Annual Meeting 2018: from the perspective of a Medical Student

by Umamah Tarvala


Overview and Meeting Theme

The British Atherosclerosis Society (BAS) Annual Meeting 2018: From the Vulnerable Plaque to the Vulnerable Patient was held at Queens College in the beautiful city of Cambridge, United Kingdom, on September 6–7th. Conveniently, the venue was close to the station with college accommodation provided upon request, ensuring a residential feel and the comfort of attending the conference’s full programme. Organised by Professor Charalambos Antoniades (Oxford) and Dr. Andrew Sage (Cambridge), this year’s meeting attracted a record number of participants and students, with the latter comprising 25 percent of all attendees.

Members were welcomed by Professor Manuel Mayr (King’s College London), Chairperson of BAS. One of the major themes of this meeting was the molecular basis of the vulnerable atherosclerotic plaque, particularly the implications of macrophages on the stability of plaques. Another key theme was clinical imaging, identifying vulnerable, unstable plaques and current approaches to target such instability. To conclude, the programme featured a sponsored symposium by Olink Proteomics which focused more specifically on the detection and development of new biomarkers in patients with coronary artery disease.

The Presentations – how do they connect to the bigger picture?

A series of thought-provoking, informative lectures to begin the conference provided a good underpinning of how science works. The highly insightful nature of the talks focussing on the progress of identifying vulnerable atherosclerotic lesions acted as a powerful reminder of the translational aspect of work produced at the bench that is later taken to the bedside. Often during medical school, designated time is scheduled to undertake original research. This usually spans a few weeks. Due to such a restricted timeframe, it is not uncommon to lose sight of the role that a small research project, analogous to a single jigsaw piece, plays in the process of generating the overall, larger picture. It is therefore important to acknowledge and remember that work from the bench to bedside is mostly brought about by the accumulation of studies, both small and large, each of which have their significance in the role that they play. Presentations demonstrating this process, as done at this meeting, is something I found motivating with regards to continuing to work on my own research project.

Furthermore, research with translational emphases requires time, but often, the question is, how long? This unknown, ever-changing answer can be a factor underlying the reasons behind why a project or study comes to a halt. Hearing about long-term scientific studies which have brought about positive outcomes for real patients was something I found truly inspiring. The simple awareness that research is still having profound impacts on the quality of life of real individuals inspires me to apply myself to it. Indeed, there currently exists various treatments for many diseases and, even if they act merely as symptomatic relief; to learn of recent successes in methods of improving the quality of lives of patients, offers a positive outlook to research. Additionally, in medicine, it is important to keep abreast of the latest medical advances as a means of using current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. Given that our practise of medicine has to be evidence-based, studies demonstrating improvements in treatment outcomes provides optimism for being able to bring patients more improved care in the future. As a medical student, being a part of this makes me feel excited for the extent the field of medicine can truly change somebody else’s life for the better.

It is common for scientific researchers to have their finger on numerous projects; more often than not, the projects overlap, but sometimes they do not. This is not comparable to the research seen by students during medical school. Unless students have been proactive about engaging widely, we are often limited to one very specialised project, to which much of our focus is naturally directed. This is often reflected in what our email alerts report, whom we approach to converse with at a conference and our notes from the talks; or lack thereof. The conference topic “From the Vulnerable Plaque to the Vulnerable Patient” provided exposures to areas of the field I had not previously considered. Such exposure is important at an early stage, particularly prior to making commitments to a career direction in the absence of general knowledge of other areas that I might find more compatible with my interests.

Furthermore, the clear explanations and broadness of the presentations at the conference provided me with a satisfactory knowledge base, especially in popular fields of research. I appreciate this because not only did it enable me to get a sense of where my current project fits into this area of research, but it also eased my understanding of the work conducted by other scientists in the field. Having the opportunity to later follow up such interests with experts was an invaluable opportunity.

