Aloha from the International Stroke Conference

Aloha from the International Stroke Conference

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BY: Beatrice Ballarin
Photo By: Beatrice Ballarin


I left Toronto in the midst of an extreme cold warning that had already dragged on for a couple of weeks, wearing only my leather jacket. I recall walking on a huge pile of snow, boots soaking wet, ready to be shipped to Honolulu—yes, you read correctly, I was leaving at 4AM for Hawaii. This story seems to be a constant for our travel bite section: leaving an extremely cold Toronto towards a warmer location–in the name of science, of course. Although I am a senior PhD candidate in the lab (but don’t ask a lady her age), I have never attended a conference before, let alone an international conference–let’s blame it on my vast collection of negative data! Thus, when my supervisor encouraged everyone to apply to the International Stroke Conference 2019 (ISC2019), I was all in–the Honolulu destination was probably all I read of that email. You can’t imagine my surprise when, a few months later, I heard back from the conference organizers and not only did my abstract get accepted, but it was selected for an oral presentation! I felt so proud of my research and so honoured to share it–I even bought a UofT hoodie, just to show how cool I felt to be a UofT student. It did feel like a bit of a payback after so many countless nights, weekends, and holidays spent in the lab (even as gorgeous as the Krembil Research Institute is!).

After 14 hours of flying, disoriented about the current time, I arrived in Honolulu. A warm breeze instantly made me forget about my worries. I stayed at an Airbnb downtown, very close to the conference, which I recommend. It was cheap and I only needed a place to crash; plus, I was awoken with a fresh cup of coffee every morning–what more could a girl ask for? However, I didn’t know what to expect from the conference and just the thought of having to give a talk made me very anxious. Thus, I decided to go ahead of time to check out the room where I would present and hopefully give a couple of practice talks to myself there. Becoming familiar with the room was a very helpful tip (thank you Graduate Centre for Academic Communication workshops) and I definitely recommend it! The room could host around 100 people with two big screens, and I knew my supervisor, Dr. Tymianski, would be there too. At this point I am not sure if the word intimidating really captures the moment. I decided to start focusing on my redeeming qualities (including the fact that I talk a lot) and I knew I had a good presentation with videos to entertain the audience, good data to show, and a good story to tell. Thus, I tried to hide my fears by speaking up and making eye contact with the public (in reality, if you could only record my heartbeat, I was probably close to a heart attack). Luckily–for my mental well-being–my talk was on the first day of the conference and all went well. I got a lot of questions and two post-doc offers out of it. Not bad at all!

The International Stroke Conference is known to be a very clinical conference; nevertheless, my days were full of basic science talks, mini-symposiums, and posters. I attended all the talks regarding basic science research in stroke recovery (my field of work), and I have to admit that I was very excited to finally put a face to all the names that I read over and over in research papers. I attended the talks of Dr. Carmichael, Dr. Nudo and Dr. Jones (in Hollywood terms, the Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Kate Winslet of the stroke recovery research world)— three of my favourite stroke recovery researchers. What I found interesting about the conference is how it demonstrated the direction of the research field, which is moving towards the role of immunology. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next couple of years more papers will be published about that.

The aspect of the conference I enjoyed most is that people could present negative data, because this data is often a deal-breaker for getting published in scientific journals. Getting positive behavioural data after a stroke is very challenging, which is what I have been doing on a daily basis for the past 4 years. It was a huge relief seeing other people struggling with the same issues. For once I felt normal, I had the same behavioural results as other people! This showed me that I was not doing anything wrong, and that it is just a difficult animal model (intracerebral hemorrhage) to work with. The funny thing is that I did my literature background consultation a while ago, but I couldn’t find anyone talking about it. Only the unique environment of the conference allowed a safe space to discuss difficult results.

Although for some unknown reasons (even to myself) I was in a rush to get back to the lab, I did schedule a final day to enjoy myself and explore the Oahu’s island (the so-called #metime, according to my Instagram account!). Apparently, I was there at a time where there are major waves that attract professional surfers. I became friends with a fellow scientist (and surfer on the side) and together we decided to rent a car and head for the North Shore. I spent an amazing day that I will forever remember, watching the surfers ride huge waves, swimming in the cool Pacific Ocean, eating fresh and delicious shrimps, and trying to get as much sun as I could. I still don’t know how I made myself take the flight back.

This was one of the best experiences I have had as a scientist, and I am eternally grateful to my supervisor for the opportunity to attend the conference. What else can I say? Next year the conference is in Los Angeles; stay tuned for some California dreaming!