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Hitting the road at last: ECRs at an international conference

ECRs at the international conference

After over two years of travel restrictions and many COVID obstacles, in-person scientific conferences are sprouting up again all over the world. Here, the Leukocyte Trafficking Group from the University of Birmingham share their exciting experience at the 15th World Congress on Inflammation (WCI2022) earlier this year, including their highlights, challenges and top tips for ECRs presenting their research.

One of the best perks of working in academia is the opportunity to travel and attend conferences all over the world. Conferences allow early career researchers like ourselves to learn about novel research from experts and enable discussion across multiple disciplines and professional borders. However, balancing attending talks, practising our presentations and making new contacts can be challenging.

Our highlights

WCI2022 was a fascinating four-day event bringing together world-leading researchers from across the globe to discuss all aspects of current inflammation research. Here are our highlights!

  • Meeting other researchers. This was the first experience since COVID where we all had to go out and meet other scientists in the real world instead of behind a screen.
  • Sharing our research. We were very grateful to be able to share so much work from our lab through numerous poster presentations and talks. Presenting provides an excellent opportunity to receive helpful feedback from other experts.
  • It was also very exciting to see scientists getting awards for their achievements, which included awards for early career researchers and lifetime achievement awards. One of the most moving parts was to see the ‘Woman in Inflammation Science Award’ given to Dr Veroniique Witko-Sarsat and Dr Therea Pizarro – two very strong, encouraging and extraordinary scientists in the field.

Our challenges

The biggest challenge was getting all of us to Rome! This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of several travel grants. For a successful travel grant application, you first need to find out all the different options for grant funding. These may include Societies such as the BSI or internal college funding, but there are many other options – research foundations, pharmaceutical companies, or even the conference itself. Ensure you’ve found out about deadlines way ahead of the conference (we all left our travel grant applications very last minute which didn’t go down well when asking our PIs to write a statement of support in 24 hours!). Grants are more likel to be accepted if you already have an abstract accepted as this proves active participation. Really emphasise in your application how this will benefit your career and the justification for financial help.

For a successful travel grant application, you first need to find out all the different options for grant funding. These may include Societies such as the BSI or internal college funding, but there are many other options – research foundations, pharmaceutical companies, or even the conference itself.

Once at the conference, one challenge was deciding which sessions to attend as we often wanted to be in two places at once! We would recommend attending sessions related to your own research but also ensure that you make an effort to attend sessions completely unrelated to give a fresh perspective on new scientific techniques and results. It would be useful to do some research on speakers and their research prior to the conference. This will save you some time and help you to make an informed decision on which talks to attend. Another way we managed this was to make sure the group covered as many sessions as we could and we each presented a short recap of our favourite talks to each other at a lab meeting, to give an overview of sessions we might have missed.

It was also very tempting to stay with our colleagues; however, we would recommend engaging with others to make the most of the experience. Although putting yourself out of your comfort zone can be challenging, all delegates we interacted with were very approachable! You should go with an open mind to engage with as many delegates as possible, especially those who reside in a different country to you. This is your chance to begin building strong networks with individuals you would not usually interact with. The likelihood is that they are also feeling anxious, however, once the ice is broken, conversation just starts flowing!

Presenting your data

WCI2022 also provided several students from our lab the fantastic opportunity to present their data via posters or oral talks. Jenefa Begum and Abbey Lightfoot (two award-winning poster presenters!) have put together some tips on how to present a poster:

Jenefa Begum poster
Poster winner Jenefa Begum on the left.


Abbey Lightfoot poste
Poster winner Abbey Lightfoot on the right.


Tips for presenting a poster

  • Make sure you submit an abstract! It doesn’t cost any extra and can be a great way to meet potential collaborators
  • Make sure the text is an appropriate size and important information is visible to the audience. Have a good structure with a good balance of text and figures that is simple and easy to follow through each section of your poster
  • Introduce yourself as the author/presenter and let the reader know you are happy to talk them through your poster or answer any questions
  • Put it up early during the conference
  • People always focus on presenting but actually there’s a lot that can be gained from attending poster sessions. To make the most of a poster session:
  • Take time early in the conference to look at the posters and make note of any that you’d like to discuss with the author during the poster sessions
  • Engage! Ask people to talk you through their poster
  • After speaking with the authors, ask for contact information and take the opportunity to reach out after the conference and further develop that research connection
  • Julia Manning, Sophie Hopkin, and Poppy Nathan (Oral Communications award winner) also had the opportunity to share their work through short oral communications and have put together some do’s and don’ts for oral presentations!

Do’s and don’ts for oral presentations

  • Keep it simple! All you want to do is convey the take-home messages to the audience in a logical fashion – they do not need to see all of your data
  • Try to talk at a good pace (not too slow, not too fast) and talk clearly – we find the best way to practise is in front of a mirror so you get used to talking in front of people
  • If you’re feeling anxious, take three deep breaths before standing up for the presentation. Remember, this is just an opportunity for you to share your research with the wider scientific community and not a viva!
  • Don’t just stare at your slides, look at the audience to make them feel included – a presentation is you communicating your findings to the audience not the screen!
  • If you are faced with some difficult questions or comments don’t get defensive. We are all faced with limitations in studies so all you can do is justify your decision-making but agree that more research can be done

In summary

Overall – we had a great time at WCI2022. This incredible experience allowed us to develop our understanding of the wider inflammatory biology field and share our knowledge on leukocyte trafficking withthe wider community. We are incredibly thankful we got the opportunity to explore the beautiful city of Rome and spend time together as a lab – which we’ve not been able to do so much during our PhDs due to the pandemic. If we were to go again we would learn from some of our mistakes, and maybe not stay out at karaoke until 4.30am the night before our flight home! We would like to thank the BSI for awarding us travel grants to attend this conference, and politely request that next year WCI provides free wine during the poster sessions.

Leukocyte Trafficking Group, University of Birmingham

Poppy Nathan, Sophie Hopkin, Imy Wilson, Abbey Lightfoot, Danielle Lezama, Jenefa Begum, Julia Manning, Kathryn Frost, Oladimeji Abudu, Mussarat Wahid and Mustafa Sevim