SpotOn lessons for science conferencing

At the beginning of this month I was lucky enough to attend SpotOn London (Science, Policy and Tools Online; #solo13), a conference focusing on how online tools and technologies can aid in the sharing, advancement and communication of scientific research. As part of this ethos SpotOn strongly supports Open Access, ensuring all of the sessions can be watched live or recorded on their website. Having volunteered to get involved with the live streaming aspect of the event I was a member of the elite #StreamTeam, which also earned me a free ticket – WIN WIN.

As a PhD student, the majority of my previous conference experiences are of an academic nature. My adventures at both SpotOn London and the British Science Association Science Communication conference 2013 (SciComm 2013) earlier this year have highlighted to me the stark contrasts between the two conference types, both of which are interested in the communication of scientific research, albeit with different audiences in mind. As an individual flirting with both types, I’d like to use my experiences at SpotOn to highlight key areas in which I believe many academic conferences show marked scope for improvement.

At an academic conference, talks last for 20-30 minutes but can feel like they last for 20-30 hours (!) whereas at SpotOn, sessions were 1 hour long but flew by as if they lasted 10 minutes (and not just the ones that involved playing with LEGO)!

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Perhaps this is simply my brain telling me an academic career is not for me, but feedback from fellow scientists, with a range of career goals, generally supports this view. I believe the answer lies in the session structures, which to some extent are limited by the content and aims of the different conferences. Standard academic conferences consist of highly structured, data-filled presentations with a very small time frame for Q&A. Contrastingly, SpotOn sessions ranged from interactive workshops to open panel discussions. In the latter, very short introductions were given by each panel member before the discussion was opened up to the floor for audience participation. Although this can make these sessions unpredictable and it can be difficult to reach significant conclusions in the allotted time, it does provide everyone with an excellent opportunity to have their say.

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I’m well aware that presenting your data at conferences is important and I’m not naïve enough to suggest that this should not happen, but I do believe that integrating some interactive panel and audience discussion sections on broader topics or areas of debate within the conference subject area would offer variety and interest to an academic programme and help everyone feel like a relevant and contributing member of the field.

As mentioned previously, I was involved with the live streaming at SpotOn. This meant that any people not able to attend the conference were able to watch any sessions live on the website. Three themes (Policy, Outreach and Tools) were running concurrently throughout the conference, therefore as well as enabling non-attenders to follow the progress of the conference it also allowed attendees to view clashing sessions post-event. People could also participate in the conference through social media, including Twitter; many attendees were actively live tweeting with each session having its own hashtag (some examples including #solo13carrot, #solo13lego, #solo13blogs and #solo13dark). Such is the popularity of this added conference dimension that several SpotOn hashtags ended up trending on twitter, meaning that they represented a significant amount of the twitter traffic going on in the area at that time. Tweeting is a novel and exciting way to air your feelings about the sessions and the event itself, and also connect with others in real time, permitting everyone to express their views, irrespective of their significance within the field.

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This online presence is now inherent across many fields, especially relating to communication, media and journalism conferences where rapid communication is commonplace and vital to success. Yet in academia it is almost unheard of and was completely new to me when I attended Sci Comm 2013: it is neither encouraged nor discouraged at academic conferences, it is simply absent.

The benefits of integrating both live streaming and Twitter into the academic science world is currently being severely underestimated. It would allow scientists from around the world to follow progress and get involved with any conferences they’re interested in – without the need for time out from the lab or travel expenses – giving live feedback and also allowing a wider degree of networking. One major problem standing in the way of this is that at academic conferences the majority of scientists tend to present unpublished material and would therefore not welcome the online presence. However, in an open forum like a conference, where all of your major academic competition is likely to be present, and especially given the increasing roles of modern technologies (smartphones with cameras, recording devices and e-mail; even when used innocently) in our lives, it should be expected that others will pick up on your interesting data. As such, you shouldn’t be saying anything in public (never mind on stage) that you don’t want people to know about, and with this in mind, it seems foolish to miss the massive networking and feedback benefits of social media because of an ingrained but predominantly irrational fear of competition.

