*BLOG* Happy New Year! As I commence on my final push towards finishing the PhD, I have been reflecting on my experiences..
Well these past 2 and a bit years have gone quickly! I remember all the excitement of designing the research project and starting my PhD, and now I am officially in the final year- with a crazy amount still to do! As I reflect upon my experience of these past 2 years I am reminded how lucky I have been to be given the opportunity to do so many things I love: meeting and working with people from all walks of life, learning and being challenged every day, growing as a researcher and also personally- I have discovered so many things about myself during these two years, thanks to the support from brilliant and inspiring people.
The first year was great, hard work, but great- I was constantly busy learning how to be a researcher, aspects of research, statistics and ethics policies that go into working with humans and with NHS patients. Proper research really started towards the end of the year, and I have spent the majority of my second year ‘testing’ my wonderful participants, all 189 of them! Alongside this I had the opportunity to organise and visit various events and conferences, and actually present some of my findings to people who were interested and enthused by what we are doing, such a great feeling. Of particular note and what will base the rest of this blog, was my first experience attending and presenting at an international conference, and what an experience it was! Not only one of the most prestigious conferences in the field of academic dementia research, it was also in the beautiful city of Toronto, Canada.
In one of our weekly Thursday team meetings in Sheffield, my main supervisor, Prof.Venneri announced that she wanted me to submit an abstract to present my research at the Alzheimers Association International Conference (AAIC). Before this I had only presented findings at local meetings in Sheffield, Bradford, Chester and various events for DSN, and the thought of going to Toronto was amazing! Without boring you of the details of the application – it was finally decided they wanted me, and I was able to go!!
When we landed at Toronto International airport, it was 4pm local time and boiling hot after the freezing flight, where the air conditioning was at -50 degrees the whole way! The airport was huge, but very efficient and when we found where the bag collection point was, our suitcases were already waiting on the carousel, and as this has never happened to me before, (there have been many an occasion where I had to wait for hours, or even days!!) this must be a good sign! I had to do a quick change out of my jeans in the ladies and then headed to the train station to board our train into the city centre.
After all of the excitement of the flight, landing in a new city and of course the roller coaster, we were finally outside and in the centre of the city at Union station which is right by the Rogers Centre, which, for those who don’t know it, is the Blue Jays stadium.. And Toronto’s baseball team (who were currently on a very successful winning streak) and what felt like the whole of Canada were there to witness them- and us struggling with directions. I have never been one with the most accurate or natural sense of direction, always leaving it to my travelling partner to help find the way, but in this instance he was even worse than me!!! (Sorry Matteo but its true!) Finally with the help of the trusty google maps, we made our way out of the crowds and to our little apartment, where, after being up for about 20 hours, we had some food and a good night’s sleep, before the first day of the conference on the Sunday.
Four days of exciting new research was then presented, we weren’t allowed to take any pictures in the lecture theatres, but I managed to get one of the opening ceremony- there were dancers and everything introducing us to Ontario.
There were so many sessions in parallel, it was really hard to choose which presentations to attend, but it was of great benefit to experience other research that is going on all over the world, in particular topics of risk factors, updates on causal and preventative factors, and treatments of dementia. On particular interest to me, was the area of exercise and dementia, where a fantastic plenary talk by Dr Laura Baker on the role of exercise and memory decline showcased exercise as a therapeutic for Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Baker presented findings of a recent randomised control trial, showing regular exercise can improve cognition in people at risk of dementia, by increasing blood flow to the areas that are selectively affected in ageing and early Alzheimer’s disease. She gave a good cause for physicians prescribing a course of regular exercise for prevention of cognitive decline, rather than current drug treatments- which have yet to show benefits to the same effect.
Scouting the programme for sensory loss and cognitive decline and dementia, I was enthused that there were many researchers from all over the world researching into the effects of sensory loss on the onset of dementia, and was enthused to learn the importance of olfaction (smell) as a possible marker, as people with dementia often lose their sense of smell, and changes in odour identification may be an early predictor of impending cognitive decline. There was a few fantastic talks and posters on hearing loss and its role specifically with dementia, albeit in the early stages, prior or managing hearing loss in people with dementia.
AAIC also had student and postdoc lounge, where students could go for some ‘downtime’ and network with other early career researchers, which was a fantastic experience to learn differences between research in different university’s and countries. Every day, there was the chance to speak to experts in the field about their research careers and top tips for the future. I was lucky enough to get a place on the Early Career Mentoring Breakfast (which was a 6:30am meeting!), where a beautiful breakfast was served in the ball room of the Fairmont York hotel, which was very grand indeed. With about eight of us around a table, all at differing stages in our careers, talking about the importance of mentoring in research, and in fact in any career. I was lucky enough to be placed with two ladies who were well established researchers, who advised on their careers as ‘women in research’ and the changes they have seen over the years- more to come I expect- and therefore is a great opportunity for female scientists!
So although the conference itself was huge and fascinating, and was on from 8am until 6pm every day, we still managed to fit in a bit of play time and sightseeing! On the Sunday night there was a ‘conference welcome evening’ – a tradition for these sorts of things apparently. I was literally blown away!! People were commenting that they are not always this good, and as its held in London next year, not sure how we will top it! (Blog to follow July 2017!) This one had a theme of Seasons and Taste of Ontario, and was held in a big beautiful building, where every room was a different season, so we had Spring with a harp player, and people on stilts dressed as trees, summer was a carnival with dancers of all ages, autumn, sorry ‘fall’ of course, had a rock band and more warming dishes as well as winter which was spectacular with ice sculptures and chocolate fountains. Canapes and wine was flowing at every station and the atmosphere truly was amazing!!
Also we couldn’t have gone to Toronto without hopping on the train to visit Niagara Falls (which we could have stayed on and ended in New York- next time). We only had half a day to get there and back to head back to the airport, but luckily, as it was a Friday afternoon, the queues weren’t too long, and we got the chance to go on the horn blower, which took us right past the USA falls and basically INTO the Canadian falls! Such an amazing experience, just so much vast amounts of water that you couldn’t see through the midst / open your eyes at all at this point, and the noise was immense!
So, to sum up- in case you couldn’t tell, the trip to AAIC was the highlight of my PhD so far, and really spurred me on and helped with confidence for local and national conferences which I have presented at since, including the ARUK Yorkshire meeting and BAA conference in Glasgow in November 2016.
What lies ahead, well I am currently submitting an abstract to the AAIC 2017 to (fingers crossed!) present in London this July, as well as many other exciting conferences and meetings coming up. I am entering the final phase of recruitment for my main study, as well as starting a new neuroimaging study looking into structural and functional connectivity in the auditory cortex. Not forgetting of course, the little job of writing a thesis- busy final year!