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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!

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