21/11/2022 - News

Organising a large event as a first year PhD student – behind the scenes of the MaxQuant Summer School 2022

by Carlo De Nart

Starting with the premise that I have never organised such a big event in the past, getting actively involved in the organisation of the MaxQuant summer school (MQSS) has been a great opportunity to learn skills that are usually not directly related to pure research in science.

The whole process of organising the summer school can be summarised in four different steps:
1) finding the venue to host the event
2) advertising the event
3) registration and booking
4) setting up the event

Finding the venue to host the event

In January this year, I joined the summer school organisation committee, which was composed of my supervisor Jürgen Cox, one post-doc and another more experienced PhD student that has already organised summer schools in previous years. When we discussed possible locations of the event, it was immediately decided to go to Barcelona, not only because of the sun, but also due to the logistic easiness (the MQSS took place there already once in 2018). Besides, Jürgen’s lab has contacts there (Eduard and Jonas from CRG) that were of great help. The initial phase consisted mostly of meetings with people from the agency that helped us with the organisation (Crea Congresos) and to decide when and where to have it. Once a venue that fulfilled the main requisites was found the real organisation from our side started and I got more involved. Such main criteria for the decision were: enough space for 200 participants and their posters, audio and video appliances and technical support and lastly being easy to reach. In this part most of the work, like visiting different venues and being sure of which services were ensured, was done by our counterpart in Barcelona. We were lucky that with their help we could convince the «Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona» (CCCB) to host the event one more time, same as in 20218.

Advertising the event

The first step was to design a nice logo and then set up the webpage. These were my initial tasks. I took this opportunity also to practice my skills in html and Adobe Illustrator. In particular, designing the new logo was something I enjoyed a lot, since I have always drawn and liked art. In other words, it was a great way to apply art to science.

The final logo of the summer school

Once the drafts were approved and the website was set up, it was time to start advertising the summer school through social media (e.g. Cox lab’s and Max Planck’s twitter account) and through sending emails to all previous years’ participants. In the meanwhile, the five main speakers were found and a first conference program drafted, both done in collaborative efforts. Lastly, Crea Congresos prepared the registration form and opened the bank account where to receive the conference fees from participants.

Registration and booking

As soon as we had set the registration deadline on mid May, the priority went to prepare the budget. All expenses were calculated by Crea Congresos, we checked them and added a buffer for eventual last moment expenses (an issue that indeed happened). On top of that, taxes were added and then 170 was set as the minimum required number of participants in order to cover all expenses. The registration fee for each person was calculated accordingly and the registration form opened. Assisting with the budget report was something totally new to me, but also helpful to get an idea of the costs that such event produces. Honestly, I have never dealt before with such an amount of money in my life. From this point on, we spend most of the time with taking care of public relations, since there was an average number of 8-10 emails per day from people asking for more information. The date to close the registration was at the end postponed to August. After that, we could proceed with booking the restaurant and social activities. Once we reached the second half of August, all participants that registered were contacted again in order to know if they wanted to present a poster and which social activity they wanted to join.

The week before the event, the spreadsheets with all this information were sent to Crea Congresos to let them know about the exact numbers. We organised all necessary documents and data (like MaxQuant, Perseus, tutorials and practical exercises) and transferred them to individual USB pen drives that we planned to give to each participant. Lastly, a new Zoom subscription was purchased in order to allow an online participation of the summer school and a new registration form for online participants was opened.

Checking that everything works before the start

Setting up the event

Just few days before the start of the summer school, it was time to move to Barcelona to set up the venue and test appliances to be sure everything was ready for Monday. From that moment on, luck was not very much on our side. One small issue was that there has been some delays in the preparation of the USB sticks that we planned to give to attendants, but that was solved easily through all collaborative efforts during the weekend before. The bigger issue was a strike that caused flights to Barcelona to be cancelled, all except mine. This has been quite a big deal since on the Friday before the start we were supposed to visit the venue and test all the equipment. At the end we managed to solve everything thanks to the help of the people from Barcelona and the technicians, and all was set and ready for the event to start. The flight issue was exactly one thing we were worried about, especially because it was something we could not do much about it. At the end, it was a good reminder of Murphy’s law: “anything that could go wrong will go wrong”. Lastly during the weekend also the rest of the lab managed to arrive and we all prepared the material and rehearse our talks.

Finally it was time for the summer school to begin and about this I will not write much more since everyone from the PROTrEIN-ITN was there. The final program can be found on the MQSS webpage.

Hamid enjoying not being an organizer for one time

Honestly, there has been also a particular moment during which I cursed being one of the organizers and it was during the joint dinner on Wednesday. That day we kept an easy schedule for participants: social activities like tours or sport in the afternoon and then a dinner all together in a nice restaurant close to the sea. Unfortunately, my talk was exactly the next morning and there were some more data needed by participants that we could not give through the usb sticks. This meant that during the free afternoon I had to prepare my talk and then had to leave the dinner earlier in order to prepare the email that was sent to all participants with the aforementioned data. In other words I missed a nice evening and partying while some of my colleagues did not. Have a look at the picture above to get what I mean, for the record I was writing emails at that moment. Well, at least I did not have a hangover the day after.

In summary, it has been a nice experience, even though doing everything took a lot of time and there has been some stressful moments in particular during the last days. It was also a good opportunity to meet other researchers working in proteomics and to get a feedback from them regarding our general work. Lastly, when the event was over, it was also a great satisfaction to have been part of the organisation and seeing that participants appreciated it and had a good time during the week.

Celebrating the event to be over

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