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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.


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.


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!


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.


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).


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.


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.


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