Using Twitter is not a ‘requirement’ at a conference. However, a name badge is! Coming in all shapes, sizes and colours, our badges contain simple details such as our name and our affiliated institutions. SpotOn took this to a whole new level with the introduction of interactive name badges, created by Blendology. These snazzy gadgets allowed conference goers to ‘tap in’ with people they met and interacted with, creating an electronic timeline of who you met and when.

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Seen as a modern approach to the business card, you were then able to access information for the people you had ‘tapped’, including their email address and Twitter handle. Each delegate’s Blendology profile could be personalised in advance, so everyone had full control of what information was shared. Despite a small amount of animosity from people concerned with handling of the data generated, I’m sure the majority would agree that these were a superb icebreaker and common conversation topic (not to mention generating a few games) thereby making networking a much less daunting task. I think these interactive badges would be an asset to any conference, with the possibility for the data you can share being endless. Their implementation at science conferences could be of real benefit: imagine being at an academic conference, networking and collaborating with fellow scientists, and upon ‘tapping in’ with them knowing that alongside their key contact details you have just obtained the links to their key publications. I think in a few years time these will be conference stalwarts. Not to mention they’re vital if you’re the sort of person who is hopeless at remembering people from their name alone.

At academic conferences, I am scared to speak to anybody who is not a fellow PhD student. There is a social hierarchy that we are afraid to break. SpotOn was attended by lots of important people, but yet I was not as afraid to speak to them due to the more open and relaxed conference environment. Are academic conferences in desperate need of a shake up? Should we be looking to these modernised communication conferences for inspiration? SpotOn and Sci Comm 2013 opened my eyes to what I believe academic conferences could become: a much more engaging and enjoyable environment in which scientists and science as a whole can thrive and evolve, developing science into a more open and accessible area that uses technology to interact more directly with everyone.

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C. diff Down Under

At the end of October, I attended my final scientific conference as part of my PhD. Rather than getting bogged down in science, this post simply covers my experience of a great conference, far from home.

My PhD focuses upon Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a hospital superbug and notable member of the clostridial family of bacteria. The conference, ClostPath, is well established as the major international meeting on the molecular biology and pathogenesis of the clostridia. First held in Rio Rico, USA in 1995, this was the 8th meeting. Taking place in Palm Cove, Australia, 163 delegates from 20 different countries were in attendance. This included eight delegates from the original conference, with all continents represented barring Antarctica.

After a long and drawn out journey across the globe, with a breathtaking two day layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I encountered my first fellow conference goers at Cairns airport waiting for my transfer over to Palm Cove. They weren’t hard to spot; lumbered with their poster tubes. This wasn’t an issue for me – I’d decided to try out the fabric posters becoming more prevalent in the conference world – and was able to simply fold this and put it in my suitcase.

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Once in Palm Cove it became readily apparent this was the dream conference destination; both my hotel and the nearby hotel where the conference was being held were steps away from the beach. Later that evening we were gently weaned into the conference with an entertaining ‘Welcome to the Country’ given by a traditional Aboriginal Gimuy Walubara Yindinji Tribe, an excellent keynote lecture by Klaus Aktories (University of Freiburg), and a canapé-filled welcome reception. Still adjusting to the time difference, an early night beckoned.

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Suitably refreshed, I was ready for the first full day of the conference. Most of the talks were related to my work on C. diff, but there were other sessions too, talking about the related bacteria Clostridium perfringens (C. perfringens) and Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum). I was at the conference with my science-head firmly screwed on – but C. perfringens and C. botulinum were not in my thesis remit and therefore the sessions dedicated to these screamed BEACH BEACH BEACH.

