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InFocus: Anna Conti on the SISCO Conference

The Saint sat down with Anna Conti, president of the University of St Andrews’ Physics Society (known as PhySoc), to discuss the results of the exciting SISCO Conference.

SISCO, which stands for St Andrews Interdisciplinary Science Conference, was a two-day conference held on the weekend of 5 February 2022. It was wholly organised by undergraduate students.

The conference included interdisciplinary talks ranging from topics such as Neurophotonics, Artificial Intelligence and Pathology, to Maths and Sexism. The lectures were aimed at Honours level students, but all undergraduate and postgraduate students were invited to come along.

Anna, a second-year Physics student, said, “We mainly had researchers from our schools talking about their research, but we also had some guest speakers such as Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff, a pioneer in his work on supercritical fluids and green chemistry, which was the focus of his lecture.”

“We also had networking opportunities in the form of breakfasts, lunch and afternoon tea. The food for these events was catered by the University catering team. In addition, we had social events like a Pub Quiz in the Main Bar of the Union and an LGBT+ in STEM social.”

“The aim of the conference was for students from science and medicine to learn what other subjects are doing and what opportunities exist within these other subjects. So, it was both a career-oriented event and a chance to get to know more people in the science and medicine faculty, including professors and researchers. People had the opportunity to ask questions in an informal setting.”

Anna got the inspiration for this conference by attending the virtual 2021 conference for undergraduate women in Physics UK and Ireland. This was organised by the Institute of Physics (IOP), and hosted by the University of Southampton.

“I attended this conference which I found very interesting, so I thought: Why not do something like that in St Andrews? I knew I would have to organise funding and work around the restrictions regarding Covid-19, but it was something I wanted to see happen.”

When asked how she went about planning the conference, she said, “First, I tried to see if there was interest by contacting different STEM societies as I wanted the conference to be interdisciplinary. We ended up with a committee of representatives from five societies: Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Astrophysics and Women in Computer Science. Once I had this group together, we had a look at how we might go about getting funding. When we realised this was doable, we started organising the conference and asking professors and researchers if they would be interested in speaking.”

“We had a total of 13 speakers on different interdisciplinary topics. Ten of these speakers were from St Andrews (Professor Rosemary Bailey, Patrick Barth, Professor Simon Dobson, Professor Ian Gent, Professor David Harrison, Dr Sophie Huczynska, Dr Chris Jefferson, Dr Janet Lovett, Dr Juan Varela, and Dr James Wurster) one was from the National School of Healthcare Science (Dr Jo Horne), one was from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche (Dr Julie Charpentier), and one was from the Chemistry department at the University of Nottingham. (Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff ).”

“I had a lot of help from people from other societies, and I am very thankful for all of their support. These include Joseph Edwards (SUMS President), Michael Sinfield (ChemSoc President), Vicky Chu (SUMS Vice President), Evie Currie (WICS Social Media Rep), Ishbel Wright (AstroSoc President), Nikko Juengsophonvitavas (AstroSoc Events Convener), Polina Belousova (Events and Community Rep, School of Physics and Astronomy), Katherine Campion (ChemSoc RSC Rep).”

SISCO were also fortunate enough to receive sponsorship from the Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Student Union (Societies Committee and Employability Fund). Such funding came to a total of over £1,500.

“To get the funding, we had to fill in forms, provide pictures of the conference as evidence and write a follow up report. It was a fair bit of bureaucracy! But we were very grateful for the support”.

With this funding, SISCO was able to make its tickets free of charge.

Anna said, “The event was free. I thought this was important as everyone should have the opportunity to attend these types of events. It is something that we as a society and community have a responsibility to provide. We did get the grants and so were financially able to cover all the costs.”

“Officially we “sold” around 300 tickets and around 250 people came over the two days. Some people came for one lecture, others stayed the whole day. We had around 35- 55 people per talk, with talks being held in the Booth lecture theatre in the Medicine Building. We also had SISCO stickers and merchandise available from the IOP and RSC.”

In terms of Covid-19 restrictions, Anna acknowledged that this was the hardest part of organising the conference.

“It was such a delicate situation which kept changing. Just a month and a half before the conference was to take place, Omicron started to spread. We had to have a plan A and a Plan B. We were in constant contact with the Covid help desk and had to ask permission to be in person from all of the schools involved, the ACE (Accommodation, Conferences and Events) team, and the Covid team. We had to get permission from a lot of different people, and we had to com- ply with a lot of rules and make sure they were all being implemented."

Everyone was required to provide a negative lateral flow test on the day of the attended event. During the lectures, attendees were also required to maintain 1m social distancing.

After the conference, attendees were asked to continue testing with lateral flow tests in order to remain vigilant.

On why she decided to avoid making the conference virtual, Anna said, “We could have held the SISCO conference online, but I was keen to keep it in person. For me, it was the experience that was important. It wasn’t just about the lectures but rather it was about allowing people to communicate and meet other people. So, right up to the day the conference took place, the aim was to hold it in person with the back-up plan of going online. Eventually, the rules relaxed and we were able to keep it in person, but we still had to monitor the situation.”

When asked what her favourite lecture was, Anna said, “I really enjoyed the talk on neurophotonics given by Dr Juan Varela.”

This lecture involved the disciplines of Neuroscience, Physics and Biology, and it discussed current efforts to develop optical methods to study neurodegenerative diseases. It also focused on the characterisation of protein aggregates involved in dementia, the way these aggregates induce toxicity and the ways in which the brain gets rid of them.

“My favourite moment was actually attending an in-person lecture. I know that for a lot of students, especially first and second-years, and even third year direct entry students, it was the first time they had been to an in-person lecture. It was a totally different feeling. It was very nice to be around people again and to see people talking, socialising, and getting to know one another. I was also pleased to see people interacting with the lecturers and stopping to chat after the lecture had taken place. Even just enjoying food together made it feel like things were more back to normal and it helped to create a friendly atmosphere.”

On whether the conference could become something annual, or whether it could be repeated, Anna expressed her enthusiasm.

“I would love it if SISCO would happen again. Also, I know this is ambitious, but it could become even bigger, with either more schools or more universities around Scotlandsuch as Edinburgh or Dundee or Aberdeen. Of course, it was hard to organise, but it was also rewarding, so it would be nice to see it hap- pen again. I think we did show that such an event is doable; it just takes a bit of willingness to put yourself out there and try to involve people.”

Anna emphasised the opportunities that conferences such as SISCO can offer people, both academically and socially.

“I think we should all aim to organise more events like this and be proactive in participation. It is hard but it is a great experience, one which offers us the chance to step out of our comfort zone, something which I think we should always try and do. This might be in terms of going to a social event like the pub quiz, but also in terms of learning about other disciplines. By organising and attending such conferences, you can get to know what else is out there. You could start out doing medicine and end up doing something totally different like Artificial Intelligence and Pathology, for example.”

On advising people on how they might go about creating such an event once more, Anna said, “It would be great if SISCO could run next year! If someone wants to do it or has any idea of doing something similar but doesn’t know how to start, I’m more than happy for people to reach out. But the main thing I would say is to give it a try, because if you don’t try then you will never know.”

Image: SISCO Conference

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