Bob Leahy just returned from Winnipeg Manitoba where he was participating in two back-to-back conferences - CAHR and CAS.
obligatory view from hotel window
"Why go? Most would say it’s a combination of taking advantage of huge opportunities for both learning and networking. Add in experiencing the attractions of a strange city, all paid for, and it can be an attractive proposition."
I’m going to be describing what I learned from my two latest HIV conference experiences in Part Two of this article. But for now, and because the conference experience is so foreign to many, and I don’t want it to be, I’m going to describe in Part One how community members - people living with HIV - can attend some of these events and what to expect.
A colleague and I were chatting last week and we agreed that the experience of going to any HIV conference is related not just to the content - what went down and how much was new and engaging, for example – but who we met, what we did after hours, the attractions of the host city, even the weather while there. So I’ll cover both in this two part series
Newcomers to the conference scene may also be curious about how some of us get to conferences, sometimes in really far-flung places – and some of us don’t. That’s a contentious issue and I’ll address that too.
Why go? Most would say it’s a combination of taking advantage of huge opportunities for both learning and networking. Add in experiencing the attractions of a strange city, all paid for, and it can be an attractive proposition. Anyone wanting to increase their effectiveness as a knowledgeable and connected advocate for people living with HIV, for example, would be a good candidate
Let me say that actually getting to HIV conferences is seldom easy. Someone has to cover the cost of travel, hotel and registration. That’s often a competitive process and you can expect to be turned down as often as you are selected. It may or may not help if you are “well connected” or come from a certain demographic, but in many cases, particularly for community members like myself, a scholarship application process is involved.
In the case of CAHR for example (Canadian Association for HIV Research) a large gathering of researchers, academics, community based workers and a sprinkling of people living with HIV, only 10 community scholarships (one per region) were available. I applied but was declined. However, I also approached CATIE to see if I could attend as a “rapporteur”, a somewhat arduous assignment which I’ll describe later. CATIE, through its Learning Institute program, foots the bill. And I was lucky to be accepted.
In the case of CAS (the Canadian AIDS Society) which was holding its Forum for people living with HIV and AGM right after the CAHR event and in the same city, a scholarship process was also involved. With the Forum open to all persons living with HIV, it’s also not an easy one to be approved for but I was successful. Maybe it was the connections I have – I have been associated with CAS for many years in various capacities including reporting on it for PositiveLite.com or maybe it was because I was going to be in Winnipeg anyway – but it was a privilege I don’t take lightly. Nor the CAHR funding for that matter.
As it happens, they got their money’s worth – at least CAHR did – as I worked like a dog. Unfortunately I got sick on day one of CAS, so I experienced less of that than intended. But the message is - don’t go to conferences expecting a picnic. Self-care is important for sure and we people living with HIV need to take care of our health. But doing conferences properly can be a physical and mental challenge – and going missing should not be an option. Your way is being paid for: don’t disappoint your sponsors and expect to return.
Community scholarships are often awarded on the basis of an informal “contract” where the attendee agrees to share what they learn with others when they return. Many scholarship application forms in fact ask applicants to declare in advance exactly how they intend to do so. It’s a fact of life that some renege on this commitment, or deliver on it in a perfunctory manner. Here’s my advice: do what you said you would – and do your community a favour in the process. Showing up to as many sessions as you can is really, really important.
"It would be unfair not to point out that, depending on your existing knowledge level, the proceedings can be intimidating and sometimes a little unintelligible to first-timers. It helps, if you are able, to pick which sessions sound interesting"
What to expect? The format depends on the size of the affair and whether local, regional, national or international. The largest Canadian conferences, such as CAHR2016, attract around 700 people. But then International conferences like the one upcoming in Durban South Africa, can attract twenty times that. (And yes, I was unsuccessful, despite a strong scholarship application, in getting approved for that one.) But many will have common elements.
Plenary sessions usually occur in huge rooms and are intended for everyone. Concurrent sessions are where you pick which ones you want to attend. The latter often involve “oral abstracts” - short presentations by researchers themselves, one after each other, in quick succession. And then there is poster viewing – research “abstracts” that have been summarized in poster form for viewing and sometimes informal explanations by the responsible researchers who are present to answer questions. The program is usually rounded out by a social event or two to keep attendees happy and entertained.
CTAC's Glenn Betteridge at a poster session at CAHR2016
It would be unfair not to point out that, depending on your existing knowledge level, the proceedings can be intimidating and sometimes a little unintelligible to first-timers. It helps, if you are able, to pick which sessions sound interesting. I, for example, have little interest in clinical or basic science, so I avoid sessions in that category like the plague, instead sticking to research concerning, for example, HIV prevention or social behavior.
It’s not uncommon for the larger conferences (CAHR had a good one) -to have something like a “Positive Lounge”, where people living with HIV can retreat to meet others, rest or refresh themselves. They are pleasant places so take advantage of when you can. You will likely make some lasting friendships there –and have sometimes better (free) food than those who don’t have the privilege of being HIV-positive!
One more tip. Don’t ignore the role of social media. In 2016, you don’t have to be there to follow along. If you follow twitter or Facebook for example during the major conferences (look for hashtags like #AIDS2016 for example, for news from Durban), you might just be as well informed as some actually attending. But if you do go, it’s great to extend your reach and sharing ability through social media.
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