Conference attendance renews motivation to do research

Thousands of experts and students turn up every year for the annual conference of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM). This year’s event, held last month in Hawaii, was the biggest ever, with 6,780 abstracts submitted – and I was among them.

The opportunity to showcase research, as well as connecting with other researchers and learning about their work, makes ISMRM a crucial and much sought-after meeting to attend for any MRI-related PhD student. In January I was selected to present an electronic poster, as well as deliver a power pitch – a two-minute pitch of my current research and results to an audience.

February and March were intense. I gathered as much data as possible and summarised them concisely. With the help of my supervisors, and fellow students who were also racing to finalise work for the conference, I submitted my poster/pitch and flew to Hawaii, buzzing with nerves.

The glaring heat of Honolulu was reflected in the cutting-edge research expounded confidently by the thousands of speakers during the conference. Scouring through conference itineraries, puzzling over maps of Hawaii, and highlighting far too many of the talks/posters soon became a morning ritual.

From Saturday to Thursday, I attended a multitude of fMRI sunrise educational sessions (starting at 7am), power pitches and 10-minute talks by young researchers presenting beautiful – albeit initially confusing – work, plenary lectures by worldleading experts, poster sessions by enthusiastic students and many other novel talks, one of which included an MRI “guess the artifact” game show. I kept as many notes as I could, wrote down names, and highlighted papers to read and explore when back home.

I was surrounded by MR-celebrities, and the casual and friendly nature of the conference allowed easy conversation between legends and apprentices: I remember being starstruck when a founding father of a certain image acquisition technique sat next to us for lunch and proceeded to tell us about Hawaii, as well as his most recent work. I also recall another giant in the field praising a friend’s excellent talk – a high point I don’t think we’ll soon forget.

By far the greatest part of the conference was the people. Without the encouragement of teachers, we students would be lost in a sea of precessing protons, endlessly unsure of our work’s direction. Upon the nervewracking presentation to a scarily large audience, my work in the subsequent poster session was interrogated by professors and students alike – a privilege, I felt, that my work was important enough to be cared about by such people! I furiously wrote down their advice, pausing only to thank them, and not soon after left Hawaii, with renewed motivation to resume my research back in Nottingham.

I could tell you that the week flew by in a haze of science. I could tell you that I enjoyed every second, and that while my work was a pinprick of light in the supernova that was ISMRM, I still learned to think about it in a different way. I could also tell you that academics aren’t mean or scary, merely curious truth-seekers and innovators.

What I will say though, is this: there is no better motivation than to look up from my computer in Nottingham, stare at my name on my carefully drooped registration badge and recall those memories of Hawaii, where friends become best friends, theory and research became a blur of laughter and concentration, and my work became something more than abstract musings – something concrete to chip at.

  • For further information on travel grants available to IOP members, and details of how to apply, check out the Support and Grants pages of the main IOP website
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Michael Asghar

Michael Asghar

Michael is a PhD student at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre at the University of Nottingham. When he’s not searching for conferences to attend in sunny resorts, he works on mapping sensory responses in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at 7 tesla.
Michael Asghar

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