Last month I attended an inspiring academic event that was put together and organised by PhD students and early career researchers. It was the Frontiers in Population Health 2014 conference in London funded by the ESRC and organised by students from UCL including: Gemma Archer, Joshua Bell, Bianca Serwinski and Ahmed Elhakeem. The event was also supported by UCL researchers Noriko Cable and Anne McMunn from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Healthfrontiers pop health 2014

What struck me most about the conference was that at no point did I find myself bored. Usually, when you attend academic conferences you expect to see some great presentations and to hear about work you would otherwise miss – but you also expect to spend some time feeling a bit sleepy or bored by a few sessions – sneaking off to refuel on coffee to stay awake – or using the time to sort through your to-do list… But here that did not happen.

All the presentations I attended were interesting and well-delivered, the program was balanced with the right number of breaks and plenary vs parallel sessions, and the posters were truly excellent. The student organisers also tried a few hair-brained ideas that really worked as well as lining up some experienced speakers.

For example I went into the “Experiential Exercise” session with no idea how it would work. David Cox from Headspace started by giving us an evidence-based presentation on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness followed by a live practice session. Though I am not a ‘meditator’ myself, it did not feel artificial and I truly enjoyed it.  Later we had three 10 min “Speed Teaching” slots by Meena Kumari (on biomarkers), Aroon Hingorani (on Mendelian randomisation) and Allan Hackshaw (on Medical Statistics) which were simultaneously brilliant and demented! How each of them managed to discuss their topics and make it work within the nutty time constraint– I do not know.

The posters were top notch. I was asked to evaluate them to award prizes for the best two posters and found the nature and quality of the work impressive as well as how it was presented. The two prize winners were:

-Alice Easton (Imperial College London) for her work on a deworming program in Malawi: “Comparing outcomes from two diagnostics for Ascaris lumbricoides to understand the impact of deworming programs on disease burden and parasite transmission”

phd poster comic
Poster by Madeleine Stevens & Tamsin Aral

-Madeleine Stevens (LSE) for her work on service use and child behaviour brilliantly presented in comic form (see picture) “Children at risk of developing antisocial and criminal behaviour: Parents’ experiences of services – what helps and what does not”

The whole event highlighted for me why it’s so important in academia to attend conferences and events – it is not just a luxury.

When researchers come together at these events we see the bigger picture – we meet people motivated by the same things, who share our academic values. What inspired me most was being surrounded by such high quality and energetic young researchers from across public health disciplines – and I include here both the organising students and the other conference participants. I could see and talk to people doing important work and building the present and future of our discipline.

The conference was made possible thanks to a number of essential ingredients:

-The Economic and Social Research Council who funded a student led interdisciplinary conference – a rare and worthy thing for a funder to support. We need more funders like the ESRC.

-University departments who back their students to take initiatives and give them support. Leadership support is essential to springboard student initiatives.

-High quality, energetic students, who are driven to take on the mammoth job of organising such an event on top of their usual workload. No sign of student apathy here.