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Reflections on my time as BSI Congress Secretary

Former BSI Congress Secretary, Professor Gary Entrican looks back at his time in the role, shares his learnings from leading on two Congresses and one virtual conference during the pandemic and his gratitude for those who’ve supported him along the way.


BSI Congress is always a special event in the calendar for UK immunologists, not just because the talks, poster sessions and other events are always great, but also because it gives us a chance to meet up and spend time together. The recent in-person Congress in Edinburgh therefore felt very special after enduring almost two years of COVID-19 restrictions. It was especially fitting that the opening ceremony included a special award for the Oxford team in recognition of their outstanding work in developing the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and the meeting ended with a plenary session including talks by Paul Moss from the UK-CIC and Sarah Gilbert on the vaccine. Congress 2021 was particularly memorable for me as it marked the end of my term as BSI Congress Secretary, somewhat fittingly in Edinburgh. Read about more highlights from BSI Congress 2021 here.

My first Congress Committee as Congress Secretary elect was in autumn 2016 in the immediate run-up to the joint BSI/NVVI Congress in Liverpool. I had a year to shadow Leonie Taams before she finished her term as Congress Secretary at the end of 2017. The first thing that struck me was the depth of Leonie’s knowledge of all of the sessions and speakers for the upcoming Congress. I also discovered that the planning of the 2017 Congress in Brighton was well underway, which seemed to me to be a lot of things in the air simultaneously. Of course, I then realised that there is a six-month planning and organisational overlap when there are Congresses in consecutive years as it is an 18-month cycle. Quite daunting for my first meeting but I think it goes without saying that Leonie was a fantastic mentor and kept me on track. Under her guidance, and with the support of Congress Committee and the BSI Events Team, by the time Congress 2017 in Brighton came around I was ready to take on my four-year term as BSI Congress Secretary.

I learned very early that Congress Committee is truly dynamic in its mode of action and also in its structure. The continuous renewal of the membership ensures fresh ideas, drive and energy and I’ve loved working with everyone on that Committee during my term.

At that point I was expecting to lead on the planning of two Congresses (2019 and 2020) and also to begin the planning of the 2022 Congress. The first sign that things might not go according to plan was the unexpected change of location of the 2018 ECI meeting from Istanbul to Amsterdam. So, having just joined Congress Committee, I almost immediately found myself on the Scientific Programme and Planning Committee for ECI 2018. Although unexpected, with the excellent leadership from Marieke van Ham at NVVI/EFIS, we developed a great meeting and I gained invaluable experience.

The 2018 ECI meeting in Amsterdam is where I met Doug Brown, whose leadership has been key in my BSI work ever since. Other major changes in my early years were the appointment of Jane Sessenwein as Head of the BSI Events Team in 2017 and the appointment of Arne Akbar as BSI President in 2018, taking over from Peter Openshaw who I was working with on the ECI programme. I highlight these because they represent the BSI leadership roles that the Congress Secretary interacts with. I cannot emphasise enough how grateful I am to Doug, Jane and Arne for being great colleagues; their open and honest approach sometimes meant hearing things that I didn’t want to hear, but crucially delivered in ways that fostered trust. Little did I know in 2018 how much I would come to draw on their support when the pandemic hit.

Professor Gary Entrican receiving the 2021 Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist Award from the American Association for Veterinary Immunology (AAVI)

I learned very early that Congress Committee is truly dynamic in its mode of action and also in its structure. The continuous renewal of the membership ensures fresh ideas, drive and energy and I’ve loved working with everyone on that Committee during my term. I also tried to ensure that the culture I created reflected the values of my relationships with Doug, Jane and Arne. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Board of Trustees for providing valuable feedback to Congress Committee on our suggestions for Keynote Speakers and Plenary Session topics.

The 2019 Congress in Liverpool was the first that I had overseen from start to finish, and I felt very happy with the way it went. At the time of the Congress in Liverpool, Congress Committee had already identified the Keynote Speaker, the Plenary Speakers and the Parallel Session topics for Edinburgh 2020. By then Mark Coles had been appointed as Congress Secretary-elect to shadow me through the planning of Congress 2020. We had no awareness that events would overtake us. Mark agreed at that point to be the BSI representative on the 2021 ECI Scientific Programme and Planning Committee, so with hindsight ended up taking on quite a lot that we didn’t foresee.

I will not forget the next Congress Committee meeting. It was in London on 13 March 2020 with the purpose of finalising the invited speakers and programme for the 2020 Congress in Edinburgh. The UK entered lockdown ten days later and it became increasingly clear that a face-to-face conference in December would be problematic. Later in the year we made the decision to postpone BSI Congress until 2021. This created a huge amount of work for the BSI Events Team, and I would like to extend a huge thanks to them, namely Joanne Hemstock (who has a phenomenal memory of past Congress programmes and always keeps us straight), Tracey Sheehan, Tracy Symons and Becks McRobb.

In a very short space of time, we had developed a programme for a two-day virtual conference. Organising a meeting on a virtual platform that would accommodate keynote speakers, parallel sessions, posters and breakout rooms was a huge and unknown challenge, but collectively we delivered a hugely successful meeting.

As the vaccine roll-out accelerated in the UK in 2021, we dared to hope that we might be able to host an in-person Congress 2021. Even so, we were aware that not everyone would feel comfortable attending a large meeting, and also that international travel regulations might be prohibitive. We therefore planned for a hybrid event with the support of the Congress venue (the EICC). We expected the unexpected, which allowed us to adapt to the Omicron situation at very short notice and have a great meeting.

In a very short space of time, we had developed a programme for a two-day virtual conference. Organising a meeting on a virtual platform that would accommodate keynote speakers, parallel sessions, posters and breakout rooms was a huge and unknown challenge, but collectively we delivered a hugely successful meeting.

Despite positive progress, we cannot change the devastating impact the pandemic has had at personal and professional levels. I do hope that there will be at least one positive that everyone can salvage from such a bad situation. Personally, I would not have been able to perform my last duty as Congress Secretary of closing BSI Congress in my home city of Edinburgh in 2021 had it not been for the pandemic. Additionally, 2021 Congress was also shifted a week earlier due to availability. In a twist of fate, that shift allowed me travel to the USA after Congress to attend a meeting in Chicago where I was honoured to be named as the 2021 Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist by the American Association for Veterinary Immunology. So, in a strange way, the stars aligned for me as a result of the pandemic. On that note, I have loved my time as Congress Secretary, and if anyone reading this thinks that they might want to take over from Mark Coles at the end of 2025, start planning now – it will change your life for the better.

Professor Gary Entrican
Former BSI Congress Secretary
Honorary Professor, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh

Thank you and congratulations

All at the BSI would like to thank Professor Gary Entrican for his incredible dedication and inspiring leadership during his time as BSI Congress Secretary. We also send our congratulations for receiving the 2021 Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist Award from the American Association for Veterinary Immunology (AAVI).