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The academic conference: a Total Perspective Vortex with cappuccinos

tonydavid1 September 2020

In anticipation of the UCL Institute of Mental Health’s first international Conference on 9th September, I posed a few questions to our speakers about their attitudes and experiences of scientific conferences. In this Covid-19 world we are having to rethink many aspects of life we previously took for granted – from the most profound to the trivial (I am not sure where conferences sit on this dimension).

The first question was:  What do you most miss/not miss about ‘conventional’ (pre-Covid) scientific conferences?

For Argyris Stringaris it is the sheer randomness of the encounters that academic conferences engender. For Emily Holmes it’s about sharing cups of coffee and informal chats around the symposia. “Getting to know the people behind the research” as much as hearing about the research alone is the key. Meeting people behind the scientific papers that you have read is a truly eye-opening experience, but not always positive. Some say you should never meet your heroes. I find that I am increasing left feeling that the person whose work I have admired invariably turns out to be much younger than I had imagined. Perhaps this is evidence of a bias to equate longevity with wisdom – a self-serving bias of course. Tamsin Ford agrees – except it’s “a good-sized mug of tea” that she yearns for rather than coffee, but certainly not the jet lag, the delays in immigration and the inevitable traveller’s fatigue.

This is particularly salient for Ethel Mpungu who is based in Uganda. “At the moment, I do not miss ‘conventional’ (pre-COVID) scientific conferences outside my country” she says. “The fatigue from the long distance travel was just about to kill me!… For now I will enjoy the international conferences in the comfort of my office. Before Covid, in-country conferences were attended by very few individuals but with virtual conferences up to 300-500 may attend which I find absolutely amazing. I know that my work has reached so many more people in my country during the Covid pandemic than before.” And we anticipate reaching over 500 this time round.

But what of the actual ‘work’ of the conference format. Pasco Fearon laments the absence of live question and answer sessions from the floor. “I do rather miss formulating a polite answer to the inevitable left-field, really long and rambling question – posting questions online and having the chair choose them has killed that sport.” (We will try and keep this sport alive on September 9th). But who misses those other staples: “This isn’t so much a question as a comment…” and the embittered, entitled question that barely conceals the admonishment: why didn’t you cite my work?

Finally there is the longing for international travel and cultural exchange. For Rick Adams it’s the glorious Italian food at the Schizophrenia International Research Society in Florence every other spring, and American music at Society of Biological Psychiatry.

The second question put to our guests was:  What scientific conferences do you most enjoy?  eg., small focussed symposia? Large scale extravaganzas?

Here I can report that the data were fairly consistent and convincing. The small symposia were considerably more appreciated – “small all the way” according to Rick Adams – but even here it is hard to separate the academic aspects from those more social. Pasco Fearon again: “I much prefer the smaller conferences where there’s a tighter focus on an area of interest; old friends and new stars get to meet, talk in-depth and socialise. I find the big conferences a bit like the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!”

Some like to have their cake and eat it. “I love small focussed symposia (which allow discussion and debate)”, says Emily Holmes, “…but within Large scale extravaganzas to catch up on the big picture.” The same story comes from Tamsin Ford, for whom it’s the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s ‘research institutes’, “… where a whole day is devoted to a project – some of these have been excellent” – a kind of small-within-large format.

Clearly if it’s about getting your message out to the largest number of people, the large-scale events deliver on their promise and that is what swings it for Ethel Mpungu.  For Jim Gold it’s all about catching up with old friends – more likely in the big international events – although for him the real purpose seems to be seeing who has or has not aged well. It reminds me of a class reunion I went to – often the scene of repressed competitiveness – where the most coveted prize was, not for the most successful or wealthy but for the person who looked most “well preserved”.

The final question was as follows:  What is the single most important scientific/clinical question in our field right now?

Perhaps surprisingly given the scope of the question, there was something approaching a consensus. For Jim Gold and Ethel Mpungu – it’s simple. “When will clinical neuroscience actually impact clinical care at a large scale?” says Jim, while Ethel wants to know, “How interventions work and for whom”.  Argyris Stringaris is equally succinct: “What is mood and how to influence it?”

Pasco Fearon circles the question before homing in: “How can we make programmatic mental health prevention really work? It’s one of the holy grails of the field, but it’s fraught with difficulties.” But like all good research, attempting to answer one question always leads to many more: “How do we sustain intervention effects over long periods of time? In child psychology and psychiatry there are a good number of prevention and intervention strategies that seem to be helpful in the short-term, but their benefits often fade over time. Good strategies for maintaining treatment gains might sometimes be quite different to the strategies that affected change in the first place, but we rarely think about this thoroughly or study it.”

Emily Holmes also wants to take a run-up before jumping on the major questions.  She says: “To dream big and really help people with mental health difficulties, we are going to have to transform our culture … For example, how can we move from studies about ‘description’ (merely counting, describing, knowing if something works or not) to learn to best change what is troubling someone and derive novel interventions to transform mental health?”

But we cannot escape the challenge of the moment. For Tamsin Ford the biggest question for us to address right now is “The impact of Covid and the recession on the mental health and development of children and young people” but perhaps she would say that. Rick Adams is also acutely in tune with the times. When preparing for a scientific lecture, the question at the forefront of his mind is:

“Has someone forgotten to mute themselves?”