Top tips for attending a conference for the first time

As a PhD student, it is inevitable that you’ll have opportunities to attend academic conferences. I’m in science (biomedical research specifically), and while the content may differ, all conferences are the same thing really – a chance for people to present current, novel work to people in their field, to network with peers/experts/friends, to make new contacts and discuss potential collaborations, and of course to drink and be merry. It’s a bit like Christmas really…you get to see people you haven’t seen all year and have a good time, and learn about science at the same time!

For some, the prospect of being thrown in front of many people (Daniel in the lions den so to speak (rich coming from an atheist)), whether it be to present a poster, short talk, or longer talk, or just to attend the conference, can be quite a daunting thought. I’m fortunate enough to have been to many conferences in my time as a PhD student, and I thoroughly enjoy going to them!

I’ve put together a list of what I consider top tips for attending your first conference (or any subsequent conference if you aren’t a big fan of them or people!).

    1. Enjoy it. Enjoying the experience is by far one of the most important factors of attending a conference. You are there, of course, primarily to gain knowledge from presentations by experts and peers in your field of research, but having a good time while you’re there is a must. There is no easier way to learn so much, in such a short space of time, than attending a conference, but with that said, it is not necessarily the be all and end all of the event. There are endless opportunities to network, to engage, and to really get to know the people that you may very well hold in high regard (and they will probably turn out to be (quite) human after all!). Of course, conferences can feel very formal, particularly, for example, gala dinner events where the heading ‘black tie’ can be very off putting, but most are friendly, relatively low key and really supportive environments. If you are presenting, I know it can be a nerve-wracking experience, but once the presentation is over you will feel so much more relaxed…so just go and enjoy yourself!
    2. Talk to people. Ok, for some people, this is easier said than done, but for me it is one of the most important things (apart from enjoying the whole thing of course, hence why it’s number 2). Conferences are a prime opportunity to get yourself known by face. It is all well and good knowing people by name, but there is nothing like being able to stand face to face and have even a small chat with them. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of making yourself known to people, as this will come back on you positively for sure. If you’re a bit nervous, and you’re attending the conference with your supervisor, or colleague, then taking them with you is not a bad move, but don’t just let the opportunity slip to introduce yourself. Make sure to shake hands (even if they don’t offer to first!), and get some contact details if you think they could be useful for the future. Business cards are a great opportunity to make another mark for yourself here – why not design your own, and give them to people while you’re there. It isn’t something commonly done by PhD students, but makes you stand out and gives them a reason to remember you.
    3. Go to the talks/posters and engage. The main advantage of going to a conference is to broaden your academic knowledge base of current work in your field, without having to trawl through hundreds of papers. You can just visit the poster/talk and see whats going on. If it is of interest, follow it up with them directly, or in the literature. If it isn’t, then nothing lost! Talking to the poster presenters is a great way to quickly get some inside info on the project/area, and you’d be surprised at how open people and projects really are (unless there are IP issues of course). The main thing here is not to come across as the arrogant, over confident, uninterested person, there only to be super critical of their work. Don’t forget that most poster presenters are students, and/or early career researchers, and could probably do without being excessively grilled (they’re there to try and enjoy the conference too!). The good thing with poster sessions is that you can read the title/abstract and then get a gist of whats going on, and if it isn’t of much interest, move on to the next (but be polite and compliment (where appropriate) the presenter on their efforts!). If attending an oral session, engagement is somewhat more formal, and takes the form of a q&a section after the talk. It can be daunting enough asking a question, but if you’re brave enough (and don’t forget, theres no such thing as a stupid question!), ask away and other people may benefit form their answer too! Otherwise, find them after the session and have a chat (see no. 2 above).
    4. Dress for the occasion. It might seem quite a trivial thing, and it is something that I struggle with if I’m honest…even now; more than 3 years into my PhD. I never know whether to wear jeans and a t-shirt, shirt and trousers, suit….and it can be easy to over- or under-dress depending on the conference. For a small meeting, I would suggest smart casual. For a larger conference, or on the day you are presenting irrespective of conference size, I would say dress up a bit. Maybe not necessarily suit and tie, but certainly consider suit without tie, or shirt and tie with no jacket etc. For females, I think it’s somewhat easier – a smart-ish dress, trousers and smart-ish top.. you can’t really go wrong for smart casual! Just be wary not to over or under do it.

