August 6, 2020, by Rob Ounsworth
A sense of community and a welcome shot of adrenaline: Life Sciences PGRs hail virtual conference
Guest blog by Dr Mădălina Stălniceanu, Postgraduate and Postdoctoral Research Development Officer, Life Sciences
Every June or July, the School of Life Sciences organises a conference which aims to enable postgraduate research (PGRs) students to share their work and research in a supportive environment. Although preparations had started in late 2019, shortly after the move to online working at the end of March, the PGR Directorate team had to choose between postponing the conference for 2021 or organising a virtual conference that would have maintained sense of community for the PGR students and created a sense of normality in challenging, unprecedented times. With five months left, the transition to an online format was an unexpected, formidable task that was successfully accomplished due to amazing teamwork and tremendous support from school members and sponsors.
Excellent conference contributions
Over four days towards the end of July (20-23 July), conference attendees had the opportunity to look at around 60 narrated posters created by MRes and second-year PhD students and to listen to a similar number of live presentations delivered by third-year and fourth-year PhD students grouped in 14 sessions.
Feedback suggests that narrated posters were very well received, allowing attendees to go through the posters in the order that the researcher thought was best. Other attendees stated that there was more engagement with the posters and presenters at this virtual conference than at the face-to-face conferences. Pre-recorded versions of presentations were also available for the PGR students who were unable to present on the day.
Engaging external and internal speakers
We were honoured to have Professor Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, as the plenary speaker. Professor Cobb, an award-winning science communicator, delivered an interactive plenary lecture on the sense of smell.
We also hosted two timely talks on COVID-19-related research carried out in the School of Life Sciences. Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology, who since the start of the outbreak has reached national and global audiences, delivered a talk on the prospects for vaccines and treatments for SARS Coronavirus Type 2. Dr Nadine Holmes, Lead Technician in Deep Seq, presented the work done by COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, a UK-wide network coordinating rapid whole-genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2.
Enthusiastic, dedicated PGR organising committee members
The PGR conference organising committee played a key role in the success of the conference. Comprising nine second-year and third-year PhD students, the committee took on tasks including the conference programme, liaising with sponsors, creating the abstract booklet, chairing the internal talks and the live presentation sessions, and promoting the conference on Twitter.
They share thoughts on their experience here:
Working as part of the PGR Conference Organisation Committee was an immensely rewarding experience, allowing us to challenge ourselves in a number of diverse roles. The PGR Directors trusted us enough to grant independence with many of the decisions taken by the committee – both exciting and terrifying in equal measures.
Being part of the PGR committee gave a sense of meaning and purpose and community, during a time of boredom and isolation. The regular Thursday meetings were the pinnacle of my week — I couldn’t wait to see all the lovely committee members, discuss my ideas and hear theirs in turn. The poster presentation offered an opportunity to invest a lot of time into something that felt like it was ‘worth it’ and the chairing sessions made for an awesome, adrenaline-fuelled week.
I was a bit nervous about chairing sessions as it was my first experience. But as all the committee members and PGR officials were so helpful, kind and supportive, I genuinely enjoyed chairing the sessions. I learnt many skills by being part of organising, chairing, poster presenting. I feel myself a different person with much more confidence and skills. I hope to be part of the superb PGR team again, next year.
It was a long and sometimes difficult journey, but I gained many skills and insight into my personality and abilities as a researcher. I was also able to present a research poster for the first time ever, and through this experience, learned a lot from interactions with others, answering questions about my research.
I am pleased that I was part of this incredible team as I have developed some new skills and met new people! And on top of that, I won as the best poster in the Genetics, Ecology and Evolution category! All of the hard work took place while I was in three different countries trying to get back to my family and had to isolate for two weeks three times! So my take-home message is: Even after facing loads of anxiety, pressure and stress, I was still able to make it through during a pandemic! Having those weekly meetings with the team was one of the reasons what kept me going. So if was able to make it, then you can too!
Generous judges and sponsors
Over 40 academics, researchers and technicians in the School of Life Sciences took time out of their busy schedules to judge the 120 narrated posters and live talks. This year five companies – Merck, New England Biolabs, Nikon, QIAGEN and Promega – made contributions to cover the cost of the 29 prizes that we were able to offer to recognise the hard work that had been put into posters and presentations.
Chris Lounds PhD, of New England Biolabs, said: “To my knowledge, nobody else in my territory has done what the PGR team did. The rest of my conference calendar cancelled when lockdown was announced. Either they ran small online meetings without sponsorship, or they have done nothing at all. Even the professional conference organisers seem very slow to react.”
Thomas Kemp, of QIAGEN, said: “It was a very positive event considering the current circumstances and it was great to see the high level of enthusiasm!”
- PGR Directorate Team: Professor Thorsten Allers, Dr Lopa Leach, Dr Vincent Wilson (PGR Directors) and Dr Mădălina Stălniceanu (PGR Research Development Officer)
- PGR Committee: Anjani Kumari, Anya Snary, Areej Alsolami, Dimitrios Amanitis, Jack Whittaker, Luke O’Hara, Reem Alhamidi, Roheena Sohail, Sara Zandomeneghi