the BART station). As I was getting my bearings and trying to figure out in which direction I should march with my luggage I noticed a female with tons of luggage so I just asked her whether she might be a grad student at UC Berkeley. Not only was she a grad student there (working on getting her PhD in Math) and had been traveling for over 24 hours, including taking a 12 hour bus ride from her village in Brazil to the Sao Paolo airport, but her Master's degree advisor in Sao Paolo had gotten his PhD in Applied Math from Brown University and his supervisor (Professor Constantine Dafermos) was the husband of my doctoral dissertation advisor (Professor Stella Dafermos)! We had a wonderful conversation during our journey on BART, despite being in an un-air-conditioned car, during the commuting period. She is being fully supported on a Fulbright scholarship.

The purpose of my travel to UC Berkeley was to attend a consortium meeting of the I3P (Institute for Information Protection). I will write more in another blogpost.

As for my journey back from Berkeley, I decided to take a taxi/limo and, would you believe that we stopped in downtown Berkeley where the driver took another passenger (without warning me) and this was so that we could go faster using the car pool lane! Our "passenger," who was riding for free, is an antitrust lawyer who had gone to Smith College and Harvard Law School, and she commutes this way regularly. We dropped her off in downtown San Fran, and then my driver sped off to the airport. She had just finished work on a highly visible antitrust case, and we even talked about digital piracy.

Again, at the San Fran airport, I was called out by United and rewarded with an exit row seat (thank you, United) (perhaps it does not hurt that my college room-mate at Brown is a top-level United stewardess and being a frequent flier has its rewards). My flight from San Fran to Chicago O'Hare was terrific and when I arrived at my gate at O'Hare there was police presence, so we speculated as to whether someone from the FBI's ten most wanted list was being transported through O'Hare. (No luck, but we had our cell-phones and cameras ready and we were probably a day or two too early for this, given the news).

At O'Hare, I met a finance and IT professional who was standing in front of me who began talking about multicriteria optimization -- nothing like a discussion about operations research to make for a fun time. He had gotten his degrees from IIT and UConn. He was puzzled as to why United would not transfer his first class ticket on the 9PM flight to an economy class seat on the 7:20 o'clock flight, given that there was a seat available, and he flies every week! Eventually, he got on my flight with a big smile (the 9PM flight had been delayed for 90 minutes). We arrived at Bradley on time.