Science Under the Tuscan Sun

Science Under the Tuscan Sun

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By: Chantel Kowalchuk

I left Toronto in the midst of an unexpected April snowstorm to enter 25 degrees of Tuscan sun in Florence, Italy. Avoiding that snow storm alone would have been enough to make attending the biannual Schizophrenia International Research Society Conference (SIRS2018) worth the nine-hour flight; however, SIRS2018 offered much more than a mere respite from Canadian winter. The conference involved expert discussions on topics from new therapies to biomarkers and genetics, providing symposiums for both basic researchers and clinicians. The attendees were schizophrenia researchers from all over the world, many of whom are leaders in the field I have frequently cited and whom have been crucial to my research. The poster sessions were my personal favourite, where nearly 100 people presented an extremely diverse array of data while gelato was served (yes, they provided gelato with lunch because Italy is a refined society).

The theme of SIRS2018 was Integrated Prevention and Treatment: Shifting the Way We Think. Although they were referring to a shift in thinking regarding schizophrenia, I returned from the conference with a shift in thinking about my research as whole. Research can be just as draining as it is exciting, and I frequently realize that issues, data, and statistics can be overwhelming. SIRS gave me an opportunity to take a step back from my investigations and rediscover the big picture through interactions with enthusiastic, creative minds from all
over the world in my field, but whom are performing vastly different studies. Such is the beauty of conference; it gives researchers—who are frequently isolated in labs eight hours a day—an opportunity to collaborate and share findings, create new ideas, and remind each other that we are in this up-and-down chaos of success and setbacks together. I now come back to my lab with a fresh perspective and renewed resolve for my research.

Of course, the conference location was also a highlight of the experience. It was set in the heart of Florence at Firenze Fiera, with the backdrop of beautiful Rococo and Renaissance architecture among discussions on modern day scientific theory and techniques. The centrality of the location also made it easy to take a quick break from academics and stroll through cobblestone streets, take an espresso on a patio, or grab a gelato (daily gelato is a must in Italy—like I said, refined!). Florence also made it incredibly easy to network—a meal over wine and pasta is bound to result in fantastic conversations and helped me initiate potential collaborations to pursue.

Attending SIRS2018 in Florence was a three-year goal in the making. As a first-year graduate student, I saw my colleagues going to Florence and dreamed of the day when I could join them at one of the largest conferences in my field and in one of the most beautiful destinations imaginable. Having had the opportunity to attend, my new target is SIRS2020. Until then, I’ll be practicing my Italian and dreaming of freshly made ravioli!