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BPS Psychobiology Section Meeting: Lake District

I am on research leave for the Autumn semester this year, which means I don’t have my usual teaching or internal service responsibilities. One of the first activities I planned was to go to the British Psychological Society Psychobiology Section Annual Scientific Meeting (quite a mouthful!). This event is held around the first week in September every year, historically on the shores of the beautiful Lake Windermere. Given I am usually teaching during this week I was excited to attend, present, and learn from the other presentations.This was going to be my first time in the Lake District. The first leg of the trip took me from my own lakeside home in Ballina-Killaloe to Dublin airport, and on to Manchester.Here I met with Centre for Social Issues Research alumnus Dr. Stephen Walsh, who is a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan Uni. After a catch-up and delicious vegetarian food I returned to prepare for my train trip to Windermere the next morning. Frankly, I didn’t expect to be discussing my research with anyone between meeting Stephen, and arriving at Windermere. However, the next morning at breakfast I was joined by Andrea, a public health analyst based on Cardiff University, followed by Sue, a clinical psychologist and trial methodologist also based at Cardiff – both were attending a public health event in the area and thought I might be too. Before breakfast was over we had already discussed the merits of PhD by publication, the REF (and the TEF), gift authorship, research impact, and a whole lot in between. I didn’t expect to get to make an elevator pitch about my research before even getting to Windermere! Sue also introduced me to the term “hobby research”, a fantastic way of describing research we are interested and invested in, but that does not necessarily address a problem of societal need. I’m grateful to both for the stimulating discussion!

View of the Low Wood Bay Hotel from the lake - the venue for next year's ASM - 5-7 September 2018

Onwards via train to the Lake District. At this point I was feeling a mix of emotions – on the one hand I was looking forward to the event, and on the other, wondering how welcoming the conference would be to someone new to the event. Happily, there was a really welcoming and collaborative atmosphere. After an ice-breaker lead by outgoing Section Chair Dr. Richard Stephens I had already made enough new pals to survive the rest of the conference.The conference featured two exceptional keynotes and I was really looking forward to hearing both. Professor Kavita Vedhara is a lecturer in Nottingham University and took us through her research on the clinical relevance of stress for health outcomes. I was already familiar with Kavita’s work but particularly appreciated how she presented her research with a focus on methodological rigour throughout. Kavita discussed the impact of stress on fertility, drilling down into issues with previous research that have produced very mixed review findings. Kavita’s research with couples undergoing IVF suggests that long-term systemic cortisol may influence the rate of conception in these couples, though of course, recruiting non-IVF couples into this type of research is more challenging. Kavita also spoke about her ongoing work developing an intervention to enhance flu vaccine antibody response in older adults. Again, improving the vaccine response for this group is another example of the clinical relevance of Kavita’s stress research, with early research suggesting positive mood as a target for intervention. This was the topic of post-doc Dr. Kieran Ayling's poster presentation - I'm looking forward to seeing how this important work unfolds.

The next morning featured several interesting talks and it was also time for my talk on my review of cardiovascular reactivity studies ongoing with SASHLab members Stephen, Grace, and Prof. Anna Whittaker in Birmingham. The findings of the first section of our review identifying heterogeneity in the methods used were really well-received and after much discussion, the Section has decided to support a further expert consensus event to develop recommendations around cardiovascular reactivity measurement. I was naturally really pleased with this response to our presentation, and look forward to progressing this event with Dr. Michael Smith in Northumbria University, Newcastle. Thanks all and watch this space!

Post-conference boat trip on Lake Windermere, from Bowness-on-Windermere to Ambleside - the local captain had Irish connections (of course!)

Our second keynote was on the theme of reproducibility with Prof. Marcus Munafo from Bristol Uni. Marcus has been interested in open science for several years and spoke about current issues in science, as well as his own experiences promoting OS practices in his research and his teaching. There was lots of food for thought particularly as I look towards reproducibility training in London later this month.

Some of the conference delegates after the first Friday paper session

Finally, I was impressed with the diversity of impactful research that falls under the biopsychology umbrella. There were presentations on nutrition, the brain, stress, gut-brain interactions, pain, the birth process… too many to mention! It was fantastic to hear the latest research on caregiver stress from Dr. Mark Wetherell with Dr. Brian Lovell, and Prof. Julie Turner-Cobb's research on stress-testing using NAO robots. I can see how having the conference in such a beautiful location really helps develop collaborative relationships among the researchers attending, and that has already been the case for me. If you are a researcher working between biology and psychology, consider submitting to the Section ASM next year. I’ve no doubt the Section committee will host another fantastic meeting. Till next time!

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