My first big conference in real life – a travel blog

A few weeks ago, I travelled to France to present our research at an international conference. This whole sentence seems surreal now that I see it written! Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most meetings, workshops, courses, and conferences have been online for almost two years, basically since the start of my PhD. Going to a real-life event after a long time of working from home as much as possible felt awkwardly real. I want to write about my experience as a record of my first international meeting as a PhD student. I will start from the beginning of the trip since conveniently enough for the timeline of this post, my presentation was one of the very last of the whole conference!

The 7th International Congress of the European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence (EPNOE) took place in Nantes, France. Apart from the interesting sessions and the networking opportunities, a trip to France was a golden opportunity for me to practice my long-forgotten French…and reminded me that it is indeed long-forgotten. The trip started on a Sunday morning with a ride to the airport in Stockholm, and we arrived to our final destination late on Sunday evening. I was excited to spend a week with warm and sunny weather to contrast the often cold and gloomy autumn in Stockholm. Due to the pandemic, we had to have our vaccination certificates scanned before we were allowed to enter shops and restaurants, and of course the same applied to the conference venue, reminding us that we are not exactly “back to normal”, not just yet.

The regulations regarding face masks requirements indoors changed the week before the conference and it was no longer mandatory to wear a face mask in the conference venue, which made it a lot easier to meet and discuss with people. This was a great relief, since I already find it difficult enough trying to remember new faces and match them with names! I hope “practice makes perfect” applies here too.

The first day of the conference started after lunch, with a plenary lecture by Prof. Ingo Burgert from ETH Zürich, who talked about using wood as a renewable resource for sustainable materials. The lecture underlined the necessity of replacing mineral-based construction materials as society moves towards greater sustainability. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, energy consumption in building/construction represents about 36% of the global demand, and the related emissions reach approximately 40%. Wood is a common building material in Sweden, as it has compelling properties that make it useful for many types of construction. Of course, wood has always been used as a construction material, but more advanced techniques are now available to enhance certain properties of wood. For example, partial delignification allows larger deformation of wood which in turn can enhance its inherent piezoelectric properties for applications in smart building technologies.

The Urbach Tower in Germany is a great example of how interdisciplinary collaborations in basic research can shape a sustainable future. Mechanical methods for wood deformation for architectural and building purposes have been known for many years. With these methods, wood is mechanically forced to take a desired shape. This is usually done while carefully controlling the relative humidity of the environment during the process, since changes in the moisture content of timber cause natural deformations and shrinking. However, by understanding the science behind this effect, it is possible to model and predict these deformations and allow a “self-shaping” process to take place. Another extraordinary example of what can be achieved with wood is the production of Janus membranes. Their ability to transport water in only one direction, while blocking movement in the other direction, is fascinating to me, and could have an incredible impact if used in smart building technologies, such as for collecting water from fog.

The closing talk for the first day was especially interesting to me, as I begin to look ahead to life post-PhD. Three professors shared their experiences of moving from the academy to industry and back, and urged us to explore every diverse opportunity we come across, since we can never know what the future holds for us. This was a fascinating session, although it would have been inspiring to also hear about some similar experiences from women who have moved from the academy into entrepeneurship.

The welcome reception was the perfect ending to this first busy day. A variety of French cheese, cold cuts, and oysters were served in the foyer where most of the posters were already placed, inviting interesting conversations to begin.

Over the next few days, I had the opportunity to attend talks and lectures that made me reflect on sustainability even more. It is a well-known fact that food and agricultural waste is a big problem and fast action is required to minimize waste production as we move to a “greener” future. However, since national-scale overhaul of entire industrial sectors is a rather slow process, we might as well find ways to utilize waste as an intermediate step. Several talks focused on the extraction of hemicelluloses from different starting materials, using combinations of enzymes, optimized chemical extractions, and mechanical pre-treatments. Just to summarize the societal impact of this research with an example, mushroom “waste” biomass accounts for approximately 200 kg per capita per year of food waste. At the same time, fungal biomass is an important raw material that can be used for the extraction of polysaccharides via green methods. The extracts can then be utilized in the food industry as food additives or as raw materials for other high-value applications. The EU-funded FungusChain project is just one research initiative focussed on this hot topic.

