Back by popular demand – my 7th Annual JAMS Symposium report (better late than never, right?)

The 7th Annual Joint Academic Microbiology Seminars Symposium, or JAMS Symposium for short, is an event I had been looking forward to for quite some time. Held each year in Sydney, it brings together a group of like-minded researchers for a program jam packed with talks and posters covering the latest discoveries in microbiology. And no, I won’t apologise for the pun, because frivolity is mandatory at JAMS. It’s one of the reasons why I like it so much.

This year’s event took place on Wednesday 21st March. After heading to the wrong location (important: read the instructions and don’t just turn up where it was held last time!) I made it to the lecture theatre in the Australian Museum with a few minutes to spare. Just enough time to say a quick hello to Federico Lauro and have my first laugh of many for the day – at his socks, which speak the truth for most meetings but on this occasion they were proclaiming a loud and categorical lie about the afternoon and evening ahead.

Fede opened the show with a quick run-down of the history of JAMS. For the uninitiated, check out my blog post from last time around. This year, a new acronym had emerged, with #MAMGA (Make Australian Microbiology Great Again) decreed as the most important order of business for the day. Like all the other recovering #JAMSaholics in attendance, I was not disappointed. The future of Australian microbiology is in good hands, with Yolanda Plowman from the University of Sydney leading by example as our enthusiastic MC.

First cab off the rank was Mike Manefield from UNSW. Given his involvement with JAMS from the beginning and his passion for all things microbiology, it came as no surprise to me that his talk was both whimsical and comprehensive. Mike covered a lot of ground in a short space of time, including highlights from Matthew Lee’s work on microbial organohalide respiration for bioremediation of sediment in the nearby Botany Bay, through to Sabrina Beckmann’s project using neutral red to enhance methane production by Methanosarcina. It’s fair to say that Sabrina’s presence was sorely missed at JAMS7, but her legacy most definitely lives on. It was great to have her chiming in on the fun via Twitter – in real time, all the way from Delaware!

Next up was Caroline Chénard from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the first of two international speakers. Caroline talked about her research on the effects of nutrient availability on marine viral communities in the Singapore and Johor Straits, which she has studied using a hybrid Illumina/Nanopore sequencing approach. The audience particularly enjoyed Caroline’s enthusiastic efforts to highlight of the importance of viruses as a globally dominant biological entity!

The final science talk before the much anticipated poster session was delivered by Chris Greening from Monash University. With a nod to a favourite late night pub anthem, he explained how some microbes are (whoa!) living on the air by scavenging atmospheric gases in order to survive. It never ceases to amaze me how gosh-darn clever microbes are! Some great collaborative research spanning several Australian labs was necessary to bring these discoveries to light.

Next, in a display of what can only be described as shameless self-promotion, I was lucky enough to take to the stage before the break for a rapid-fire introduction to the EMCR Forum and my role on the Executive team. For the uninitiated, the mission of the EMCR Forum is to serve as the voice of Australia’s early- and mid-career researchers, championing improvement in the national research environment through advocacy. The focus of the Forum is on sustainable and transparent career structures, diversity and inclusion, stable funding policies, professional development opportunities, and raising awareness of issues facing the future of science. Membership of the EMCR Forum is 100% free and open to all researchers within 15 years post-PhD. If you’re an EMCR reading this and you haven’t signed up yet, what are you waiting for? I strongly advise you to do it right now!

I quickly found out that few things in life are free, and was asked to repay the organising committee for letting me speak about the EMCR Forum by helping to judge the PhD student poster session with Belinda Ferrari from UNSW and Lisa Moore from Macquarie University. I’m joking of course – it was an honour to be asked to make such an important decision. It was uplifting to feel the energy in the room as I hung back to watch the students interact with other scientists and talk about their research. It was genuinely challenging to pick a winner for the Jeff Powell perpetual student award, so named in honour of Jeff’s gaffe at JAMS1 when he entered a poster and temporarily “won” the competition – before he was disqualified for being a postdoc! The announcement was made later in the evening, but I won’t keep you in suspense – the prize went to Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University for her poster describing the use of drones to collect microbes from whale snot.

The slot after the poster break at the JAMS annual symposium is traditionally the hardest – mostly because the delegates are full of cheese and wine or beer which can mess with our ability to focus properly! Luckily Talitha Santini from UQ was up to the challenge. It was inspiring to hear her talk so passionately about her research in the traditionally male dominated mining sector, and learn about how microbial communities are being engineered to bioremediate abandoned sites. For me, this was a definite highlight of the JAMS7 program.

Our final speaker was Rytas Vilgalys from Duke University in North Carolina. I had the pleasure of talking to Rytas briefly during the poster session about his sabbatical at Western Sydney University, which he was thoroughly enjoying. Rytas delivered a fascinating talk about the “wood wide web” – communication and coevolution between forest trees and their symbiotic fungi. I particularly enjoyed the colourful images of different fruiting bodies that he has captured during his career.

At the conclusion of the talks, the group meandered up the road to Harpoon Harry hotel, our venue for the evening shenanigans. After a quick drink or two to get started, the organising committee had some presentations to make. This included bottles of “Phil’s Pils”, the specially brewed JAMS7 conference beer courtesy of Phil Barker from the University of Wollongong. (Note for Sabrina – if you’re reading this, I still have a bottle for you stored safely in my cupboard for when you visit me later in the year!). While this was happening, I noticed Fede making a fuss in the corner and wondered what could possibly be going on. Eventually he whipped out a wooden toilet seat complete with metal plaques and handed it to Tom Jeffries. This new offering is known as the Co-operative Advancement of Community Award (CACA) to recognise people who “get shit done” for JAMS. Aha! The toilet seat reference made complete sense, even if it was slightly odd in fitting with JAMS tradition. Seeing Tom proudly wearing it around his neck later in the evening certainly topped off a wonderful day – a real credit to the organising committee of Yolanda Plowman, Caitlin Abbott, Shang Yu Shueh plus Mike, Fede and Tom.

I’m going to finish my JAMS7 symposium report on a personal note. The most wonderful thing about this group for me is the genuine sense of camaraderie and kindness. At several points I found myself having deep and meaningful conversations about the challenges faced by academics who are trying to consolidate their careers. At that stage I wasn’t entirely sure what the future was going to hold for me, but I was reasonably certain that my research career was coming to an end and that this would be the last JAMS symposium I would attend. Rather than feeling despondent, it was comforting to be surrounded by friends who fostered a safe space where I could talk about the serious issues I have been dealing with over the past 12 months. I woke up the next morning with a bit of a headache (!) but buoyed by the best wishes from many awesome people who were genuinely concerned about what I’ve been through and where I’m headed next. This really does mean a lot to me and I want to thank everyone for their support.

I am now happy to say that I have accepted a position at the University of South Australia, where I will be working as a grant developer starting in June – providing professional development and support services to EMCRs. I still can’t believe I’m going to get paid to do something I really enjoy! This is an opportunity for me to take my career in a new direction, where I can harness my skills, knowledge and passion to make a positive difference for others. I’ll still be tweeting as @MicrobialMe and challenging the status quo on issues I care deeply about – I don’t think that will ever change. If anyone cares to join me, you know where I’ll be.

PS – great to see the Paulsen lab from Macquarie University joining the Twitter party after JAMS7. Better late than never!