16 January 2023
Microphysiological systems (MPS), including organoids and organs-on-a-chip, have received growing attention in recent years. The first meeting in India to focus on this topic was held from 31 October – 4 November 2022, and was part of the India-EMBO Lecture Course series. The Company of Biologists was delighted to help support the meeting with funding that contributed to student accommodation waivers. The meeting brought together students and experts from across India and around the world, and included hands-on sessions to help participants really get to grips with MPS research.
Dr Surat Parvatam, one of the meeting’s organisers, explained that the Centre for Predictive Human Model Systems had been holding monthly webinars on this research area for almost three years. The huge interest in these online sessions showed that there was an appetite for a larger event, and this translated into a great atmosphere at the meeting. “The students were so enthusiastic,” Surat said. “The question-and-answer sessions usually extended well beyond the ten-minute slot.”
Some of the invited speakers were unable to make it to Hyderabad, but recent advances in conferencing technology and approaches meant that they were able to deliver their talks virtually. This did not dampen the students’ enthusiasm, and even in the virtual environment there was plenty of engagement. Co-organiser Dr Kasturi Mahadik was particularly struck by the synergy taking place at the poster sessions: “The poster sessions were very engaging because everybody was super excited to talk about their work, and how they are working differently,” she said. “They could see that there were maybe ten other people working on something like cancer, but they realised immediately that ‘oh, I’m doing something different here.’”
The meeting covered several themes, ranging from biological questions to technical considerations. For example, one theme focused on how researchers actually go about designing these microphysiological systems, considering issues such as which materials to use and how to incorporate microbiota into a system. “We also had a healthy mix of both academics and industry speakers,” said Surat, explaining that one theme tackled how these systems can be applied in the drug discovery field. This mix gave students the opportunity to learn about different career paths during the networking sessions.
The meeting also benefitted from a hands-on element, with workshops giving participants a flavour of life in an MPS research lab. “If you’re a student, and you hear of an organ-on-a-chip or an organoid, it’s very difficult to visualise what exactly you are talking about,” Surat explained. This experience increased the impact of the meeting for the students, providing them with a better understanding of the work presented in the talks.
Around 54% of speakers were women, and the organisers also ensured that early-career researchers (ECRs) were given a platform to share their work; as well as holding a poster session, they designated specific slots in the oral programme for ECRs. These speakers represented a mix of invited ECRs, and presenters selected from the submitted abstracts.
The organisers received funding from The Company of Biologists, some of which went towards accommodation waivers for early-career researchers. This improved the accessibility of the meeting. They also received funding from EMBO to offer childcare grants to participants. “While at a scientific level, as one of the very few conferences on microphysiological systems in India, the programme also had special personal relevance,” said Dr Karishma Kaushik, a faculty member at Savitribai Phule Pune University. “It was for the first time that my son (11 years old) could accompany me to a conference, with a childcare grant that covered travel, accommodation and registration. Importantly, it gave my son and I an opportunity to experience the conference together and for him to see his mother give a scientific talk!”
Overall, the meeting was a refreshing experience following years of pandemic restrictions. “It was really nice to see the student community interacting because, after COVID, it was probably one of the first conferences happening in India on such a large scale,” Kasturi said. Participants were delighted to be back in person, and to be able to attend a dedicated meeting dedicated to MPS. “Attending the first India-EMBO conference on microphysiological systems was a memorable experience,” said Viraj Mehta, a Research Fellow at IIT-Hyderabad. “It provided the perfect knowledge sharing and networking platform for like-minded researchers working on alternatives to animal models.”
Following the great success of this meeting, the organisers hope to repeat the event in future and to maintain the new networks that have emerged as a result.