I spent the first morning in back to back sessions; ‘Diseases and Epidemiology’ and ‘Genomes, Genetics, Epidemiology’, featuring excellent talks from Mark Wilcox (Leeds Teaching Hospital) and Vince Young (University of Michigan). I then spent a couple of hours on the beach – WOW. I couldn’t help but laugh – it was so surreal – I felt like I’d stepped out of the jungle on ‘Lost’ and kept expecting a black smoke monster to attack me and send me back to the UK!

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I viewed the remainder of that day through rose-tinted glasses, attending the remaining session on ‘Intracellular toxins’ followed by the first poster session, featuring my own poster. This consisted of an hour of explaining and answering questions on my work, networking and gaining some valuable feedback, accompanied by an ice-cold alcoholic beverage (or several). Chilled and fulfilled, I slept very soundly that evening.

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Day 2 panned out in a similar manner to its predecessor; I attended a further two sessions interspersed with some chill-out time at the beach. Both sessions focused on ‘Host-pathogen interactions’ and featured excellent talks from Robert Fagan (University of Sheffield) and Xinhua Chen (Harvard Medical School). Talks were followed by the remaining poster session: with my own out of the way I was now free to network and inquire about the posters of my peers.

The final day of the conference largely focused on C. diff, consisting of sessions on ‘Physiology and Biotechnology’, ‘Laboratory Diagnosis’ and ‘Vaccines and Immune Responses’. Noteworthy talks were given by Tor Savidge (Baylor College of Medicine), Thomas Riley (University of Western Australia) and Zhiyong Yang (University of Maryland).

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All that now remained of the conference was the banquet dinner. Here we were regaled with tales of various dangerous creatures in the Queensland area, ‘Palm Cove – the most venomous place on the planet. Will I die from a venomous animal at this conference?’ delivered by the ‘Jelly Dude from Nemo Land’: Jamie Seymour of James Cook University. The conference planning committee had organized an optional Great Barrier Reef trip post-conference that many of us were attending and he therefore took this opportunity to instill fear into many of us with graphic videos of how the various sea creatures indigenous to Queensland can inflict pain. After toying with us, he was quick to provide stats on just how few related deaths there are per year involving venomous/dangerous creatures. In actual fact, we are much more likely to die from alcohol-related incidents: note to self, lay off the house cider!

The following morning we set off on our trip to the Great Barrier Reef – an experience of a lifetime. Us scientists were able to let our hair down so to speak, snorkel and relax, with work a distant thought.

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Despite a passion for science, I often find scientific conferences to be rather intense and exhausting as a result of having to constantly focus throughout. However, this conference was different. The breathtaking surroundings and opportunity to intersperse the conference sessions with relaxing trips to the beach really made a difference – after a dip in the warm tropical waters, sitting through the back-to-back talks was no longer as much of a chore. Further to this, the sunshine made for a relaxed and happy atmosphere, meaning networking was a much more laid-back and enjoyable experience. It’s a good job that was my last PhD conference, as I can guarantee it won’t be topped.

A Series of Fortuitous Events

Apologies for the delay between posts – I do have a good excuse; I’ve been in Australia on an extended conference trip. This post is about my metamorphosis from recent University graduate to jet-setting research scientist.

In 2007, I graduated from University of Liverpool with a 1st-class honours degree in Genetics. I was over the moon – but now what?! What should I do next? What did I want to do next?

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As I had no plan for the future, and judged myself to be extremely inexperienced in the scientific working world – a degree is great for theory, but you don’t get much practical research experience – I decided to glean some experience, offering myself as an unpaid volunteer at the Cytogenetics department of the Liverpool Women’s Hospital. This provided me with an excellent opportunity to develop and grow as a young researcher, learning valuable skills as I moonlighted across various specialities.

After working for a few months they offered me a paid position, which I happily snapped up. I was thrilled that they were clearly satisfied with the work I’d been doing for them. However six months in, it had become apparent that Cytogenetics was likely to fall by the wayside as molecular biological techniques advanced and became more widely implemented.

