My scientific conference experience

My scientific conference experience

My scientific conference experience

As a PhD student at the Babraham Institute, I wanted to find a way to showcase my research and learn more about the research community I’m part of. Last year, I was fortunate to attend an international conference on phospholipid metabolism in health and disease. Here, I will give you my account of what to expect but also what to avoid! 

Prepare early

At first, I thought that finding a conference to attend would be quite easy. As much as I’ve learnt throughout my PhD, I once again fell into the trap of naivety. Searching for a conference can take some time as there are so many to choose from. Learning this the hard way, I feel that identifying a refined list of conferences early which tickles your interest is a good starting point. This way, you can then further research the speakers that are presenting as well as opportunities for students to give presentations.

I found speaking with my supervisor was an extremely helpful way to identify which conference to attend and to advise me what would be most appropriate for my research area which includes phospholipid metabolism. Additionally, the likelihood of your supervisor having attended the conference of interest in the past is quite high so they would have a good sense of the overtone and suitability of that conference. Narrowing my list of options, I decided to apply for a meeting organised by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Florida. The title of the conference was “Dynamic Phospholipids in Health and Disease”. I felt that this meeting would give me a healthy scope of the science that overlaps with my PhD project and interests.

Then came the hard part…

Like much of academic research, it then dawned on me that I must now look for funding to cover the costs. It can feel like a daunting task as often asking for money isn’t a skill many people have developed except for asking for the odd loose change for the vending machine in the B570 science building foyer. Yet serendipity was on my side as I was fortunate to identify a target list of funders to cover my costs. I applied to the Company of Biologists, the Institute’s Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation team, and Fitzwilliam College, all of whom I am extremely grateful for their generosity. Some PhD funding bodies also have travel funds for conferences so it can be worth checking with your funding body about this.

Writing travel grant applications can take some time. I would recommend starting early to ensure deadlines are met which I found to creep up fast, especially when there are laboratory experiments going on in parallel! It can also be helpful to know if you have been selected for a talk and/or poster presentation as most travel grants will look for students to present their work in some form at the conference.


The bulk of my preparation leading into the conference was in the design and editing of my poster. My research project attempts to better understand the metabolism of a class of phospholipids known as phosphoinositides and how they are important in the physiological role of immune cell responses. Like most complicated things in life, every scientific meeting has their own poster dimension requirements and therefore I ended up creating a poster from scratch. At first, my design featured some of Jackson Pollock’s creativity but I soon began to realise that scientific posters are all about being short, concise, snappy and coherent. After much editing, showing my supervisor and being 30 minutes late to the print, I finally had it completed. I must also credit Mike, who helps to print scientific posters for staff at the Institute, for his kind help and expertise with poster printing. At this point, depending on personal character, it can be best to have a quick glance of the final product but not to read it thoroughly. There’s nothing worse than identifying a simple typo when the print officer has gone home for the day. But in the end, once the most important figures and bullet points are in place, then typos aren’t a big deal! Aligning the design of my poster with my talk presentation made things a lot easier in reducing the time I spent on designing both and keeping the narrative of my project consistent.

“All my bags are packed I’m ready to go…(lyrics by John Denver)”

Fresh off the print, I was surprised by the size of my poster. It was 142.24cm wide x 107.78cm tall, a mighty monster but a fine creation brought to life! This is where I will give an important piece of advice, when deciding what material to print your poster, consider using cloth as it is foldable rather than paper which is only ‘rollable’ and remember to take into account the distance/mode of transport one must travel to get to the conference. So now, I embarked on a new mission, to get my monster poster into a poster tube. After much blue tac and yellow electrical tape, I maximised the extension of my poster tube and with little persuasion, the poster just about fitted. During my travel to the conference, I was noticed by inquisitive eyes of many passing strangers and some brazen enough to ask me, “what was in the tube?” where I replied “my fishing rod” for a week of game fishing…

Down to business

The conference lasted just under a week. On the first evening, we displayed our poster in the main conference hall in preparation for visits by the judging panel. During the opening wine reception, it was nice to visit the posters and see all the interesting research projects on display. Some key poster themes included the role of lipids in cancer and inflammation, identifying novel ways to track lipid synthesis and the function and transport of lipids in specific organelles. I felt that the conference theme aligned really well with the host of speakers presenting at the event. There were some super interesting talks given by experts in the field. The overall experience has given me a great opportunity to discuss science with other group leaders and students alike. I really enjoyed talking about my research project with other attendees and getting some great feedback as well! It gave me a sense of pride and validation that my project isn’t just a headless chicken which many students may relate to during their PhD. The meeting was also an excellent opportunity to get a sense of which direction the field is heading and to meet potential collaborators. I found out that academic conferences are a great way to identify research groups with whom you’d be keen to apply for postdoctoral positions.

Waking up for a morning swim and to sunny weather was a lovely treat. With all the amazing talks and poster sessions throughout the conference, it’s also a great opportunity to mix the science with a bit of craic! On the Wednesday, we had the option to sign up to go on an excursion to a local national park where I was lucky enough to see an alligator!

I was delighted to give an in-person talk at the meeting, which at first was a daunting task and I was riddled with fear but with the might of the Institute behind me, I stood up there and blasted my talk with passion and pure heart. After presenting my work, I received some positive feedback and ideas that I could apply to my experiments back home leading into the final year of my PhD.

Final Good Byes

After throwing a few shapes on the dancefloor with my supervisor to some classic tunes, we found our way out to a local dive bar to round off our conference experience. My time at the conference was a fantastic and memorable experience whilst also a gentle reminder of how lipid research isn’t all just about frustration with lab experiments going wrong, but a fun and exciting community with equally exciting research to back it up!