ARUK Conference 2018: an early career researcher’s perspective

Written by Naomi Hartopp, King’s College London (UK)

ARUK’s support for those beginning to build their careers in dementia research is felt throughout their annual conference, starting with their Early Careers Day.
An exciting time to start a career in dementia research

This is my second year of attending the Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK) Conference as a PhD student, held this year at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in central London. What strikes me most about the conference this year is the emphasis on the importance of supporting early career researchers (students, post-docs and fellows) and the opportunities for showcasing work available to those building their career in dementia research. The focus on nurturing new talent in the field was evident throughout the conference and makes this a really exciting time to be coming into dementia research as a student or post-doc.

Each year ARUK holds an ‘Early Careers Day’ the day before the main conference begins. This day is organized and chaired entirely by early career researchers: PIs are strictly not allowed to attend! This give students, post-docs and fellows the opportunity to present their work in a more comfortable environment. As Lucy Granat (first year PhD student, KCL) remarks as we leave the first session of talks: “It’s so much more relaxed with just PhD students.” In fact there are also some post-docs and fellows dotted around the room who have organized the early career day and chair the sessions, which is great experience if you get the chance.

There are also numerous opportunities to gain experience, network, present your research and get recognition for your work as an early career researcher at the conference – take a look at the conference reports from Day 1 and Day 2 for further coverage of these, including the early career researcher prizes and flash presentations.

Preparation, posters and presentations

The weeks leading up to an annual conference seem to be spent worrying that your poster is going to be exactly the same as the one you presented last year – how can I possibly have no new data after a whole year of work? Eventually I admitted this to my supervisor and we put together a poster that I was surprisingly happy with, showcasing a method that I had been working up. The night before the conference also has a yearly tradition; frantically trying to find something to wear that isn’t the jeans you usually wear in the lab – where is that jacket I wore for my interview two years ago? As it turns out the panic isn’t entirely necessary; this is still an academic conference after all, and the early careers day is all about feeling relaxed at the conference.

Tackling the daunting task of presenting first, Catarina Dias (University of Edinburgh, UK) presents her work using iPSC-derived neurons from a Parkinson’s disease patient, edited by CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out expression of the carboxyl terminus of Hsc70-interacting protein, CHIP, for proteomic analysis. After an impressive first talk, James Quinn (University of Manchester, UK) steps up to share his work on identifying a novel potential candidate for the cleavage of tau in tauopathies followed by Ravi Solanki (University of Cambridge, UK) who presents his interesting findings on the effects of tau on the nuclear lamina and the small molecule inhibitor of NAT10 acetyltransferase, which he has found to partially rescue these effects.

During the coffee break I asked Adam Smith, a final year student at the University of Exeter (UK) who has attended the conference every year during his PhD, what kept him coming back to the early careers day specifically. This is where I hear my favourite line of the day; “sometimes the students give better talks” (than the PIs I’m sure he means, though he’s too polite to say this). He goes on to clarify that this is because students explain their data more fully, perhaps because there is less of it, and so it’s easier to follow. This really rings true for me as I reflect back on the PhD day and remember being fully engaged by all of the talks, even those not in my specific field. “It extends the conference” is also among the long list of reasons Adam reeled off for attending the PhD day. Of course, alongside the day itself, there is the PhD dinner, which is a chance (not that we need much excuse) to drink with fellow students from other universities. Yes, you get a night out that can be considered ‘networking’- what more could you want?

The next speaker is Isabel Castanho (University of Exeter) discussing her research into differentially expressed genes in two transgenic mice models of Alzheimer’s disease; a tau model, rTg4510, and an amyloid model, J20. Yolanda Ohene (University College London, UK) then shares her impressive work on developing a non-invasive MRI technique aiming to measure the clearance of amyloid beta from the brain by detecting the exchange of water across the blood–brain barrier. Nadine Mizra (University of Manchester) presents the systematic review she has carried out detailing the reasons for low participation of ethnic minorities in dementia research and what can be done to improve this participation. The final student talk of the day is from Nicola Sobieraj, who has just completed her BSc and is currently working as a research associate at the Herriot Watt University (UK). Nicola discusses her work on analysing how healthy aging changes performance in an “instrumental activities of daily living” task, with the hope of enabling identification of deviation from healthy aging.

ARUK also focuses on the experiences of patients with dementia and this is seen throughout the conference and during the early careers day, with two non-research based talks. Rachel Thompson, Admiral Nurse Professional & Practice Development Lead at Dementia UK has worked with dementia patients for almost 20 years and discusses how it might feel to live with dementia and the importance of providing specialist care. Ashwin Venkataraman, a Psychiatrist at Imperial College London (UK), gives us a clinician’s perspective on the challenges of dementia diagnosis and care, emphasizing the need to bridge the gap between research in the lab and the clinic.

“Follow your dreams” – careers panel talk setbacks and ambitions

The strict “No PIs” rule was broken slightly at the end of the day as four senior researchers, Charlotte Dunbar (Senior Biochemist, Eli Lilly and Company, UK), Jonathon Witton (ARUK Research Fellow, University of Bristol, UK), Tammaryn Lashley (Principal Research Associate, University College London) and Elena di Daniel (Head of Biology, ARUK Oxford Drug Discovery Institute, UK), are invited to the stage for a panel discussion on careers within and outside academia.

This session is a great chance to hear perspectives from early and established researchers in both academia and industry. The panel discuss the importance of working with the right people, setbacks they have faced and how they overcame them, the importance (or lack thereof in some cases) of publishing regularly as well as the differences between academic and industry work. To finish the panel discussion, session chair Lizzie Glennon (KCL) asks each panellist to share one piece of advice for early career researchers. Charlotte’s advice is to make the most out of every situation and similarly Jonathon suggests that we identify people who are working on the things we are interested in and who can act as mentors. Tammaryn tells us something that is comforting to hear from a successful PI; that “any PhD is just a qualification in perseverance”. Laughter in the room suggests that this already resonates with a lot of us. Finally, Elena di Daniel offers us what I think are perfect words to round off a great Early Careers Day and to begin the main conference… “Follow your dreams.”


Biography – Naomi Hartopp

Naomi Hartopp is a PhD student at KCL, Department of Basic and Clinical Neuroscience. Investigating changes in ER–mitochondrial contacts in human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia in the lab of Chris Miller.


  1. Neuro Central