I began hunting for something new and applied for a research technician post in the Pharmacology department of the University of Liverpool. Whilst I wasn’t awarded the position, due to a lack of bioinformatics (computational) skills, there was a silver lining; I had impressed the interviewers enough for them to offer me a similar position at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital (RLUH). This alternative was part of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)’s Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) scheme; just one informal interview/chat with RLUH’s Research & Development team, and I had a new job!

During the first few months, my new boss often repeated the NIHR’s stance on career progression, hinting at the possibility of undertaking a PhD part-time alongside my current work. This could take anything from five to seven years – I was unsure, that’s a lot of time to commit in your early twenties. Did I want to tie myself down to something I hadn’t even considered until he brought it up? Was I cut out for it? However, Dr Swale did have a nice ring to it!

Here I fast-forward through a year of monotony. The hinting at a PhD continued, but nothing real seemed to come of it and the amount of work I had to do was limited; I wasn’t feeling challenged, and wanted to be doing something more engaging and useful. It was at this time that I applied for the Civil Service’s Fast Stream process, specifically to be placed with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). After a rigorous application process I was invited to London for the final testing stage, an intense urban survival course, where I had to save 2000 hostages whilst protecting the queen from an extremist terrorist cell and prevent hackers from accessing MI6 secret databases. Or it involved lots of presenting, writing and non-verbal reasoning – I can’t quite remember which.

The day the Civil service rejected me was the exact same day I had a meeting with my boss and the Liverpool BRC coordinators, finally having agreed that they were willing to arrange to fund my part-time PhD. The timing of these two events seemed too fortuitous, and as I still had no alternative life plan I enthusiastically accepted their offer. I was now a part-time PhD student, with five years of funding and a project that expanded on the work I’d already been doing as a technician making use of my skills and experience. For the next two years all was rosy – more or less, PhD work is rarely straightforward. I progressed well and posters showcasing my work won prizes at consecutive NIHR annual trainee meetings. Of course, things are rarely that simple…..

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As well as having a centre in Liverpool, the NIHR BRC scheme had been rolled out around the country with BRCs and Biomedical Research Units (BRUs) in various cities across England. After 3 years, the scheme and the centres involved then had to be reviewed and their funding renewed. To cut a long, complicated and highly political story short; Liverpool failed their renewal bid meaning we had just 8 months (31st March 2009) until the money ran out. For a brief moment I thought, at least, I would be ok – they had guaranteed me five years of funding. How naïve of me: obviously this ‘guaranteed’ funding was based on the centre having money to fund me from. My PhD funding was being terminated. Thankfully, the NIHR offered me the chance to apply for an independent NIHR doctoral research fellowship that was centrally funded, which would give me secure funding to finish my PhD.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the application involved a 30-40 page form where I had to explain my needs, plans, current research and achievements etc. Those few months – waiting for a response from the NIHR and wondering if I’d wasted the last several years for nothing – were the most stressful of my life to date (although my upcoming PhD thesis writing and defense may change things). With a lot of help from my supervisors and colleagues, the NIHR agreed to offer an extra 18 months of full-time funding to get everything finished, the heat was really on.

At the time, the funding cut seemed like a catastrophe. However, looking back this was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was able to finish sooner than planned and their funding has allowed me to showcase my research in Germany (Munich), USA (New York) and now Palm Cove, Australia.

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That funding expired at the end of September and I now have until 31st October 2014 to complete my thesis, unfunded. In some ways it’s very much like being back at the beginning, volunteering in cytogenetics.

Despite the prestige associated with a PhD, they are not necessarily a perfect fit for everyone. I may not have been sure about undertaking the PhD. and I still don’t really know what I want to do next, but I do know that I have developed and enhanced many valuable transferrable skills; in particular, working well as part of a team, the ability to cope under pressure and a clear and concise writing style. Most importantly, this journey has helped shaped me into the person I am today and will hopefully stand me in good stead for whatever road I choose to go down next!

