Sunday, 3 May 2015

18 Things I Learned at Evolve Biomed 2015

Hello! So, earlier this week I attended and presented my research at the inaugural Evolve Biomed event, a conference to "accelerate biomedical innovation". In my blog posts during the event, I was too tired/busy to do more than just list the events without commentary, so here's all that delicious commentary. 

Warning: This blog post focuses on how the conference relates to me and my experiences, so it's a personal account. If any of the organisers want a more objective view of the quality of the event:

(a) It was very good
(b) I learned a lot
(c) It was a great opportunity to mix with people in the industry
(d) Impressive job.

1. Emphasis on Industry

For a gathering of academics, there wasn't much focus on academia. From the moment I arrived I heard people talking about PhD students preparing for their "transfer" (boy does that sound dystopian - an academic dystopia?), and while that could've been into post-doc, the majority of the talks were on industry and entrepreneurship. How to start a spin-out company. Venture capital. Pharma companies and the drug pipeline. 

I'm not saying this was a bad thing, and I did appreciate all the new information. But being young and naive and idealistic and wanting a PhD, it was discouraging to see all these people trying to get out of academia as fast as possible. I mean, even while I was in CRANN, they'd talk about low academic wages, but they still liked academia. It was weird.

2. People believe what they want to believe.

When I went to the Gaeltacht (aged 13), a guy there immediately told me I looked like I was seven. That was rude but not uncommon; people often tell me I look younger than I actually am (I'm 16). But here, people read my poster and kept asking where I'm doing my PhD. I had to keep saying "I'm still in secondary school, but..." I think a lot of people there were convinced I'd won a prize at Young Scientist that let me present at the conference, but no such prize exists. It was just through AJ. 

Anyway, I found it interesting how much people will believe what they want to, or what makes sense in the situation while ignoring evidence from their eyes. I really don't look like I'm in my 20s, and yet almost everyone assumed I was. 

Nice change. 

3. Incremental Progress

I saw at least three posters on the same (or at least very similar) topic - radioisotopes as tracers. I know this is a conference on one (broad) field, and I should probably stop comparing everything to Young Scientist, but you wouldn't see that in YS, except maybe in the Social & Behavioural section.

The sort of projects that do well in YS tend to be really individual and ground-breaking. I mean, that's similar in the real scientific world, but the YS is unforgiving to projects with incremental improvements on existing methods, ones that might merit a paper in reality. Things have to be media-ready, new and exciting. 

It left me thinking of how important the public can be, and how we really need more opportunities for non-university-educated people to do real research. I haven't worked out the logistics, but something like CoderDojo for science could be really beneficial. 

4. What I did wrong with my poster...

As this was my first conference, I had my poster made quite thick so it would last. That backfired when it fell down and broke under its own weight. 

I discovered that posters for conferences are generally thin but laminated. 

5. ....And what I did right.

Mine was the only pink poster there. Everyone else's were blue, gray, white and black. All muted, boring, business tones. The benefit of being inexperienced is an ability to naturally think outside the box (because you don't know the box is there). I could also get away with seeming unprofessional because, well, I'm not a professional. 

6. Books in the RDS

When I first went into the concert hall (location of most talks), I thought it was a gorgeous room. I was impressed by all the books there, but when I went for a close-up look I was astonished to see multiple heavy books on each row, all of the same volume. I mean, I don't think they got the point of volume, but here's a picture showing the April, February, March and January 1964 editions of "Comptes Rendus De L'Aead Des Sciences", all part of Volume 258. That makes me wonder, just how many of these are there? I mean, obviously they're something to do with science, but are they just collections of all scientific articles published in a certain place in that time, or something else? 

They're in a different language (French?), but if I'm in the RDS again it might be worthwhile to have a look through them. 

7. Mysterious vandal with bad grammar

Even in a place as posh as the RDS, I found this. No idea what it means, but the contrast was funny. 

8. Value of Young Scientist

I was talking to the guy whose poster was beside mine, and asked him where he'd presented his work before. He said this was his first conference or event like that, and I was very surprised. He was the second-youngest person there, a Masters student, but still. 

Across my two projects, I've done at least five exhibitions, most of those with judges. I'm still not great at condensing my work for the layman, but I do have plenty of experience with it, and it really surprises me that there are academics who haven't at all.

I guess that's the value of things like Young Scientist and Sentinus Young Innovators (and, to an extent, Drogheda Young Innovators). You learn really important speaking skills, and learn how to pitch your work taking your audience into account (e.g. if it's a judge in your area or in another field, in which case you need to be respectful but still explain most things), or if it's a member of the public or a child, all people who'll need a different level of explanation). You also learn what's relevant and what isn't - if you're talking to ten-year-olds, it's just going to take too long to explain everything, so you need to be okay with oversimplifying the work there. 

