From 21st to the 28th April 2017, I attended the annual conference/exhibition held by the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. ISMRM is a globally recognised society and its annual meetings draw in thousands of experts and students whom attend in order to exhibit their work and also to network and explore novel research. For example, this year, 6780 abstracts were submitted, making it the largest ISMRM meeting in history.

The opportunities for the showcasing of research, as well as connecting with other researchers and learning about their work, makes ISMRM a crucial and much sought after meeting to attend for any MRI-related PhD student. In January I was selected to present an electronic poster, as well as deliver a “power pitch”: a 2-minute pitch of my current research and results to an audience.

As a student, I had to apply for stipends and grants in order to fund the trip; Guarantors of Brain and Institute of Physics gratefully provided me with enough money to travel to Hawaii, and my registration fee was waived, since I am a member of the ISMRM. My only concern was food (being a vegetarian), but thankfully I was informed of the variety of conference food, as well as the option to survive solely on delicious pineapples (highly recommended).

February and March were intense; I gathered as much data as possible and summarised them concisely. With the help of my supervisors, and fellow students who were also racing to finalise work for the conference, I submitted my poster/pitch and flew to Hawaii, buzzing with nerves. The glaring heat of Honolulu was reflected in the cutting-edge research preached confidently by the thousands of speakers during the conference. Scouring through conference itineraries, puzzling over maps of Hawaii, and highlighting far too many of the talks/posters soon became a morning ritual.

From Saturday to Thursday, I attended a multitude of fMRI sunrise educational sessions (starting at 7am), power pitches and 10-minute talks by young researchers presenting beautiful, albeit initially confusing, work; plenary lectures by world-leading experts, poster sessions by enthusiastic students and many other novel talks, one of which included an MRI “guess the artefact” game show. I kept as many notes as I could, remembered names, and highlighted papers to read and explore when back home.

“The greatest part of the conference was the people. Without the encouragement of teachers, we students would be lost in a sea of precessing protons, endlessly unsure of our work’s direction”

I was surrounded by MR-celebrities, and the casual and friendly nature of the conference allowed easy conversation between legends and apprentices: I remember being star-struck when a founding father of a certain image acquisition technique sat next to us for lunch and proceeded to tell us about Hawaii, as well as his most recent work. I also recall another giant in the field praising a friend’s excellent talk, a high point I don’t think we’ll soon forget.

Given that the conference ran from 7am until 5pm, and I had to fly home immediately after, I didn’t get much time to experience the tropical island paradise. However, a few of us did steal an hour on one sunny afternoon (every afternoon was sunny) to walk around Waikiki beach – a welcome break from MR physics!

Many of my friends and colleagues did stay on to travel around the other islands, which are only a short flight away. Judging by their relaxed, slightly jet-lagged, demeanour and beautifully sun-tanned shoulders, I can assure you it was worth taking some additional time off.

But the greatest part of the conference was the people. Without the encouragement of teachers, we students would be lost in a sea of precessing protons, endlessly unsure of our work’s direction. Upon the nerve-racking presentation to a scarily large audience, my work in the subsequent poster session was interrogated by professors and students alike, a privilege I felt – that my work was important enough to be cared about by such people!

I furiously wrote down their advice, pausing only to thank them, leaving Hawaii with renewed motivation to resume my research back in Nottingham.

I could tell you that the week flew by in a haze of science. I could tell you that I enjoyed every second, and that whilst my work was a pinprick of light in the supernova that was ISMRM, I still learnt to think about it in a different way. I could also tell you that academics aren’t mean or scary, merely curious truth-seekers and innovators.

What I will say though, is this: there is no better motivation than to look up from my computer in Nottingham, stare at my name on my carefully drooped registration badge and recall those memories of Hawaii, where friends become best friends, theory and research became a blur of laughter and concentration, and my work became something more than abstract musings; something concrete to chip at. Thank you, ISMRM, if nothing else, for that.

Michael Asghar

Images by Michael Asghar.

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