Looking at the auditorium full of scientists and students ready for a week full of learning and networking, I felt overwhelmed — overwhelmed with joy and excitement, and a bit of stress. Now, having attended Gairdner Science Week 2022 as a high school student, I know that my joy and excitement were certainly warranted. I learned so much, and truly enjoyed the experience.
Here are three lessons I learned that apply to both attending conferences and scientific discoveries.
1. You never know until you try
With Gairdner Science Week being the first in-person scientific event I’d attended, I was nervous about talking to scientists and other attendees who are much more accomplished than I am. At times, I had to push myself very far outside of my comfort zone to talk to others.
But, I’m so glad that I did. For example, had I not mustered up the courage to ask Dr. Anna Blakney, a 2022 Gairdner Early Career Investigator Award winner, for an interview, I never would have gotten to learn about her amazing science communication experience.
Again, I was taught this lesson during Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta’s Laureate Lecture. His talk discussed the research he and his colleagues had worked on to prolong and better the lives of children during their first thousand days. One trial he worked on involved reducing the incidence of omphalitis, an infection of the umbilical cord stump, which can result in death. They tried lowering the rate of this infection by providing soap and handwashing education in birth kits and in another group, they provided effective medication (for omphalitis).
They expected both interventions to have a positive effect. But, the addition of soap and educational materials about handwashing had no effect. This was likely because the area they were in did not have secure access to water. This highlights the importance of testing out hypotheses and putting things to the test rather than making assumptions.
2. There’s a lot of value in observing.
While my previous point focuses on the importance of pushing outside your comfort zone, it’s equally important to recognize when to simply observe and learn.
I gained a lot of new knowledge just by attending the International Symposium, which discussed the changing views of the hematopoietic stem cell over time, and the Laureate Lectures. Attending these events was just as important as approaching scientists and interviewing them!
During her laureate lecture, Dr. Deborah Cook stressed the importance of observation — in this case, observational studies in critical care medicine. While performing her research on advancing the care of critically ill patients in Canada, Dr. Cook found that some scientists wanted to jump ahead to clinical trials. Instead, Dr. Cook and her colleagues decided to perform some observational studies first to inform their trials and they learned a lot.
3. Many things in life are like ultra-marathons. And it’s important to focus on acquiring small advantages along the way.
In the context of scientific conferences and events, it’s important to take things slow and enjoy the ride. There’s no need to try to talk to every person and attend every single event. Just try to progress slightly by talking to one person. Over time, throughout the course of many events, you’ll gain advantages and become a more knowledgeable person.
The same is true in clonal hematopoiesis — where a blood stem cell, which specializes into our red and white blood cells and platelets, gets a mutation that gives it a survival advantage over other blood stem cells. In this case, however, the cells are behaving in an undesirable way. Clonal hematopoiesis is correlated with an increased risk for diseases like acute myeloid leukemia, stroke, and heart disease.
The metaphor of clonal hematopoiesis being an ultramarathon was introduced by Dr. Margaret Goodell during her talk at the International Symposium. These blood stem cells don’t gain their advantages overnight. Instead, they acquire them over time, taking a “long view.” Though these cells can have very negative effects on our bodies, we stand to learn a life lesson from them.
All in all, I had a fantastic time and learned a lot at Gairdner Science Week! To get a closer (and more visual) look at my experience, be sure to watch my vlog about my first time attending the events here.
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