Goodbye and hello

Today sees the end of a roller-coaster year, namely 2016. It also sees the introduction and welcoming of 2017, an important year in academic terms – my final stretch of the PhD studentship.

2016 wasn’t all bad though. So what happened?
– I went to Gregynog and presented my early tissue model work, with great feedback and comments. Met some new faces and sparked a few potential future collaborations.
– I went to another conference in Porto, Portugal and presented an updated version of the tissue model work, winning the poster prize! I again met new faces, and some friends for life.
– I submitted a paper to a journal to which I was invited to publish, this was reviewed and required a bit more work, but sparked an application for additional funding which was secured in December 2016.
– I am co-authoring a paper independent of my PhD project, which hopefully will be published in the near future
– I have analysed and interpreted all of the metataxonomic data (except for a few additional bits for my thesis) which forms the basis of another paper – to be submitted to a journal early 2017.
– Upon successful receipt of the grant for tissue model work, much more analysis can be done to further understand extra areas that I would have like to have done, but didn’t have time/funding to do earlier on (…watch this space!)
– I’ve had an amazing amount of support from my sponsors; GSK, and hope that there are many things that we can do together in the future. This relationship is too good not to continue with!
– I had an abstract accepted for IADR in San Francisco in March 2017 – looking forward to an exciting trip with Josh and Elen!

All in all, not a bad year. Some mixed news form the world of OBS too, but more on that another time!

2017 is going to be just as amazing, stressful, but positive for sure. Cheers and happy new year!

I can see clearly now

The leading statement ‘I can see clearly now’ has dual purpose. Firstly, I have new glasses 😀 20161019_165146

I haven’t had glasses since I was really young – probably 20 years ago now (man that makes me feel old..). I should have continued wearing them through my childhood and maybe I wouldn’t have needed them now!! Oh well. Ruben has glasses, and if he can pull them off as well as he does, I’ll give them a go. So I went to have my eyes tested, and sure enough I still need them (believe it or not). Heres the technical part – my eyesight is 20/20 apparently…but my prescription is longsighted; a 1.75 in both eyes but they gave me a 1.25 (to make it easier on my eyes first time round), theres also a 2 point astigmatism, and very slight turn in for my right eye. No, I have no idea what it means either, but I need glasses for concentration work. So I chose these – nice eh?

Anyway, I digress.

I have had a ton of NGS data back form the sequencing company, and the lovely Ann has done a load of analysis for me on it. The data is really good quality apparently (which is always nice to hear of course!), and the analysis has started. Trying to make head or tail of the hundreds of thousands of cells of numbers, OTUs, proportional data, phylogenetic stuff and diversity/abundance…its all very new, very daunting but very very interesting.

Ann has done such a great job of answering the questions I have for my project so far, with a few more to come, and the data was presented at the recent GSK symposium, and after a supervisory meeting this afternoon, is beginning to make much more sense. It turns out, its actually a pretty good result overall! #LetsGetThisPublished

More to follow when I can! But lots more to do for now, so bye!

Next generation scientists

What a great visit. The past two days have been some of the most fun moments you can possibly have in science I’m sure.

It’s that time of year when GSK very kindly host their annual student science symposium. Once again the evening poster session and dinner was held in the beautiful Oatlands Park hotel in Weybridge, then the next day on to the GSK Oral Healthcare base. 

The evening poster session was once again full of great science from early stage PhD students (and Jonathan who despite being a third year, did a poster as well as his oral presentation!) 

The dinner was delicious, and the company was even better. Kelly, William, Chris, Jing, Jonny, Sharon and Ezra. Lovely students who are such great fun. Dinner was broken into sections with entertainment by the now infamous Jon and Dave, with their QI inspired quiz. Hilarious to say the least. 

Then came the socialising and drinks flowed freely. Such a great opportunity to really engage with people on a personal level, and make new friends. 

The oral  sessions were so inspiring. So much great research, and great presentations, from all sorts of disciplines: proteins, materials, Dentistry microbiology, tissue engineering. All of really great quality and solid science. 

