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Conferences, workshops

Dennis Buck is a student from Germany currently in his 7th semester of Medicine studies at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU). He is the President of DSiA, the German student association at RSU. Jenna Vähäviita comes from Finland, and is in her 6th semester. She was recently elected as the Assistant to the Medical Science Director of the RSU International Student Association (ISA), and has been actively involved with various academic societies at RSU. They both decided to join the organising committee of the International Student Conference 2021 (ISC2021) this year for the first time and are joint International Jury Coordinators. 

How did you first come to hear about ISC?

Jenna: I have been a passive participant in previous student conferences and I really liked that students were organising the event for other students.

Additionally, it’s a great way to meet Latvian students. I helped organise the Anatomy Olympiad this year too for the same reason. International students and Latvian students are kind of separate, so I think these were both good ways to connect international and Latvian students and mingle with one another. 

Dennis: For me, it was similar. A friend of mine was the Coordinator the previous year, and she recommended that I apply for the position for the opportunity to meet Latvian students. Being on the organising committee also gives you the opportunity to see the full scope of the conference, because in the past I have just been a passive participant. It’s interesting to see how much work goes in and how many meetings there are behind the scenes.

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What are you learning from organising that will help you in your careers or in your future studies?

Jenna: Cooperation for sure. A conference like this is a group effort; we all have our focus, but we also offer help to others.The soft skills that we develop through organising the conference are very important. Creating new connections is also very important to me - having a good connection to other students studying medicine, as well as with the doctors that we are in touch with for the international jury.

Dennis: Another reason I wanted to get involved was that it’s always easy to complain about anything, but if you’re involved and you see who makes the decisions and how, you understand more why things are the way they are.

When did your roles at the conference start, and can you describe what it is you do?

Dennis: We started at the beginning of the semester, in September. We were both in self-isolation at the first meeting, because we had both just arrived in Riga. Our main role is to communicate with the international doctors who will be on the jury and will comment on the students’ presentations. 

Jenna: Our job is to be the connection between the doctors and the conference. We keep them informed. Especially now that we don’t know exactly how the conference will take place, because of the pandemic, it’s very important to keep the doctors informed and on the same page as us.

Was there already a list of people to reach out to when you started in your positions, or did you have to brainstorm about who to reach out to?

Jenna: The conference last year didn’t take place as intended and had to move online. Because of this, there were a lot of doctors who were not able to participate and asked to be contacted again this year. So we did have a list of doctors who we were able to contact first. And then there are doctors that we and those around us know personally, and then doctors who are like veterans, who are invited year after year because their contribution to the conference is so great.

The members of the international jury will judge students’ presentations on 22 March. There are 17 categories that students can present in, and each category has one international jury member who works together with Latvian jury members. They will come to a conclusion about which presentation is the best. The international jury members also participate in the Grand Prix on the second day in which the winners from the first day participate. The international jury members are the ones who decide the overall winner of the conference. 

Who is on the international jury, and do they play a part in getting students to apply? Are there any well-known doctors in their field?

Jenna: I do think that the international jury is a very important component. A lot of us are international students, so seeing this represented is important. I don’t think we’re aiming for big names, but rather for professionals in their field.

Dennis: I think it’s important to have a variety and different opinions from different countries. 

Why do you think that research is important, personally, and why should students get involved in research at this level already?

Dennis: The basis for our studies is evidence-based medicine, and “evidence-based” means that it’s the outcome of research. Everything that we learn is based on research, so it’s important to be a part of research even if you’re not interested in it as a final life goal. It’s beneficial to see how research is done, and how the final product is created.

Jenna: I think it’s very important to understand how research is conducted, what the different stages are, and how to read research, because that has a very big impact on medicine. Especially considering that there is so much different research being conducted all the time we have to learn how to evaluate it and make guidelines based on it. Participating actively gives you very good tools for the future when you’re reading research to draw conclusions.

And now as a student you have all the time in the world! When you’re working, that will be your main responsibility, but now as a student you have the time to test these things. The university is giving us such a great opportunity to do that, so I really encourage people to try it out.

What are topics you’re personally interested in that you might present on in the future?

Dennis: The first four years are very basic, but now we’re getting more and more involved in clinical work and I feel that we are covering fields that are more appealing to me. We just started radiology, which is a topic that I would consider. All our teachers and professors now actively encourage us. They’re always offering to help if we want to do anything. In the higher semesters, the communication between teachers and students has changed and become more equal.

Jenna: I think one of the greatest parts of medicine is that it is so broad, so everything is interesting to me! But the specialty that I am looking forward to the most is anaesthesiology. I’ve been part of the Academic Society of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care ever since it was founded a few years ago. We give presentations there already, which is preparing me for what I’d like to do research on.

What is it specifically in anaesthesiology that you’re interested in?

Jenna: I’m really interested in intubation. I think it’s really cool. It’s something that is life-saving but very difficult at the same time. That would be something that I’d be interested in doing more research in. Also, it’s related to anatomy, which is another favourite subject of mine.

You both said you came on board at the beginning of the semester, so in the middle of the pandemic. What’s the organising committee’s approach in regards to this?

Jenna: We don’t have a consensus right now. The closer we get to the conference, the more information we get about the conditions. I think we’re trying to see this as an opportunity rather than as an obstacle.

We can now invite people who wouldn’t have been able to fly here, so we have specialists from the US, for example, who can participate because there will be an online component.

We have not bought flights for the doctors yet, because we cannot yet say how it’s going to be. So for now it’s going to be online, at least for the international jury. If any participants are from countries that are closer, like Lithuania, there might be a possibility for them to participate in person. 

Dennis: We will be leaving the final decision up to the doctors themselves. They’re always welcome here if it’s possible, but regardless they will have the possibility to participate online. 

Will the situation broaden the scope for who can attend as passive participants as well?

Jenna: Yes, I think so. I think it’s an opportunity we can offer, because basically an unlimited number of people can participate, so there might be Finnish med students participating who can see what we have to offer which will in turn create more opportunities for cooperation in the future. Online conferences have this positive feature, even though the situation is horrible, but still I do think there is the possibility for a larger number of people from other countries to participate in this way. I do think we’re trying to tap into that and promote the conference on social media to make it visible to those students.

Dennis: Especially now that a lot of people are stuck at home, or don’t have as many tasks or  activities outside, they now always have the possibility to zoom in and at least see a few presentations or lectures.

It’s also great that you don’t have to attend the whole day from morning to evening. You can pick what you’re interested in, zoom in, spend a nice hour listening to a presentation, and then do whatever you like.

What would you tell someone in their first or second semester who is hearing about this for the first time and they’re nervous, or they think that ISC2021 isn’t for them, but for more experienced students?

Dennis: You don’t need a lot of courage to be a passive participant. There’s nothing scary about being passive the first few times and observing others to learn how you might do it later yourself.

Just zoom in! You will be able to see how students present, or how a conference works. I personally felt a lot more comfortable after I had seen someone do it before me.

Jenna: That’s a good point. I also think that if you have an idea, and are thinking about whether to participate with a paper or not - you’re on the right path, and you should do it. I personally don’t think you can be in too low of a semester to do something. I participated in the anaesthesiology interest group without any prior experience. I was just very interested in it and I learned a lot.

I started early and am therefore getting a lot out of it.

If you always say “I will sit this semester out and do it the next semester” when will you actually be ready? So I do encourage students to seek out more information about presenting and try it out if they are interested. You can do a lot more than you think!

Further information

ISC2021 website

ISC2021 Facebook page

Key dates

1 November - Registration begins for active and passive participation

15 January - Abstract submission ends

10 February - Confirmation of active participation