[Entirely unaffiliated with the RSC, this personal account of my experience at the ISACS7 conference is completely my own opinion. I hope you enjoy it.]
Chemistry rarely comes across as a glamourous profession: confined to the lab for long stretches of time, when we do emerge from our fumehoods and peel off those purple latent gloves, we are often viewed by the general public as rather uncool. Probably the closest thing to glamour in the science world are their international conferences: a chance to travel somewhere exotic, mix with top scientists and learn about the most exciting emergent research.
Of course for me Edinburgh hardly counts as “exotic” – I lived and studied here. It is unlikely to count as an exotic climate to anyone unless you’ve spent all your life in the tropics. However, the Challenges in Organic Chemistry and Chemical Biology conference held 12-15th June 2012 was alluring. The list of invited speakers impressed me greatly. The chance to hear all of them speak in such a convenient location (2 hours direct flight from Basel) wouldn’t come round again. Organic synthesis and chemical biology are my two main fields of interest – making drug molecules defines my career to date, chemical biology is what I took a number of fascinating courses in at University. Nearing the end of my internship and still struggling towards getting accepted onto a PhD program, this well-timed conference should help inspire me and set ideas or plans in motion. This wasn’t a conference my work was willing to pay for, but it belonged to the ISACS series (International Symposia on Advancing the Chemical Sciences) which was organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry. If I was a member of the RSC [check] who registered before the Early Bird Deadline [check] and successfully applied for an RSC Travel Bursary [check!] then it wouldn’t work out too expensive for me.
Congratulations, RSC. You sold your conference to me.
This was my first ever conference, and it was quite an experience.
ISACS7 had been hugely oversubscribed and the venue was packed. It was packed with delegates from every continent. There were many of the world-leading researchers in attendance presenting their works. These are chemistry rock stars. There were professors, graduate students, industrial scientists, RSC organisers and non-practising chemists. With the volume and calibre of people in attendance, it was hard not to feel intimidated.
The science however was exceptional. The scope of the conference was broad, a lot of the material presented is not what I deal with in a professional capacity. Yet it took my still-fairly-fresh undergraduate courses in all their complex dullness and turned them into (a) cutting-edge-hot-off-the-journal research (b) excitingly relevant and applicable discoveries.
Case Study 1. I learned about radioactive decay in secondary school. I learned about PET imaging (3D computer-generated images of the body) in my first few years of university. Hell, I even passed the tests on the material. At this conference I learned how the Ritter Group at Harvard has developed “speed chemistry” to make PET imaging drugs before the radioactive material decays into uselessness (i.e, making the drug in under 2 hours). Does that not sound exciting?
Case Study 2. I was given a good grounding in the chemistry behind protein labelling: ways to attach a signaller onto a protein in a living organism that allows scientists to monitor where the protein in and what it is doing. At the conference I saw exactly how many cellular bits and pieces can be labelled (DNA, RNA, proteins) and some of the cleverest methods available for doing the labelling by the Hoeck, Chin and Burley Groups amongst others.
Two of the most exciting speakers invited to ISACS were two recent Nobel Prize winners, Suzuki and Negisishi, who gave broad overviews of their work on the Tuesday night to a packed lecture theatre. Although they did not stay for the rest of the conference – travelling down to London to receive another prize from the RSC – their names and legacies were referenced by nearly every presenter that followed. Suzuki and Negishi couplings are so ubiquitous, almost every scientist has them in their “toolbox” of chemical reactions. That says it all.
What impressed me the most was the charisma of the presenters. The ability to present their work in a clear, engaging and inspiring way to a general audience is vital for a successful research career. It is great to see such talent on show. It made the hours whoosh past.
The conference wasn’t just about those rock star professors, the two poster sessions were the perfectly-designed opportunities to meet the graduate students who carried out all the hard slog and who were presenting their projects in the form of glossy A2 posters. I challenged myself to talk to these students and ask them questions about their work – viewing a piece of research and thinking up questions about it on the spot is something I find quite difficult. Why? How? When? What next? I’m getting there, at least. The informal conference dialogues are just as important for me as listening to the amazing lectures.
This wasn’t a conference for fusty old academics either. The ISACS series intends to keep things cutting-edge and hot. Hence why we were encouraged to get on Twitter with the hash-tag #ISACS to create a real-time newsfeed of the days’ events.
Being at the conference myself I didn’t have need for real-time updates, but it was nice getting to see what others thought about the talks and events. Maybe one day when I have a mobile with internet I can better join in the updating.
I didn’t do as much “networking” as I wanted to do – coming as an industrial chemist I felt a bit of an outsider to the academic community. Yet I spoke to the people I wanted to speak to, have a better understanding of how conferences work and enjoyed all the conversations I did have.
So, thank you ISACS and RSC for organising such a brilliant event. Thank you to all the delegates who made my first conference experience such a positive one.
Maybe next time I’ll try to find a conference in the tropics, though…