The benefits of presenting a poster

This year saw a record number of abstract submissions for poster presentation. All of the 60 chosen posters were at a very high standard, with each offering a concise summary of experimental projects. A dedicated poster session created within the conference programme was a highly effective way of educating one another about ongoing research in this field. Poster sessions allow for discussions that give the opportunity to obtain immediate clarification on various aspects of the presented work. Additionally, Professor Nilesh Samani, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, chaired the Young Investigator Award Competition, which rewarded young researchers for their outstanding contribution to this field. Such recognition is an important factor in encouraging further work and in boosting the CV.

In my case, there were many benefits of attending poster sessions at an early career stage. I was able to observe the various delivery styles in the manner work is presented to the audience, taking notes about how I may be able to improve my own presentation of my research project. Furthermore, I inevitably came across unfamiliar scientific techniques. Fortunately, given my student status, presenters were enthusiastic about explaining the technical elements of their project, methods, and how they arrived at their results. Consequently, I now hold a greater understanding of various experimental methods, which will be useful for future research. Presenting my own poster – themed around the differential expression of von-Willebrand Factor in atherosclerosis – proved to be an incredibly valuable experience. Given the participants at the conference ranged from other students to experts in the field, I practised pitching my work at different levels, which I acknowledge to be an important skill in ensuring effective audience engagement. Remaining open to comments and criticisms is crucial when interacting within the scientific community. I was able to acknowledge different interpretations of my results whilst identifying areas of improvements, especially as a means of reinforcing my results. For example, my results were derived from immunohistochemistry experiments and I am currently in the process of reinforcing them through confocal immunofluorescence microscopy.

Following a positive response from a community of colleagues in this field, I have improved my confidence, not only in my research, but also in presenting my work and being open to discussions. Student participation in poster presentations may bring about personal improvements in these important areas and should therefore be encouraged.

Keeping connected in our scientific community

It is clear BAS realises that conferences are about more than just hearing the latest research outside the lecture theatre. As a means of encouraging new friendships and professional connections in a relaxed setting, a number of networking opportunities were scattered throughout the conference programme. From tea and biscuits at the scheduled breaks, to a pre-poster drinks reception, as well as a formal three course conference dinner, hunger hormones for foodies (and students) were kept under control to allow for a sociable atmosphere; though the effects of all this on the health of our arteries is a matter for debate.

I was fortunate to attend the conference with my laboratory supervisor, Dr. Robin Poston, who is well-acquainted with scientists in this field of research. This allowed me to introduce myself and personally invite his colleagues to view my poster presentation. I thought this was important as it enabled me to have further discussions around my work, receive advice and build professional, social connections.

Furthermore, as a medical student, I appreciated greatly the opportunity to seek advice from experts in the field, especially from academic clinicians who often devote time to advancing research. From hearing about their experiences and stories, as well as their motivation for balancing clinical work with research, I was truly inspired. Where students and experts in the field can communicate, there exists the opportunity for students to seek mentorship and for the researchers the possibility of assistance with experimental work. In such instances, there is potential for a mutually beneficial professional relationship to grow.

Moving forward

The BAS Annual Meeting 2018 demonstrated a high calibre of research being undertaken on the vulnerable atherosclerotic plaque, with many learning opportunities for participants. From the perspective of a medical student, this meeting provided an important opportunity to expand knowledge of ongoing research in the field, comprehend how science works and also build professional connections within the scientific community.

Talks exemplifying the translational aspect of research can be a real inspiration for students to engage in research, helping to both maintain focus and provide a sense of purpose to their projects. Additionally, boosting general awareness of specific areas in this field may aid the process of students finding a project to which their interests are suited. Personally, gaining feedback on my own experimental work as a direct consequence of presenting my poster at the conference has proven encouraging to my future work. Thus, opportunities for students to deliver poster presentations is key for developing valuable skills crucial for later success in this field of research. Given the vast benefits I have had from attending this meeting as a medical student, I feel confident that student participation in future conferences is a valuable opportunity and should be encouraged at early stages of science and medical degrees. Following such an inspiring conference hosted by BAS, students should endeavour to attend the next annual meeting, “Controversies in Cardiovascular Medicine”, which will take place in the autumn of 2019 at Keble College, Oxford.