PhD Travel Award winners share their conference experiences


The Department of Medicine sponsors three rounds of travel awards every year for PhD students, allowing them to attend conferences to travel and present their work.

We heard from three recent winners – Mai Alzaydi, Hung En Lai and Francesco De Virgiliis – about their experiences of attending international conferences with the help of DoM Travel Awards funding.

Mai Alzaydi

I am very grateful to the Department of Medicine for the Travel Award. It enabled me to attend the ‘Evolving Concept of Mitochondria: From Symbiotic Origins to Therapeutic Opportunities 2018’ meeting in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, USA. This is a large international conference with more than 40 world-renowned speakers including scientists, clinicians and historians. It is centred on mitochondrial biology and, most importantly, on the role of mitochondria in disease and mitochondrial therapies. Four days of science history meetings were hosted at one of the world’s top life science institutions, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, from 18 – 21 October 2018.

The first day began with a warm welcome from the organiser, followed by an introduction to mitochondrial biology, bioenergetics, and biogenesis by keynote speakers such as Professor John Walker and David G. Nicholls. The following day started with an interesting historical perspective session: ‘What do we really now about the origin of mitochondria?’. Other talks highlighted the structure and function of mitochondria in disease.  

During the poster session, I presented a poster of my PhD project, which focuses on the role of CLIC-induced mitochondrial dysfunction in pulmonary arterial hypertension. I used the opportunity to discuss my exciting results with early-career scientists and experts working in the field, and to learn about new technologies and experimental approaches that I can apply in my future work. 

The sessions that took place in the final two days were the most relevant to my work, as they highlighted mitochondrial proteins, mitochondrial dynamics and quality control. This enabled me to widen my knowledge and deepen my general understanding of mitochondrial biology. I had the opportunity to interact with world-class specialists on mitochondria, and meet experts from leading companies who specialised in mitochondrial research; they provided information about excellent techniques that I can now apply to my work. 

Overall, attending this unique conference was a great platform for knowledge exchange and networking with internationally renowned mitochondrial scientists. It helped me to enhance my knowledge on new developments in mitochondrial biology, get inspired with new ideas, as well as critically evaluate my presented data. Thank you again to the Department for supporting me to attend this great meeting.

Hung En Lai 

With the generous support of the Department, I was very fortunate to have been able to travel to the Gordon Research Conference (GRC) at Proctor Academy, Andover, New Hampshire, USA. Here, I presented my poster entitled ‘Semi-synthetic strategies towards generating bisindole antibiotic violacein analogues’.

The GRC is known for its generous free time schedule, during which conference attendees can partake in various organised activities. Unlike most conferences that are held in big cities, GRC organisers plan a lot of outdoor activities such as horse riding, hiking, swimming and even wine tasting in a vineyard! There were also late-night drinks and a BBQ, allowing more time for conferees to mingle.

At the opening of the conference, Professor Yi Tang from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) gave a wonderful keynote lecture on ‘Target-guided genome mining of natural products’, which revealed some insights on how to prioritise gene clusters that are likely to encode bioactive molecules. There was also a career-themed session in which conference attendees had the opportunity to talk to professors from either large research institutes or smaller liberal arts colleges, as well as industry representatives, to learn more about the different career paths one could follow after finishing postgraduate degree or postdoctoral training.

During the main conference program, there were typically two sessions per day which would focus on a distinct topic related to the theme of the conference. Due to the diversity of speakers’ backgrounds, as a biologist I found some of the lectures were rather difficult to follow. However, I think this would encourage people from both sides to learn more about how others approach the scientific question and the general principles would still apply.

Apart from the great science talks, there were also ‘Poster Previews’ sessions before the poster session on each day, which introduced selected posters to the conferees. Around 130 posters were displayed, roughly half of them being biology-related and the other half from chemistry backgrounds. I managed to talk to about 15 people during the poster session, and most of them seemed to be very interested in my work. I also tried to visit other posters on days that I wasn’t presenting, where I found some interesting work and exchanged contact details with potential collaborators

The closing lecture was delivered by Professor Dale Boger from the Scripps Research Institute, who presented a mesmerising story of reinventing the vancomycin antibiotic to overcome bacterial resistance via clever chemical probing and developing multiple modes of action.

I have definitely learnt a lot from attending this conference, and was able to connect with Principal Investigators who are leading some of the best natural product labs in the world. I wholeheartedly recommend anyone interested in the field to attend.

Francesco De Virgiliis

My PhD Travel Award from the Department allowed me to attend the 2018 Gordon Research Conference (GRC) meeting on NADPH oxidases (NOXs) which was held in Les Diablerets, Switzerland. The GRC conference is a biannual meeting attended by approximately 200 scientists from all around the world, whose main focus is to understand the molecular mechanisms and therapeutic potential of NOXs. It provides the ideal forum for the presentation and discussion of important research developments with world-leading experts in the field.

The 2018 meeting was held over five days and is comprised of numerous poster sessions, symposiums, key-note lectures and social events. This presented many opportunities to meet eminent researchers, junior scientists and PhD students at a similar stage of their career to me, not only in my specific field but also many other subjects. The research that I presented at the meeting was the summation of three years of work, which we hope to publish in a high-impact journal soon. I received crucial feedback as well as important insights on my research. The opportunity to discuss my findings with so many scientists was very beneficial for my future research and scientific career, allowing me to formulate new ideas, establish new contacts for future scientific collaborations as well as with leading pharmaceutical companies.

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