What I like most about the ISSCR Annual Meeting

  • 22 July, 2019

We asked Naomi Koh Belic, a PhD candidate from the University of Technology Sydney, for her perspective as a trainee attending the ISSCR Annual Meeting for the third year. Naomi shares some highlights and tips from ISSCR2019 in Los Angeles.  

The ISSCR Annual Meeting has been my favourite conference to date. It brings together the best stem cell research from around the world, and provides an opportunity to enter our thriving stem cell research community.

It should come as no surprise that we are making leaps and bounds in stem cell research, progress that was illustrated by research such as Paolo Arlotta’s modelling of neurodevelopment and neuropsychiatric disorders with brain organoids, Felicia Pagliuca’s development of stem cell-derived islet cell therapy to treat diabetes, Karl Koehler’s generation of hair-bearing skin tissue with organoids, and Kristin Baldwin’s use of reprogramming to drive and define neuronal diversity. And this is only a sampling of the new research discussed at the meeting.

This year there were two new sessions that I particularly enjoyed. The Science Advocacy and Communications Seminar, a panel that focused on the importance of science communication and provided a ‘how to’ for developing strategies for media outreach. As a science communicator myself, with experience hosting SCIENCEY with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and with Dr. Karl’s Outrageous Acts of Science on Discovery Channel, I was grateful that this seminar was part of the meeting. It not only encourages more scientists to engage with the general public, but it also provides them with insight on science communication opportunities to pursue.

This was also the first meeting to feature a Women in Science Luncheon, with noted women scientists talking about communication challenges they’ve faced during their careers. The inspiring stories these leaders shared demonstrated strength and resilience, and I’m looking forward to additional programming like this in future years, with diverse and inclusive panels that can motivate our community.

What may surprise you is that my favourite part of the conference are the concurrent sessions. Each year I look forward to the “Stem Cell Ethics” session because the topics covered in these sessions affect the entire stem cell research community, yet surprisingly few scientists regularly attend these sessions. For example, many fellow trainee researchers aren’t aware of predatory stem cell clinics, yet these run rampant around the world, providing unproven stem cell treatments that exploits patient hope. These sessions are insightful and necessary, and I encourage everyone reading this to attend at least one ethics presentation at next year’s annual meeting.

This meeting is unique as it continually attracts huge numbers of scientists (there wereNaomi picture nearly 4000 attendees this year), while still creating an environment for individual interactions to flourish. This is done through offering a variety of networking opportunities: the popular job match that connects job seekers with employers, meet up hubs, luncheons that cover everything from meet the experts through to career panels, and social events like the junior investigator social night. These opportunities keep me coming back each year.

My biggest tip for conference attendees is to plan ahead. I personally prefer using the ISSCR app to schedule my days. It allows me to flag presentations of interest, ensure I don’t have any clashes, keep track of any luncheons or social events I am attending and meet ups that I have scheduled, and search through and mark the posters I’m interested in seeing. Because I rely so heavily on the app I typically schedule a daily visit to ISSCR Central so I can charge my phone (while I’m there I enter the daily giveaway!). I also always keep my pocket guide handy for access to the schedule-at-a-glance and to make notes throughout the day.

To new trainees planning to attend the ISSCR Annual Meeting for the first-time next year in Boston, I encourage you to sign up for the orientation. It is a great way to familiarise yourself with the conference and make new friends; and all orientation participants go into the running to win some great prizes. I still meet up with the friends I made at orientation back in 2017. This year I was fortunate enough to host the orientation alongside Louise Menendez and Kimmy Wunder, and we had a fantastic time meeting all the new members this year.

The first Annual Meeting I attended was in Boston three years ago, where I established a scientific collaboration that has since flourished. This year we presented our findings at the meeting, and we plan to publish them in the coming months. All this was possible because I was proactive about networking; I signed up for several luncheons, attended social events, engaged with speakers after their presentations, and asked plenty of questions during the poster sessions. While it can feel daunting attending these events and engaging with new people, remember that everyone else is also there to network and build relationships. Networking at the Annual Meeting has allowed me to establish relationships with fellow stem cell researchers at a variety of career stages—connections have shaped my entire research career.

I hope my experiences, tips, and insights will help you make the most out of next year’s Annual Meeting, and I look forward to seeing you in Boston next year!