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Looking further afield

In mid-2014, the ICECReam sent a delegation (Nick and Steve and a pair of hired bicycles) to the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) conference in Copenhagen. ESOF is a big general science conference that is held every two years. Probably like most ECRs, neither of us had ever been to a general conference, as precious conference funding is usually reserved for meetings specifically relevant to one’s research field. Fortunately, registration was pretty cheap, and Copenhagen is a nice place so we emptied the loose coins jar, searched for change under the lounge cushions and got ourselves there.

The scope of the conference was very wide; astronomy, geology, engineering, chemistry, palaeontology, mathematics, medicine, physics, sociology – just about anything with some connection with science. A festival of brainiacs, sensible spectacles and poorly-fitting jackets. The format included lectures and workshops, and career sessions; there were some pretty big names among the speakers including about 5 Nobel Prize laureates. Something a bit different that they also had was the opportunity for small groups of ECRs (3-5) to have lunch with a Prof from any of a huge number of different fields. The two of us had lunch with a philosopher of science from England – it was pretty cool.

Based on the sessions that we went too, it seemed that the speakers were directed to ensure that their presentations were accessible to a general audience, and for the most part they did this well. Through the sessions and informal chats with other delegates it was great to get some insight into how science goes down in other fields – not to mention being blown away by just how brilliant some of the work going on out in the world really is.

One of the difficult things (for me) from a meeting like this is to remember the ins-an-outs of the stuff I saw. I also had that experience of feeling like I knew what was going on during a talk, but then trying to explain it to someone else and realising that I didn’t! My intellectual limitations notwithstanding there were a few highlights that demonstrate some of the diversity of what was on offer, and also made the conference memorable for me.

A neuroscientist described a method of stimulating individual neurones optically, have introduced a gene (transported by a virus) from thermoluminescent organisms into the brains of rats which enabled him to influence their behaviour. A team of geologists gave a presentation outlining the process of earths’ development from a chunk of rock zooming around space to a habitable planet. Hans Rosling (check out some of his talks if you are into population health stuff) is a medical doctor and statistician and gave a really entertaining and enlightening talk about the interaction of society, poverty, population size and health. We went to a workshop that discussed the ethical implications of drugs and medications that alter behaviour, specifically what this means for the concept of personal responsibility. A workshop given by a philosopher of science and an organic chemist addressed the question of; what is life, from two – obviously quite different – perspectives. Add to these talks about unpicking the origin of the universe, the potential for storing data in DNA, imaging molecular processes and measuring the age of stars and other galaxies. One of the good things about the best talks also was the fact that the speakers not only presented the findings but also a dumbed-down version of how they came to them.

We also went to a couple of sessions aimed at career development, specifically about the peer-review process and about training ECRs for careers outside academia. While neither of these really presented anything ground-breaking – it was of interest to see that many of the issues we as ECRs in health-care face are the same as those in other fields. Cold comfort maybe…

On the whole though, going to ESOF was a great experience, and I think worthwhile personally and professionally in a number of ways. For one it was inspiring to see so many people working hard to answer questions and find solutions to issues in the world, and in particular the fact that such brilliant minds are attracted to careers in science. I also think there is always a danger that we become too focused on our research area and closed to ideas that might come from exposure to different fields and interests. While I can’t say I will take an idea from what I saw in Copenhagen and apply it directly to my research, the conference reinforced the value of keeping an open mind and looking for new opportunities. Finally, seeing the talks gave me a great sense (as a scientist) of being part of something bigger. On some days the challenges seem to stack up higher than breakthroughs and motivation levels can get a bit low, but I came away from this inspired by seeing the breadth of questions being investigated, the enthusiasm of my fellow scientists and the insight into the world that comes through our work.

In short, if you get a chance to go to a general science meeting like this, I reckon you should take it.