One of the perks of being a PhD student is the opportunity to go on conferences, and often in much sunnier places than the UK. As a chancellor’s fellow student we are allocated £300 per academic year, which can roll over if unused. I saved mine up for 3 years and landed myself £900 to go where ever I wish (within the budget of course). As much as I would have loved to go to a Keystone conference in the States, that sum just wasn’t going to cover it, but a nice European city would work, right?. After a little bit of research, I had two options that interested me, the annual cellular senescence conference being held in Paris or a more general cancer-related conference hosted by the American and European Associations for Cancer Research in Florence. Of course, my supervisor was attending the senescence conference and I have a great interest in the field but I opted to widen my horizons and hear something different and see what’s hot in other fields of cancer research where I may consider a postdoc (and I’ve never been to Italy before!).
So after my usual drama’s related to sorting out flights and hotel, off I trotted to experience something new at the EACR, AACR 2nd Special Conference: The Challenge of Optimising Immuno- and Targeted Therapies. And boy, do we have challenges…
Florence was very welcoming and the conference venue was spectacular. It was literally around the corner from the hotel I chose to stay at (though I did begin slightly dubious knowing that it was just a small hotel where I would be sharing a bathroom, like many people had said to me already…there was nothing to worry about). Having arrived the evening before the conference, I had a few hours of daylight on Friday and all of Saturday morning to pack in some sightseeing. A little cautious I was, being a little lone travelling female, though I didn’t want to be held captive in my hotel room when there is a world out there to explore. Between Friday night and Saturday morning, I had basically walked around the main touristy parts of Florence, taking pictures of all the key sites and grabbing gelatos on the way.
The conference itself started off with all the excitement and we had a wonderful networking evening with the exhibitor stands…the food was incredible as well as unexpected….even though people tended to stick to they’re own groups and were having their “first day shyness.” The next two days were full days 7.30 am to 7 pm. And with all good intentions, I just could not make that first talk. The rest of the talks supposedly comprised a mixed bag of different themes from immunogenomics, tumour microenvironment, tumour cell metabolism and cell plasticity but somehow everything always came back to the immunology – T cells, PD1, CXCR4, MHC Class II…As much as I appreciate that immunotherapy in the hot topic right now and has the potential to solve many types of cancer, including the big ones such as melanoma, based on the variation in studies displayed on the posters, it was evident that many of us do not work in the immunology field and a good introduction would have been very helpful to the understanding of the talks.
As for the poster sessions itself…I took a poster of my recent work and had it on display on Sunday. There were about 300 posters on display each day and only 1.5 hours had been dedicated to poster defence. In the first instant I found this quite strange as there was to be a poster prize and I wondered how judges were to get by all those posters in that short space of time. We were not really told how the judging was going to work. Nevertheless, I enjoyed talking about my research to three very different ladies, one an editor, one a researcher and one a member of EACR, all of which have different interests and perspectives. The following day was my day to go and talk to other poster presenters. This is usually one of my favourite parts of conference as in quite a short space of time you can learn a lot of things and you can directly ask the researcher any questions or thoughts you have. Honestly, I was quite disappointed in this session though. There was just one poster that had caught my eyes as I saw a potential connection to senescence, but having then spoke to the researcher it turns out he was presenting a very old poster and that since then they have found many other things (and that the cells were not senescent). I found that many of the posters were of poor quality but worse still, as I walked around, most presenters were just leaning against the wall with their phones. Nobody was even trying to engage and I found little interest in the posters themselves…I hate to say it but I decided to spend the last half an hour of the session making the most of the sunshine which I rarely have the pleasure to enjoy! Finally, it turns out, you had to be Italian in order to be eligible for the prizes so, in hindsight, the lack of enthusiasm from anyone could seemingly be related to this cause. With a conference from such big funding bodies, one would expect at least one general prize where all are eligible, right?
One of the other things my eye was opened to at this conference as it appeared there was a significant number is delegates who had attended as representatives from big and small industrial companies. They were the ones who were taking pictures of every slide or recording all the talks so that they can provide a thorough feedback upon their return and work out how the company will benefit from the research. From the perspective of someone in academia, I actually found this thought quite intimidating…people literally stealing your years of hard work!
Through all this, my main thought at the end is that I wish I had been able to attend more conference during my PhD. Maybe I would have realised these things sooner. Maybe I would have a better understanding of immunotherapy. I definitely would have had greater opportunity to see other research. Either way, we take what we’ve learnt and move forward.