9. Specialization

I was alarmed by the amount of specialization at the conference. I mean, it was on one area (biomedical science) and yet most people didn't understand my research and I didn't understand theirs (although we could definitely catch the gist of it with some effort)

I've been told before how incredibly specialized you are by the time you get to a PhD, and I always took that to mean your work. But it actually seemed like the people themselves were really specialized. At Young Scientist, exhibitors generally have a much broader view on things. There are benefits and drawbacks to this one, but I'm not a big fan of specialization. It feels like closing yourself off too much.

10. Livetweeting

I Tweeted so much during that conference, and so did everyone else. I think the organisers did a good job with encouraging social media engagement - I didn't think people would co-operate, but they really enthusiastically did. I mean, a big part of it was showing off and compulsory outreach attempts from labs, but hey: mutually beneficial. @EvolveBiomed kept a really good eye on the Tweets and stayed on top of Retweeting them, instantly rewarding everyone who engaged online with the conference. 

11. Work experience repetition

Some of the talks at this conference really made me realise how valuable my work experience has been. Last November, I did a week of work experience with AMBER, during which we went to the Tissue Engineering labs in RCSI and learned about the triad used in tissue engineering (we also got to touch the 3D-printed moulds and plenty more besides, as well as visits to other places like the AML - Advanced Microscopy Laboratory and graphene labs in CRANN). Then there was a talk from someone in Tissue Engineering at AMBER that covered the exact same topics (with some added material they must not have deemed fit for TYs). So it was really cool to see that we were learning actual cutting-edge things on work experience, rather than the old stuff that makes it into textbooks.

12. The Value of Asking 

This links in with "Value of Young Scientist", point #8), but I want to state it clearly because it's really important. That same Masters student couldn't believe I (and a few others) had been allowed to visit and touch the cyclotron under Blackrock Clinic, and I told him I just asked.

Now, that was part of a work experience programme (UCD Physics Week, 2nd to 6th December 2013), where all these visits had been scheduled in. So someone at UCD asked the people at Blackrock Clinic to let us in under supervision, and they said yes - because people generally do. I asked to be let on the programme. Why would people say no? I believe people are generally helpful, and as long as you make it easy enough for them, they'll do it.

Use this wisely. 

(That reminds me: thanks a million to the many people who helped me out throughout the two days, especially in giving me directions and carrying my poster.)

13. Pandering

During all my other work experiences/programmes/exhibitions, the talks would revolve around young people and how we're the future, innovators, etc. The fact that teenagers were mentioned only once at this conference (to my knowledge), and it was in a very separate way "Teenagers share their lives online" rather than "You share your lives online", proved just how much pandering they're doing at other, teenager-centric venues.

Which is to be expected. The speakers are just tailoring their points for their audiences. 

14. Unexpected Scarcity of Like-Minded People

This could just be a lesson in the diversity of people. But I admit, I thought I'd find more like-minded people. Going back to the guy beside me (and others who echoed his opinion), they said they never would've been doing this sort of thing when they were sixteen. Now, I'm not showing off. It's just a personality type, I guess, people who do projects like this, and it's definitely helped by Young Scientist and support from my school. But people who didn't do sciencey things in school and just went the normal route (Bachelors, Masters, PhD) seem to have a different mindset. 

I found a lot more like-minded people in CTYI. The fact that they're both teenage and (usually) ambitious helps.

Don't get me wrong, though: I'm still really impressed by a lot of the people there, including the speakers and organisers. 

15. Money

At least two of the talks were solely about how much money is available to researchers in the form of various prizes and grants (these were from Enterprise Ireland and SFI). Apparently people just need to know about them. 

So go forth and sign up for SFI e-alerts.

16. Family

I probably shouldn't have been so surprised by this, but I did find it really strange to sit at tables and hear professors and PhD students talk about their kids. I never really thought of them as people who have family, so I guess that humanised them for me in a way. 

17. Translational Research 

The conference really pushed this one, as mentioned in #1 about the emphasis on industry. It's all about getting from basic to applied research, and showing there are supports and mechanisms available to help you get there. Translational Research is where it's at. 

18. Communication

This was the real takeaway from Evolve Biomed 2015, I think. Speakers kept repeating the theme that scientists need to learn to communicate with healthcare professionals, people in industry and the public to effectively disseminate their discoveries, something we learned in BT Business Bootcamp from that Newstalk presenter.

Linking back to point #8 (again), communication and practice with presenting your work really is, in my opinion, key.

Again, good job to all the organisers and thanks to AJ for inviting me. 

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