Sept. 24, 2017

Host Parasite Interactions: From Molecules to Ecosystems (An International Conference)

Article by Jacob Hambrook (PhD student, Hanington lab, University of Alberta)

“I think that parasites are without a doubt the most amazing thing on the face of the entire planet.” Although this statement may not ring true for everyone, it most certainly does for the researchers who recently attended the first ever Host-Parasite Interactions conference: From Molecules to Ecosystems from September 21st-24th . Located in Banff Alberta, the kind of cozy town nestled into the side of the mountains that everyone envisions when they think of Canada, the conference welcomed researchers from all over North America and the United Kingdoms for four days of talking about organisms that simply can’t live without us.

The weekend was truly unique in the wide diversity of topics that it covered. Parasitology itself can be such a diverse field that it is rather rare,  a single conference on the subject can cover such a wide variety of topics. That being said, this conference lived up to its name, and covered everything from molecules to ecosystems. Everyone from molecular biologists to ecologists could participate in sessions relevant to their interests. The focus of sessions included: host immune modulation, host responses, parasite evolution, new tools and technologies, and opportunities and challenges for parasitic control. The key thing to note about these sessions is not only that they cover many different areas, but that they created a learning environment that emphasized the need for translational research.

Both established researchers and trainees alike were reminded that their work contributes not only to the advancement of knowledge concerning parasitic disease, but also that the work they put in on a day to day basis is part of larger goals such as the improvement of animal, human and ecosystem health. 

As a relatively new trainee of the HPI program, I think that the weekend was incredibly beneficial both personally and professionally. Coming from a small town and having done an undergraduate degree at a much smaller university, I had previously attended conferences, but none of them had the combination of size and focus on parasitology that this one did. This made for a unique opportunity to present work to a large audience of diverse backgrounds who all maintained a high level of interest in the work people were displaying. Additionally, this conference allowed me the opportunity to engage in public speaking for the first time as a graduate student, which, despite being stressful, was a great deal of fun due to the relaxed yet supportive atmosphere that was present throughout the weekend. This sentiment was no doubt echoed by the vast majority of HPI trainees present, as many of them were afforded the opportunity to show everyone what they had been working on, or what questions they were excited to answer in the upcoming months. To add to this, students were given the opportunity, both during their posters/talks and during social events, to network with both their peers and other researchers.

In addition to the academic aspect of the conference, attendees got the opportunity to enjoy the entirety of Banff and the Center for the Arts and Creativity, where the majority of the weekend’s activities occurred. In our downtime, we could choose between hiking, rock climbing, swimming, sports, and a wide variety of other activities that kept us occupied. The facilities located at the center had everything a conference goer could hope for. Of course, this was highlighted (as a poor grad student) by the food.The food was phenomenal, no matter what your dietary needs. From a three-course meal as everyone was welcomed the first night, to breakfast Sunday morning, one was never left wanting when it came to the food. Of course, the rest of Banff was also incredible as Saturday concluded with a trip to Ticino’s, the quaint Swiss restaurant that provided a meal that was the true cherry on the conference’s sundae, at which everyone could unwind and enjoy the company they had made over the weekend. 

Overall, the conference was a great experience, and a true blessing for all those who attended, allowing for the development of collaborations as well as professional skills for trainees. A huge thank you must also go out to the guest speakers, conference organizers: Drs. Derek McKay, Andre Buret and James Wasmuth, as well as HPI’s program manager extraordinaire Teresa Emmett, who made the weekend a most memorable and a positive experience.