I was fortunate enough to have given a talk on my next generation sequencing data (hot off the press this week!), which went down a storm. Great feedback and ideas bouncing off the results. And great contacts made which which be really useful in the future I’ve no doubt! Additionally, I had a few ideas of my own for possible collaborations and group work, so that is something I’m keen to pursue in the near future… Fingers crossed! 

Today also saw the (initial as I’m sure it will be extended,  as ever) deadline for the abstract submissions for IADR 2017 in San Francisco, California. Yep, I did get an abstract submitted so fingers crossed and watch this space for updates in the coming months of the outcome 😀

I did it! #CardiffHalf

I did it! For my third consecutive year, I finished the Cardiff Half Marathon: 13.1 miles of beautiful scenery and incredibly supportive crowds. Ok maybe only 10 of those miles were fun, but the support and sheer determination got me through the other three!

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It all started out as a beautiful Sunday morning, crisp and clear with the forecast of sunshine for the duration of the race. After arriving at the race start, I met up with some of the guys from Stroke Association (I was running in memory of my nan, Joan, who had suffered a stroke before her passing, and my next door neighbour Doreen who also suffered strokes prior to her passing). Then after some waiting, caught up with my good friend Clotilde. We started the race and that was the last I saw of Clotilde, who eventually finished in a fantastic time of 2:01:19.

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My pace was fairly slow to begin with, 5km in 33 min, 10km in 1:06 which was consistent and I didn’t want to push as I had only run a 5lm the week before, but nothing for months and months beforehand! No training isn’t the best idea to go into a half marathon if I’m honest!

The first 10km felt really good, the pace was fine, felt comfortable and managed to get some energy gels at this point. I pushed on through miles 7, 8, 9 and arrived at mile 10 – the dreaded oath park section. As beautiful as this section is, and despite the crowd being the most supportive of all the course, this section is what I fear the most. Knowing that you have to run up the hill at the start of mile 10, then another at just before mile 12 is daunting being so tired already. But most people powered through and got themselves onto the last mile, at which I saw Elen and Genevieve! Elen plays in a brass band and they played the Ghostbusters theme as I was passing, so after a quick hello, off I went toward the finish. The crowd during the last 500 metres were really great, shouting and chanting to get the runners to the end, and with a what little engird I had left, the sprint finish is a must!

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There is no feeling quite like running across the finish line of a half marathon, knowing that you’ve raised much needed funds for a very good charity, but achieving that personal goal of having run a long distance race, in a decent time! Heres to a new PB in 2017 (Target=2 hours!)

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Nothing like a good cup of tea

I have been fortunate enough to travel to quite a few countries around the world. I’ve tasted a range of different cuisines, cold drinks, alcohol, cocktails and hot drinks. But there is nothing quite like a good cup of English breakfast tea after a nice break in the sun. 

You can keep your ‘cherry orgasm’, ‘sex on the beach’, and other special cocktails by the pool. Give me a good cup of strong tea (and yes the pool bit would be nice too!) and I’ll be happy.

We’ve had such an amazing time in Greece, and were pretty well looked after, but now the time has come to make the 10 hour journey home (that is 2 hours on the coach to the airport, 4hr flight to Liverpool and then the dreaded 3.5hr drive home..). At least the roads will be quiet eh?! 

The journey so far had been fairly painless, the coach journey was as good as it could be in 30 degree heat, and although our flight was delayed for about 45 mins, this cup of tea has made up for it. Not a huge fan of my company but hey that’s life.. Make the best of what you get right?! 6 hr travelling left to go as I write this, and time to grab a few minutes of shuteye. Night! 

It all happens when you’re thirty…. 

So turning thirty happened the other day. Happy birthday to me! 

My twenties were a great decade. I achieved quite a lot: finished my degree and got a science job, got married, bought two houses, became a landlord, had two beautiful children, started my PhD and travelled a lot presenting my work! 

That’s quite a lot to live up to for the next decade, despite how ambitious I am! 

However, my thirties have started pretty much how the twenties left off.. I have spent the past few days with my wonderful family (and it was wifes birthday yesterday too!) and had some wonderful gifts. A beautiful watch, money, rc helicopter (thanks Mike!), wine, vouchers and mugs! Amazing if I do say so haha.. Not only that, to celebrate,  we went Bowling, then to see The Overtones, then the next day paintballing and had a party for friends and family.

