A trip to California

When students, or any researcher in the life sciences thinks of international academic conferences, usually a grand scale, thousand attendee event with 17 different synchronous talks, on topics ranging from prions to the evolution of flowering plants comes to mind. Attending such conferences is usually coupled with the inevitable anxieties about how to get there, which talks to attend, how to find (let alone speak with) the people whom made your “must network with!” list, and of course, finding where on Earth the bathroom is amongst the football stadium size conference center the organizers were forced to book. Thus, when I found out that the Anthelmintics: From Discovery to Resistance conference I attended this February was as small and intimate as a specifically titled conference such as this would suggest, I was actually relieved!

The conference was indeed very small and very personable. It consisted of a sold out attendance of ~130 members of a small and tight knit community of researchers who work on anthelmintic drug and drug resistance. Although, small may be a bit of an understatement as the conference and time-slots filled very early, suggesting the community is larger than 130 attendees would suggest. Regardless, the pluses of keeping this meeting a smaller affair seemed, at least to me, quite obvious. To start, there wasn’t 17 (exaggerated for dramatic effect..) sessions going on at the same time, but only one.  This worked out great because, given this was such a specific conference, I was actually interested in the large majority of talks that were given! In fact, if the talks would have been scheduled in more than one session at a time I would have definitely missed some that I flagged as must see. This speaks to the inherent appeal of a small and specialized conference. Given its specialization, those in attendance tend to be much more interested in the topics discussed. Further, as it’s so specialized, the size of the conference is usually small enough to allow all attendees to see every talk.  Really it just seems like more bang for your buck!

In terms of the actual talks, organisms ranged from schistosomes to filarial nematodes, and focused on parasites of wildlife to a diverse set of human parasites. They were also delivered by researchers from a diverse array of institutions, from industry members to students. Talks were followed in the evenings by poster presentations, one of which I gave on the second day.  Another advantage of a specific conference such as this is not only that you can easily meet a lot of the people whose research you’ve been following for years, but also that it’s easier to find the time and place to talk with them about your own research! This was no doubt the most rewarding poster presentation I’ve given for this reason.  In larger conferences there tends to be so many posters allocated to the same time-slot that researchers whom you would like to talk with about your research rarely show up! As this conference had only 30 posters per day concentrated in a much smaller area, it was easy for people to have a good read of every poster in the session, and as a result I got to talk with nearly all the people working in my specific field about my project. Most students will tell you that this is not your normal poster presenting experience 😉

Now on to the fun stuff! We all know (but don’t like to admit) that conferences are half academic, and half social affair.  But can you blame us! We’re shipped off to a cool place for an extra-long weekend with our lab friends and get evenings off, with free food to boot! I think most people who attended Anthelmintics: From Discovery to Resistance would agree that this conference delivered on the fun side as well.  To start, San Francisco is probably one of the coolest places in America to be a tourist for a few days. And again, because of the small size of the conference, we were able to fit in to a snug little hall situated right beside one of the many harbours lining the city’s north shore. Thus it was easy to walk around and explore, especially when situated 10 minutes from the famed Fisherman’s Wharf. Socializing with members of other labs that work in your field is definitely one of the hidden values of the conference experience.  Not only can it more easily foster collaborations, but it’s much easier to have discussions about research direction, and the theory and motivations behind ones research when in a relaxed atmosphere.

All in all, I have to say that this conference truly delivered in both the content of the formal oral and poster presentation sessions, and in the social atmosphere the organizers encouraged with such a small, specific gathering of researchers.  The event really gave an impression that there is so much going on, and so much progress being made in the study of anthelmintic drugs and drug resistance.  As a result, I’ll definitely be ready to jump right back in for the next one in a couple of years! And I’d encourage anyone else in our field to do the same!

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From top left: 1) The window of the Fort Mason conference room overlooking the harbour. 2,3,4) A railcar, Alcatraz, and China town.. Can’t get more San Fran than that! 5) My 6th attempt to get a reasonable picturesque background shot. Photography is hard! 6) Winds, fog, and rain. I still prefer it to -20… 

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