Analytical methods for polysaccharide characterization was another important topic of the conference: if you want to design technologies for extracting polysaccharides from biomass, or for using them in high-value applications, you first need information on what they look like, since this impacts the properties they will have! Since my research does not focus solely on polysaccharides but on wood biomass as a whole, I found this section especially helpful. I was happy to hear that Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is considered a powerful technique, although it is not as popular in carbohydrate chemistry compared to in lignin analysis, due to difficulties posed by the nature of the raw materials. Inspiring talks by Dr Alistair King (University of Helsinki) and Dr Marion Gaborieau (Western Sydney University) showcased the spectrum of NMR applications in the polysaccharide field.

One of the last sections of the conference explored end-of-life assessment of bio-based materials. Do we really know the difference between bio-based and biodegradable materials, or do we put them both under the same umbrella? If it says “bio-“, it must be good for the environment, right? Well, not exactly. Bio-based materials are built from renewable biological resources, but by design they have the exact same properties as their fossil-based homologues. This is not by accident: bio-plastic must have all the same properties as conventional plastic, or it will not be an effective substitute. The difference between PET and bio-based PET lies solely in the raw material used for production; the production method used does not change the fact that we need to come up with solutions for the recycling and reduced use of plastics.

On the same note, the bio-degradability of any material depends on the precise way in which we dispose of a product, and is not an inherent property of any material. If we are using a compostable plastic, but it ends up in the ocean because of bad disposal, we really defeat the purpose of using it in the first place, as composting cannot occur in an aquatic environment. Industry has been collaborating with research on biodegradability assessments of materials, on finding new, more efficient methods of degrading plastic. But these efforts could be undermined if we, as consumers, are not well informed about how exactly we should dispose of our waste.

My contribution to this conference was about the effect of the presence of hemicelluloses on the structure of extracellular lignin and as a result the final structure of the cell wall in Spruce cell cultures. This was my first conference presentation in real life and although I was excited, I was also becoming increasingly nervous throughout the whole week, until Friday afternoon. Right up until I saw my title slide set up on the big screen, I could feel my heart beating so loudly that I thought the people around me must be able to hear it as well. Until the moment I stood up and faced the audience. In those seconds before I started talking, I realized that these people are actually interested in my research, they are here to learn about what we are doing, and I am here to present our data. My stress disappeared! Excitement kicked in and I felt confident as I was going through my slides: seeing people in the audience nodding in understanding was definitely motivating, and is so welcome after a long period of Zoom seminars. This amazing opportunity to share knowledge with scientists from around the world was so much better IRL than just talking at my laptop screen. I cannot find the words to describe the energy in the room during my almost 20-minute presentation. Saying that the experience was “amazing”, “rewarding”, and “exciting” are truly understatements.

To conclude my trip and this travel blog, I want to acknowlegde that this experience will stay with me for a long time. Being immersed in conference life for a whole week, I had the time to reflect on sustainability and my role as a scientist and as a consumer. I got to admire again the tremendous potential of wood and other plant biomass as a raw material, I networked with interesting scientists from all over the world, and I had a lot of fun! It was a week full of new experiences and I cannot wait to see what comes up next! I hope that every PhD student has such a positive experience with their first big conference.

My Top Five List For Your First Conference

1. Be prepared. Book all the tickets you will need before you start your journey and plan your trip in as much detail as possible. This is especially useful if the conference takes place in another country and will let you focus your mind on the conference itself.

2. Socialize. One of the main reasons you attend a conference is to meet new people and network! Take the chance and talk to as many people as possible.

3. Explore the city. Yes, the main event is the conference and yes, it takes up most of the day (if not all of it). However, if you are in a new city, take the opportunity to explore it with your colleagues!

4. Know your stuff! If you are there to present your own research, remember that you are the expert, and you are more than capable to discuss it with other researchers. But it never hurts to do some extra reading to clear up any “foggy” aspects before you arrive.

5. Have fun! You are in a venue full of people ready to engage in scientific discussions, socialize, and create an inspiring network. Enjoy the experience!!

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