The Scientific Conference: A Necessity for Every Graduate Student

December 21, 2012 | by Lauren Liddell

Lauren_FranceWhen my mentor, Adam Bailis, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, first told me about the “Telomeres and the DNA Damage Response” conference put on by the European Molecular Biology Organization in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, France, I was excited about the idea of attending. But I didn’t think that I would actually be able to go.

A meeting in France? I hadn’t even presented my research at a conference in the U.S., let alone somewhere fabulous like France! But despite my initial skepticism, my abstract was accepted. Now I just had to find the monetary means to support the trip.

 Currently, our lab does not have the funding available to pay for such expenses. However, the graduate students at City of Hope are equipped with the opportunity to apply for a travel grant to help supplement the expenses of a scientific conference. Thanks to this privilege, the idea of attending my first scientific conference abroad suddenly became a reality.

 After more than four years of research, and a few failed projects, I had some extremely preliminary data supporting a role for the homologous recombination (HR) apparatus responding to replication failure at the telomere. And although I had published one paper and was working on writing up a second, both projects had no connection to telomere biology. If I were to have any hope of presenting something interesting at this conference, I would have to pull everything together fast.

 With little more than a month until my departure for France, I planned out the experiments that I would have to successfully complete before the meeting: monitor the effects of four rad59 mis-sense alleles on the growth kinetics of telomerase-null cells, then confirm their differential phenotypes via Southern analysis of the survivor telomeric DNA

Because I had never conducted this experiment in full (I had only completed a pilot assay in one mutant background), I had no idea whether it was going to work. The entire possibility of presenting a compelling story at the conference hinged upon the results from these experiments (assuming these mutants would actually display distinct phenotypes).

 Literally five days before the conference, I received the last piece of data for my poster. I lucked out; my mutants did in fact display differing effects on the growth and recovery of telomerase-null cells! Now I had something to earnestly present at the conference!

The meeting itself was more than I had imagined. Not only was it intellectually stimulating, but it was conversationally rich, as well. The relatively small conference environment (there were about 200 participants) made meeting the guest speakers very possible.

 One of my favorite aspects of the conference was that I actually got the chance to interact with the people whose papers I read every day. This provided a ripe opportunity to make connections for a future postdoctoral training position.

I was also able to reconnect with my Leading-Edge Lecture speaker, Dr. Virginia A. Zakian. In fact, after one morning session, she came over to me and said, “Lauren, you have a wonderful phenotype; students that ask questions will go far.”

 All in all, this was a fantastic experience, one that I think every graduate student should take advantage of. The opportunity is out there; all you have to do is reach for it.

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