Pimpin’ Pandas

One of the places pretty high up on my ‘To Visit ASAP’ list is Edinburgh. A city full of heritage; Edinburgh castle, giant pandas, Fringe, giant pandas, Hogmanay, giant pandas, UNESCO World heritage old and new towns etc etc. And did I mentioned they have GIANT PANDAS?!

I love giant pandas. C-U-T-E with a capital C. The sole reason I haven’t yet visited Tian Tian (‘Sweetie’) and Yang Guang (‘Sunshine’) since their arrival in December 2011 is that I’m scared I may jump into their enclosure and get mauled when I try and bear hug them.

ImagePerhaps somewhat naively, I hadn’t given much thought to how or why they arrived in the UK; I just assumed that the zoo had purchased the pandas to boost declining visitor numbers (a savvy move – visitor numbers have reportedly risen by 51% since their arrival).

In actual fact, the pandas were loaned to Edinburgh Zoo by China in a move termed ‘panda diplomacy’. A recent article by a team in Oxford, published in Environmental Practice, explains how panda diplomacy refers to the process whereby China loans out pandas in order to help foster relationships with other countries.

First observed as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), they were revived during the Mao era of the 1960s and 1970s, deemed Phase 1 of a three phase model suggested by the recent article. Here, the pandas were ‘no strings attached’ gifts in order to build and strengthen friendships.

The rise to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 saw a shift into Phase 2: gifts became loans, involving financial payments and usually lasting for at least 10 years. In recent years it has become a requirement to prove that this financial gain is channeled into conservation efforts.

 ***Cue Jay-Z and “Big Pimpin’”***

The emergence of Phase 3 is thought to have begun in 2008, coinciding with the Sichuan earthquake whereby China’s major panda conservation centre was devastated, meaning there was an urgent requirement to re-home pandas. Subsequent panda loans have coincided with trade deals for valuable resources and technology and have been termed ‘guanxi’ loans, based upon personalized networks of trust, loyalty, influence and reciprocity. For example, shortly after Tian Tian and Yang Guang’s arrival on Scottish soil, multiple lucrative trade deals were signed between the two countries, estimated to be worth £2.6 billion ($4 billion). Further examples of such ‘guanxi’ loans can be found alongside trade deals between China and various countries including Canada, France and Australia.

To cut a long story short, China are subtly pimpin’ out their pandas for political and economic gain. But can we blame them? It’s a win win situation – they gain allies and improve conservation efforts whilst they’re at it. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book; instead of culling badgers why don’t we simply loan them out?! WATCH THIS SPACE…..

A blog is born

So after moonlighting on a couple of other blogging sites, I’ve finally got round to setting up my own.

 Talk about STRESS – it took me a week just to decide on a name and I only made the final decision after surveying 40 close friends and colleagues – being a perfectionist SUCKS (it’s not actually a requirement to over think everything so much).

 One of my main motivations for pursuing science communication and blogging stems from my family; I am the only member to have attended university, never mind going on to pursue a postgraduate qualification. Therefore, I constantly come across the gap between scientists and the general public (AKA my adoring family); I feel that blogging is a great way to communicate science with a wider audience. I also wanted a space to be able to showcase science stories I am interested by, and also express my own opinions on science and how I have got to where I am today.

 I’m still a bit of a novice to the world of science communication – I recently attended the British Science Association’s Science Communication 2013 conference and this gave me a great insight into what could potentially become my future career path. Further to this, I also recently took part in the ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!’ online science engagement competition, which I’ll be blogging about in detail very shortly.

 My previous blogs can be found using the following links: –

 http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/conferencecast/science_mojo_gradually_diminished_instantly

 This post focuses on how I regained my motivation for science whilst attending a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York

 http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/conferencecast/bsa_science_communication_2013_scicomm2013

 This post sees my first attempt at using Storify to showcase my experience of the British Science Association’s Science Communication 2013 conference

 http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/student-voices/poo_transplants_sniffing_out_the

 This post looks at the potential of faecal transplantation as a standardised treatment for patients infected with C. Diff

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