A feast for the soul, body and inquisitive mind

Author: Sasha (Alexandra) Lisovsky, 09/05/13

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View from the Welch-Dickey trail

View from the Welch-Dickey trail near Waterville, NH. Photo: Sasha Lisovsky.

I recently spent a week in a rustic New England area hiking, canoeing, tasting local beer, sampling culinary masterpieces and participating in insightful discussions with old and newly acquired friends. It sounds like I had a great vacation; however, I was actually attending a scientific meeting – namely the Gordon Research Conference (GRC) in Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering.

Don’t let great food and abundant social activities lead you to believe that this event was like a corporate retreat with all fun and no science. GRC is definitely about cutting-edge research and uninhibited informal discussions. I learned so much at this meeting! I really wish I could share with you everything that I know now, but unfortunately I have to stay mum. This is why:

GRC meetings are designed to be at the forefront of the field and facilitate sharing “fresh off the bench” unpublished data. Some of the data seen at the GRC get published several years later, giving attendees an edge in knowing the most current developments in the field of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. This obviously comes with a caveat; since the data are so new, no one is allowed to disclose any of the scientific content outside of the meeting. People in violation of this are either asked to leave the conference immediately or, worst case, banned for life from all GRC events. (When I was at the same GRC two years ago, a delegate had to promptly leave the conference after taking a photo of one presentation slide).

The benefit of such strict enforcement is a safe environment where presenters feel comfortable sharing their novel and cutting edge research.

Since I really cannot tell you anything specific about what I heard and learned, I will tell you what makes the GRC so special and why graduate students should experience it at least once.

First of all, the Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering GRC is a small and very exclusive meeting. This year there were about 180 participants – half of them were international and U.S. researchers and the rest were graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To attend the meeting one needed to submit an abstract and if it was selected, one could register for the conference. All graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and new faculty were required to present their most recent work at several poster sessions (that also strategically coincided with pub hours, making the discussions livelier). This is different from other conferences where people can attend, regardless of whether they are presenting their work, by paying a registration fee.

Second, compared to conferences where the majority of talks are short and given by students, at GRC all of the talks run about an hour and are given by invited speakers, such as these leaders in the field: Claudia Fischbach (Cornell University), Jeffrey Hubbell (EPFL) and Darrell Irvine (MIT), to name just a few.

Third, social interaction is an essential component of the GRC and the meeting was organized in a way that maximized networking: attendees had nowhere to go and were therefore compelled to stay and hang out with each other. This GRC was held at Holderness School, a boarding high school near the very small town of Plymouth, New Hampshire, populated with about 6,000 inhabitants.

We shared all of our (fantastic!) meals together and there was no segregation between students and faculty. Meal-time was a spectacular combination of all-inclusive buffet and home cooked holiday dinners. And just to put a cherry on top, every night ended in a pub where beer was mixed with scientific discussions that trickled over from the last session of the day, ran late into the night (or early morning) and resumed at breakfast to begin the cycle all over again.

Every afternoon featured a break to explore the nearby countryside. There was canoeing, mountain biking and outdoor rock climbing. One of the afternoons was reserved for a famous group hike that was “lovingly” named by previous GRC attendees as a “Death March”. It was a 4.4 mile hike up two mountains with some very steep areas that offered adrenaline rushes, shortness of breath and expansive views from the cliffs of Welch and Dickey. Thankfully, this year there were no casualties. For the second time, I have lived to talk about it.

Despite what you might think, I’m really not being paid to endorse the GRC. I speak in such glowing terms because this is the best scientific conference that I have attended this year – though I enjoyed learning about the business of regenerative medicine more – and I would like for everyone to experience a week of sleepless fun nights and fascinating science-filled days.

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Sasha (Alexandra) Lisovsky

Sasha is a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at the Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is currently investigating molecular and cellular mechanisms of blood vessels formation in presence of a therapeutic biomaterial to improve wound healing of chronic diabetic wounds. She is a Bylaws chair for the international Society for Biomaterials serving over 20 student chapters, a Director of alumni relations for the Toronto graduate management consulting association and a volunteer for national StemCellTalks and Let’s Talk Science organizations.

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