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Personal Perspective
Attending a Scientific Conference When You're Not a Scientist

by Dan Dunable

Spring 2003

Like many treatment educators working in the HIV/AIDS community, I wasn't trained in medicine, but learned about antiretroviral therapies, opportunistic infections, and other aspects of the disease by educating myself for my own health. I was diagnosed with HIV in 1988. In the mid-90s, I began volunteering with an AIDS service organization in Atlanta and ultimately became the manager of their treatment education program. As a writer for Survival News, AIDS Survival Project's monthly treatment newsletter, I have had the opportunity to attend numerous conferences both nationally and internationally.

The most recent conference I had the fortune to cover was the 10th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections held in Boston this past February. This is one of the most important scientific and medical conferences of the year relating to HIV/AIDS and is primarily geared towards researchers, clinicians and other healthcare professionals. As such, it isn't designed for community attendees, but for professionals with years of medical training. This is evidenced by many of the session titles: Mechanisms of HIV Neuropathogenesis, Designing Immunogens to Induce HIV Neutralizing Antibodies, DC-SIGN and Related Molecules, and Immunology: NK Cell, Cytokine, and Innate Immunology Responses, just to name a few.

When attending any conference, it's always a challenge deciding which sessions to go to. There are usually multiple presentations occurring concurrently, and quite often I'm interested in many of them. Deciding which ones to attend and which ones to miss is often difficult. At the Retrovirus Conference, this task becomes even more difficult. Not only do I have to choose topics that are of most interest to my readers -- and me -- but also ones that I think I'll actually be able to understand!

Some decisions were easy. I attended many sessions covering the metabolic complications of antiretroviral therapy such as lipodystrophy, cardiovascular disease, and insulin resistance; presentations on treatment strategies such as structured treatment interruptions; symposiums on new drugs in development; and sessions discussing new vaccine candidates. I have a basic knowledge of these topics; I could understand most of what was discussed and, hopefully, pass that information on to my readers.

I also try to expand my base of knowledge at each conference by attending a session on a topic that is completely new to me, one about which I have no clue. This year I chose a symposium entitled RNAi: A New Therapeutic Strategy. The ballroom was packed -- standing room only. I felt I had chosen wisely. Obviously this is an important topic, one worth my time to learn more about. The session lasted two hours; I lasted 30 minutes. I was clueless as to what they were saying. As I left the ballroom, I noticed a few dozen other individuals leaving, all with the same glazed look in their eyes that I'm sure I had. And these were researchers and clinicians, but apparently ones who specialize in other fields. At least I wasn't the only person who didn't understand RNA interference pathways! But at the next conference where this is discussed, or the next article I see on this subject, I'll learn a little more, and each time I'll learn even more. That's how we learn sometimes, a piece at a time.

It's always somewhat overwhelming attending a scientific conference. In addition to deciding which sessions to attend to educate myself and which topics are important for me to attend to help educate my readers, there is also the dilemma of trying to remember everything that I heard or saw. So much of what is presented is important and I don't want to miss any of it. (I wish that I had taken shorthand back in school now.) Fortunately, most conferences now make much of the information available online after the event ends. The official conference website makes abstracts available that were presented as well as webcasts of the symposiums. The ability to view abstracts online can be of great help, especially since it's impossible to attend every oral session. But just getting information from the abstract can be misleading. Abstracts are very short summaries of the trial and don't always give the true story, or even the latest information. An example that I experienced was a presentation on early microbicide research. The abstract for this particular study described very successful results in preventing SIV transmission in macaques with a vaginal microbicide being studied. However, after the abstract was submitted and accepted, the researchers, in continuing the trial, found the microbicide to be ineffective when used a second time. It worked the first time it was used but not after that. If I had only read the abstract, I would have thought the research was successful. Since I attended the oral presentation, I found out that the product did not work after all.

Lastly, just as important as gathering information is the ability to interact with other attendees. Talking directly with some of the researchers who presented the results of important clinical trials can be fascinating. And having the opportunity to sit down with community educators and advocates from other parts of the country, and even different countries, can be invaluable. Often our contemporaries are able to help decipher some of the information heard. Very often, the chance to gather in groups and discuss what we feel are some of the more important findings of the day is just as important and valuable as hearing the information presented firsthand.

Dan Dunable lives in Atlanta, GA. He is an HIV treatment educator and writer and manages the Treatment Education Department for AIDS Survival Project.

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