Now,the paintballing was such a great day in most aspects. Even though it was absolutely torrential rain and miserable, which is where the bad news comes in. My good friend Amr, unfortunately took a tumble during game 2 and managed to hurt his ankle. Two of us carried him back to the main area only so far before he couldn’t go any further, so the marshal (who handles it all very well indeed) went and reached a wheelbarrow. Now this was easier for us, but not so pleasant for Amr. Anyway we managed to get him back and transported to A&E where he found he had dislocated his ankle and broken his fibia and tibia. He had since successfully had surgery to insert pins and is in the mend. Get better soon Amr!

In addition to all this, my you gest had his first settling in day at nursery which went very well, and his second today. He starts this Friday coming and km sure he’s really excited about it.. I am! He’s growing up too quickly though, a proper little man now, walking and babbling..! 

Ruben started school yesterday too! Now that is a scary thought. He had his first afternoon session (settling in week 1), and seemed to be absolutely fine with it all like he’s done it a million times before! I’m so proud of them both 🙂 

So it has been an eventful but very fun birthday celebration and time to head back to work tomorrow. Time to crack on and finish this PhD! 

DM

If you think you can do it

If you don’t think you can do it, you’re probably right, but if you do think you can do it, you’re probably right, you probably can

One of the most memorable phrases that I have ever heard was given to me during secondary school. I was never ‘top of the class’, but I was part of the year group that was selected for this ‘aiming higher’ course. Basically, those that were above average achievers with potential, but not ‘top of the class’ were chosen to attend a series of classes about how to achieve more. These were held in the school or at University of South Wales, Caerleon campus, and the purpose was to motivate us to try harder, achieve more etc, by teaching us how to revise more efficiently, how to use different tools to reach our potential and so on.

Some would think this is really boring and useless, but I found it particularly useful. At the time (2004), there were 15 members of the EU, and I can still tell you who they were in alphabetical order forwards and backwards, and count to ten in Japanese. These were taught to us using techniques like visual association and memory accession. These techniques I still use today, to member lists of things or particularly complex things, and sure it isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. Mind maps, for example, I find of no use to me, but others swear by them .Each to their own, right!?

Anyway, back at school, one Mr Alan Bootle, gave us a lesson on how to revise. I hadn’t really had an awful lot of face to face teaching by him, but knew who he was and what he did, an I assume he didn’t know anything about me either!. In this lesson, Mr Bootle told us that he didn’t do particularly well in secondary school, but then discovered how to learn and retain information, and how he ended up getting a first class degree at university. He went through a range of techniques and gave us hints and tips, which were very useful indeed, and not only that, the motivation and passion he showed us really rubbed off on me, and from that point I held him in really high regard, and with a great deal of respect (more so than I had before).

One of the things he talked to us about was believing in yourself. Having confidence in your own ability and belief that you are better than you think you are. He said to us, if you think you can do it, you’re probably right, and it is this positivity that has really stuck with me since then., and is a motto that I live by for everything. It translates really well in every aspect of life – for me, doing this PhD is a hard slog, and sure, not everything works, but maintaining positivity, no matter how hard it gets sometimes, is really important. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and you will get there, because ‘if you think you can do it, you probably can 🙂

I love what I do

I really do love what I do. I get to do the most fun things, researching microbiology, tissue engineering and then bringing them together to look at microbiological infections of cells.

Doing a PhD is amazing. It is hard work, long hours, and you never really switch off – forever thinking, planning, analysing, dreaming of the project, which yes is exhausting, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

It’s not for everyone, of course, and you get out of it what you want to, so for me, I grabbed it by the horns and have made the most of my (nearly) three years in academia. I’ve networked with hundreds of people, found out things that nobody ever knew before, presented my work all around the world. I’m so proud of what I have achieved so far within this project, and I just wanted to say that I am so lucky to have not only the academic support of my supervisory team (which is the best that exists anywhere as far as I’m concerned), but also day to day support from my family, friends, colleagues, and even people that I have never met before, but interact with frequently through the wonders of the internet. The roller coaster of a ride during the PhD is real, with super high highs, and low lows.. but perseverance, so they say will help you win!

I’m getting all delusional, and beyond tired, writing papers at midnight..so thats all for now! (still wouldn’t change a thing!)