Annual Conference 2019: The Road to Belfast

Posted on May 1, 2019   by Robyn Wright

When I first saw the 2019 Annual Conference in Belfast advertised, I knew that I wanted to attend. I had a poster and flash talk at the Microbiology Society Conference in Edinburgh in 2017 but didn’t make it to Birmingham in 2018. As I am now in the final year of my PhD (and a keen traveller that hadn’t yet visited Northern Ireland), I really wanted to present my work in Belfast. I’ve already spent almost all of my PhD travel budget, so I applied for two talks – one on my PhD research, on plastic biodegradation, and one on the results of a three month mini-project modelling bacteria in biofilms that I did as part of my PhD’s 'training year' – hoping that I’d get one of them and be in a better position to apply for a Travel Grant.

Robyn Wright

Much to my surprise, I got both of the talks that I’d applied for, and then realised that both of the sessions were actually being held at the same time, on the same day, too! I immediately got in touch to make sure that they wouldn’t both be at the same time, and then set to planning how I would get there – and securing a Microbiology Society Travel Grant!

I started looking at my options for doing a bit of travelling either before or after Conference, and was considering either driving to Liverpool and then getting the ferry across, or flying from Birmingham to Belfast and then hiring a car. Out of curiosity, I tried to look up the carbon footprint of each of my options. I found that it was a bit complicated to actually get a number, but when I was calculating the distances, I saw that it was ‘only’ 130 miles from Coventry to Liverpool, where I would get the ferry, and I thought “what about cycling?”

I slept on the idea, and then mentioned to someone the next day that I was considering cycling to the Conference, and they suggested that I also ask people to sponsor me. So then I decided to commit the idea to the internet, meaning that I couldn’t back out! I started a JustGiving page to raise money for the Marine Conservation Society. This seemed fitting because my PhD research looks at the biodegradation of plastics in the marine environment.

It was when I was starting to plan the cycle that my boyfriend, Andy, decided that it actually sounded kind of fun, and that he wanted to come with me. I’m now extremely glad that he did; while it would have felt like an accomplishment had I done it on my own, I think it would have been a bit lonely, and I might have struggled with motivation when I was fixing my ninth – or even only my third – puncture! It was busy in the week or two leading up to the Conference; trying to make sure that I had all of the appropriate bike repair gear and clothing, as well as planning and practising two talks. This took a lot more time than I’d anticipated and didn’t leave a whole lot of time for writing my thesis.

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Left to right: Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding National Beauty; the canal just outside north west Birmingham; enjoying a well-deserved pint in Liverpool while waiting for the ferry 

We set off from Coventry on Sunday 7 April and cycled as far as Cannock on the first day (45.1 miles/72.7 km). On Monday we cycled from there to Sandbach (44.9 miles/72.3 km) and on Tuesday we arrived in Birkenhead (another 45.2 miles/72.8 km). I’m still not quite sure how we managed to plan it so well that the distances we cycled each day were within a few hundred metres of each other! I had planned much of our cycling to be along canals, as I thought that this should be much more pleasant than cycling along roads, but the sheer quantity of litter and visible pollution that was in and around the canals did ruin this a bit.

The cycling was tough, but considering this was April in England, we were very lucky that we didn’t have any rain, and it was actually quite sunny most of the time. Despite many punctures, we made it to the ferry on Tuesday evening, and arrived in Belfast at 06:30 on Wednesday morning, which gave me just enough time to cycle to my hotel, shower, and make it to the Conference.

My first talk was at 10:30, so I didn’t really have time to think about it before I was up, and my second talk wasn’t until almost 17:30, so I had plenty of time in between them. I had, of course, planned to practise them in the evenings after my cycling, but I ended up just being too tired to manage this. For my first talk, in the 'Biobased circular economy & bioremediation' session, this didn’t really matter, because it was very similar to one that I’d given at Warwick University’s postgraduate symposium a couple of weeks earlier. I talked about my PhD research; how I initially studied marine microbial community succession on chitin particles, how I moved on to studying microbial community succession on PET (plastics), and am now finishing off the characterisation of some bacterial isolates that I have obtained – either for PET or plasticiser (plastic additive) degradation – using both proteomics and metabolomics to identify the pathways involved.

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My talks on plastic degredation and computational modelling of biofilms

At the beginning of my PhD, I would have felt really nervous about the second talk all day, but I’m much more relaxed about them now, so was able to enjoy hearing about all of the other interesting microbiology that other people are doing in the meantime. Although it was a relief once I’d finished the second one, too. This second talk was in the 'Focus on 3Rs' session, and I talked about the results of a three-month mini-project that I did at the University of Birmingham during my first year (that I have continued working on since). I talked about how we used a computational model of bacteria growing in a biofilm to determine whether it is fitter for these bacteria to deal with cellular damage through repair of that damage, or through segregation at division (meaning that one cell has all of the damage, and the other has none). It felt a bit weird giving a talk on something that isn’t directly my PhD research!

Once my talks were over, I was able to really relax and enjoy the Conference, and it was nice that I was approached by lots of people to chat, that had either seen one of my talks, or had heard about my cycle and were curious! I really enjoy networking and talking to new people, so it was great to get the chance to do this over a couple of glasses of wine, and it was also a good opportunity to put some faces to names and chat with people from companies that I’ve corresponded with but never actually met.

After two days of ‘rest’ in Belfast, we set off cycling again, this time up towards the Giant's Causeway. We now had five days of holiday in which to cover the 142 mile (220 km) route that we had planned, which took us around the east coast of Northern Ireland and up to the Giant's Causeway, stopping at Carnlough for a night before tackling the 3,500 ft of elevation between Carnlough and Bushmills. We had a day of sight-seeing around Bushmills, that we thought would be a rest day, but we somehow managed to add in an extra 40 miles (60 km), bringing our total distance up to over 300 miles (~500 km) by the time we made it back to Belfast! While the cycling was obviously difficult, I really enjoyed being outside and it was definitely far more exciting than getting a flight from Birmingham to Belfast, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone that might be considering doing something like this. Perhaps if I don’t manage to follow through on my plans to leave the UK after my PhD is finished, then I’ll cycle the 340 miles to Edinburgh in 2020!

© Robyn Wright

Clockwise: Sunset at the Dark Hedges; Looking towards Scotland, just outside Cushendun; Giants Causeway at ‘sunrise’

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