From Florence to New Orleans: My experience attending international conferences after the pandemic

by Sally Wu

A successful graduate school experience is comprised of many elements. Conferences are an essential part of academia and attending your first conference as a graduate student may be a daunting experience. Having begun my Master’s degree during the COVID-19 pandemic when all conferences were cancelled or moved online, I thought that I might never have the opportunity to attend an in-person conference during my graduate program. As conferences began to adopt a hybrid format, I was thrilled when my abstracts for the 2022 Schizophrenia International Research Society (SIRS) Annual Congress and Society of Biological Psychiatry (SOBP) Annual Meeting were accepted. I was so excited to share my work, meet new people in similar fields across the world, and fulfill my graduate student dream of attending an international conference.

While both conferences shared the unifying topic of psychiatric research, my experiences were intimately tied to the culture of the host country. Italy is a country known for its history, culture, and more laidback lifestyle. The SIRS 2022 Annual Congress was a four-day event held at Fortezza da Basso, a beautiful fortress located in the heart of Florence. The programming of the symposia and workshops were more spaced out, allowing for more opportunities to network and to explore the city. This was in contrast to the SOBP Annual Meeting in New Orleans, where I really felt the influence of the fast-paced North American lifestyle in the organization of the conference. There was a variety of concurrent symposia covering a broad range of topics, as well as activities planned from morning to night. There were also organized social events at the infamous House of Blues and the famous restaurant, Mambo’s, where I was able to connect with other researchers and students. While the event-filled days were educational, they often left me feeling quite drained, mentally and socially. For me, the conference schedule felt more structured which did not leave a lot of time for exploring or experiencing the distinctive culture and music of the city. 

Another benefit of international conferences is the ability to travel before or after the conference. As most of the senior graduate students attended the SIRS 2022 Annual Congress, our lab took a day trip to the gastronomic capital of Italy – Bologna. We shared traditional Italian dishes together and drank Aperol Spritzes at a famous piazza under the hot Italian sun. It was really nice to slow down and get to know each other outside of a lab-setting. As a bonding event, we also climbed 463 steep steps to reach the top of the Duomo in Florence. It was definitely a struggle, but also a positive experience (for most of us). Nevertheless, it was really fun and I felt like these activities really strengthened the relationship and dynamic of our lab. 

From the knowledge I gained, to the fun bonding experiences we shared as a lab, attending international conferences has been both a highlight and milestone in my research journey.