The stars of SymBLS

The stars of SymBLS

The stars of SymBLS

For twelve years, graduate students at The Babraham Institute have been organising the Symposium for Biological Life Sciences or SymBLS for short. Currently held at the beautiful St John’s Old Divinity School in Cambridge, this event aims to bring together graduate students across a variety of biological disciplines and many different Colleges and Institutes in Cambridge, to share their research experiences. We invited excellent researchers, science communicators, clinicians, physicists and experts on commercialisation to give graduates an insight into the possibilities of various careers in Science.

Although we, as the novice symposium organisers, were nervous at first, the day started without a hitch and one of the stars of the first session proved to be very small indeed. These were tiny phoretic mites, which help burying beetles out compete their rivals by increasing their body temperature. This was presented by our first student speaker, Syuan-Jyuan Sun. In the same session and in line with the expansion of the symposium to include graduate medics, Dr Virginia Newcombe provided insight into traumatic brain injury and how initial assesments can be developed to better predict outcomes for patients. In fact, another student speaker and medic, Dr Naomi Deakin, gave an enthusiastic talk on how they are using technology such as in-ear accelerometers to study concussion in motorsport.

After a refreshment break in which many sponsor freebies were collected and many cups of tea and coffee drunk, the talks resumed with Dr Don Powell proving himself to be a master of communication by doing a 40 minute presentation without slides. In fact, all of the speakers (including the students) were both engaging and professional. Dr Cathy Prescott, a founder director of Cambridge Biolatris, explained how celullar therapies can be moved from the lab to the market. Another fascinating talk was given by the student Beverly McCann who showed how engineering DNA binding enzymes (the zinc finger nucleases) can be used to target and remove defective mitochondrial DNA in mouse embryos.

After a lunch break that allowed everyone to recover some energy, Dr Kathy Niakan’s presentation wowed us with beautiful images and videos of genetically modified human embyos. Her work aims to understand the mechanisms of cell fate decisions during early embryo development and showed how deletion of a single factor, OCT4, can prevent maintenance of one of the earliest stages in development, the blastocyt. Further insights into embryonic development were give by the student Christos Kyprianou, who explained the morphogenetic events that lead to proamniotic cavity formation of mouse embryos. Finally, Professor Nigel Emptage talked about methods being developed in his lab which allow high resolution images of the neurons in living mice whilst preserving brain tissue. Nigel was a great choice for such a broad conference as he has spent much of his career switching between disciplines, from physics to zoology.

Not limited simply to talks, the symposium also included scientific poster presentations which gave students the opportunity to discuss their projects with each other and with our speakers. We also displayed student images including beautiful fluorescent microscopic images of fruit flies, immune cells and even cells eating other cells!

The day finished with a very topical panel discussion concerning the issue of climate change. One of the topics we discussed was how technologies can be used to help address climate change, such as Dr Alexander Patto’s improved water contamination tests. Martin Howes informed us of programs of support at Cambridge University both for students and institutes to reduce how much plastic and energy is used in research ( Dr Jo Durgan told us about her plans for making the Babraham Institute a more sustainable place.

The day turned out to be really successful. Some of the participants are in touch about possible collaborations not only with their graduate peers but also with some of the keynote speakers. We are confident this event has helped to shape some career decisions for many of the participants. Not only that, but also the Babraham Institute has taken some ideas about sustainability into its plans for next year.

In all, the syposium was well received with feedback including: “Great atmosphere, enjoyed the variety of topics discussed” and “Extremely enjoyable. Well organised!” Some participants suggested that we include more student talks, so as we pass on the baton to the next year’s organisers we hope they can rise to the challenge!

From the left to the right at the top: Christina Couregges (BI), Eva Higginbotham (Cambridge Dept of Zoology), Elena Stoyanova (BI), Alyssa Silva-Cayetano (BI), Celia Alda Catalinas (BI), Rachel Fellows (BI), Stephanie Constantinou (Cambridge Advanced Imagine Centre, PDN, Sohaib Abdul Rehman (Cambridge Advanced Imaging Centre, PDN) 
From the left to the right at the bottom: Giulia Arsuffi (Plant Sciences/Sainsbury Laboratory), Chiara Pantarelli (BI), Sara Kohnke (Cambridge University, Dept of Clinical Biochemistry) and Marisa Stebbegg (BI).

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Rachel Fellows, Celia Alda, Alyssa Silva-Cayetano and Chiara Pantarelli