ISSCR Annual Meeting, 2011

Hello, remember me?!

Well, it’s been a while, and I can only apologise for the irregularity of the updates. This is what happens when you’re a final year PhD student –  you have a lot of work to do in a very short space of time, and it consumes everything – your spare time, your mind, and even your ability to dress yourself properly. Nevertheless, you probably didn’t come here to read about me whining about my project (nor my dress sense), so onwards.

One of the things I’ve been up to since my last post has been to attend the 9th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, in Toronto. As you might guess from an international conference on what one might call a ‘hot topic’, it was huge (nearly 4,000 delegates, 1,500, and some 5 million litres of coffee, I guess), and the science presented was amazing.

I wrote a report of the ISSCR meeting for the Node, a community that is designed for and written by developmental biologists (or imposters like me), part of the Company of Biologists (publisher of Development, Journal of Cell Science, Journal of Experimental Biology, and Disease Models and Mechanisms).

Since the conference was split over four days, and there was far too much to cover in one article, I wrote four reports, one for each day. Click on the following links to read the reports for day one, day two, day three, and day four.

As previously mentioned, the conference was well attended – and as I was going on my own, I initialy found it quite intimidating. Without anyone colleagues to hang around with or anyone to introduce to people, eventually I got used to chatting to random folk as you went around the halls, realising I hadn’t a hope in hell of seeing them again – there were (thankfully) a few exceptions to this. In the future, I’ll appreciate smaller conferences (like the UKNSCN meeting I reported on) more, where you’re more likely to bump into people you’ve meet before.

In the reports on the Node, I focussed on some of the big names in the field (and oh were there some big’uns), but also some of the lesser known names – what an amazing opportunity it must’ve been for the PhD students to speak at the conference (there were a couple if I remember correctly, and I’m jealous of them all). I came back from the conference feeling inspired – partly to push up the standard of my own research, but also driven to complete my PhD to move onto something new and exciting.

In typical international conference fashion, a lot of the research being presented was already published or ‘in press’, but there were some new research being discussed, which made me stop and think: “here I am, in the same room as some of the world’s leading scientists, and this is work that we are seeing for the first time”. You quickly realise, from moments like these and from hearing about their own research, that the ‘big names’ aren’t just celebrities being wheeled out to impress sponsors, or like ageing rock stars on their final tour (until the next one), but still very much active researchers, and still doing very relevant and interesting science.

As an example, we had a ‘Meet The Expert’ lunch, and I chose in advance to eat a sandwich on the same table as John Dick. Far from being bombarded with questions, he took genuine interest in spending more time asking everyone else what research they were doing.

Going to the meeting of the ISSCR also gave me an insight into the society itself, and what role it plays both in the working lives of scientists and in the wider world. Of course, there would be plenty of collaborations and partnerships between scientists even if the society didn’t exist, but I felt the ISSCR have managed to cultivate a sense of community, despite its large membership base.

Looking outwards, two areas in which the ISSCR is participating have particularly interested me. Firstly, the ISSCR has published a variety of information leaflets for people considering ‘stem cell therapies’, a so far relatively unregulated industry. And it makes sense- who is better placed to give advice about treatments involving stem cells than an organisation containing the world’s stem cell biologists? Secondly, the ISSCR has proposed that it will play a more active role in policy making- I presume acting as some sort of lobbying group, with a global reach. Again, considering the expertise within the society, this is a sound idea.

I’m glad the ISSCR is taking the lead on both of these fronts, and it is exciting for me to be a part of an organisation where opportunities like these are available. It is easy for someone on their own to rant about exaggurated claims of stem cell clinics, or restricitve measures placed on scientists, but a lot of effort as one person to do anything about it. There are examples of grassroots activism started by individual scientists – for example, Stand Is Vital, who drove forward the campaign against cuts to science funding in 2010, was started by one scientist with a blog. However, I think as members of societies, scientists have much more of a collective voice to shout for change to benefit everyone, not just scientists.

Anyway, enough rambling. ISSCR Toronto 2011 was great, and I’d heartily recommend that every scientist goes to the big conference in their field of research at some point. Now, back to the lab I go for the rest of the summer –  you can get a suntan from fluorescent lights, right?

~CCPB

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