Review: Building Bridges in Medical Sciences Symposium 2014

Stimulating; diverse, top-notch and passionate speakers; inspirational – these were some of the reflections of participants of the 6th edition of Building Bridges in Medical Sciences symposium (BBMS 14) which took place on the 7th of March at Robinson College, University of Cambridge.

Since its first rendition in 2008, the aim of the BBMS symposium has always been to connect academic research with professional areas such as businesses, science policy and public health through attracting world class speakers to share their wealth of experiences. This year was no different with topics ranging from biophysics, small molecule chemistry, stem cells, bioengineering, ethics, gender equality, HIV/AIDS and industrial enterprise. Also, for the first time, BBMS welcomed graduate students from foreign universities in Germany, Spain and Italy among others. Other initiatives included networking sessions and student speakers in the line up.

Professor Dame Athene Donald kicked things off by giving us an insight into her career choices and how they have allowed her to effectively utilize the laws of physics to probe the intricacies of the natural world. She also spoke on the issue of sexism in academia and how the aim should not be to have an equal representation of women in academia per se but rather to eliminate the numerous subconscoius gendered approches that still prevail.

Dr Helen Lee, founder of Diagnostics for the Real World, followed with an extremely honest and profound talk on the stark realities facing diagnosis of diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis in developing nations. She presented a HIV diagnostic kit that had been developed by her company to work in a similar fashion to a pregnancy stick test and further refined to withstand the multitude of challenges thrown at it by harsh climates, poor medical infrastructure and human error. She did well in reminding us of an important endpoint in scientific research and medicine which is the betterment of the patients we serve.

Professor Hugh Montgomery, Chair of Intensive Care Medicine, UCL, highlighted the importance and need to constantly question what might have long become accepted truth in scientific theory in order to gain new insights. This contributed to his discovery of a gene related to fitness and the implications on sports performance and predispositions to certain cardiovascular conditions. His talk was also a great demonstration of the successful marriage between one’s passion for extreme altitudes and science.

Cristina Balbás-Martínez, a PhD student at CNIO, Spain, invigoriated the audience with her experiences as chair of a student-led initiative come non-profit organization, Escuelab. Their goals include informing society about science and encouraging scientific vocations especially amongst youths in Spain.

Jelena Aleksic and Rodrigo Santos, also student speakers, talked about their entrepreneurial experiences in the course of their studies. During her PhD in Genetics, Jelena co-founded Wildfire Productions and discussed the implications of such an undertaking. Rodrigo Santos is currently doing a PhD in Stem Cell research. He shared with us the wide range of courses and platforms available to aspiring entrepreneurs here in Cambridgeand emphasized how being a business-aware biologist has given him a unique perspective on science and technology.

Professor Molly Stevens, Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences, Imperial College, highlighted the promises and variety of applications involving stem cells. In particular, her twin areas of tissue engineering and growing of bone and nanotechnology emphasized the overwhelming benefits of a multidisciplinary approach involving physicists, surgeons, engineers, molecular biologists and chemists to name a few.

Professor Paolo Bianco, Professor at Sapienza University, Italy, warned us about the dangers of over-translation and of commercialization overriding nature in terms of unproven stem cell therapies. His passionate and battle-hardened recount of the fight for evidence-based medicine in Italy resonates with the current scientific scandals portrayed in the media. There is more need than ever for effective and sustainable bridges between researchers, medical practioners, government, regulatory agencies and the media.

Professor Francois Barre-Sinoussi, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of HIV as the cause of AIDS, recounted the phenomenal challenges in the early stages of uncovering an unknown, terrifying and taboo disease. It was a real pleasure witnessing her resilience and unyielding determination in fighting HIV. She also threw light on other forgotten infectious diseases that need and deserve our undivided attention.

Professor Chris Abell of the University of Cambridge, closed the day by sharing with us the novel fragment-based approaches to small molecule drug discovery applied in his lab. He also related the often arduous road to commercial enterprise and the need to engage industry partners and maintain market relevance and competitiveness.

BBMS 14 was indeed a great success and one of the largest student run conferences in Cambridge. The scope to attract world class speakers and engage international attendees continues to increase as BBMS moves forward into a new chapter.

Written by Teresa Ho and Christine Hänni

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