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Grad Student Peter LoCoco Organizes the Inaugural CIPN Symposium

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Author: Peter LoCoco | Category: Of Interest | March 27, 2015

What are you studying and why are you passionate about it? How did your education at UT Health Science Center lead you to where you are today?

I study chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), which is a side effect of cancer chemotherapy that causes debilitating pain and numbness in the fingers and toes of cancer patients due to neurotoxic damage on peripheral nerves. Although this side effect has been observed in the clinic for decades, it has become more prevalent since cancer patients are living longer because of more effective anticancer drugs.

Over the past 3 years, with the help of my mentor, Dr. Bill Clarke, as well as Drs. Kelly BergSusan Mooberry, and April Risinger, I have developed our CIPN project from the ground up. The project itself is very multidisciplinary, incorporating pain neuroscience, neuropharmacology, and cancer biology. This encouraged me to interact with investigators across several sub-disciplines for insight. My technical training has also been very diverse. I have become proficient in behavior, biochemical assays, primary cell culture, and immunohistochemistry. I have also developed important new behavioral assays, ex vivo neuronal assays, and immunohistochemical approaches in the lab.

In addition to all the lab work, I have had the opportunity to attend exciting and diverse scientific meetings, including Society for NeuroscienceAmerican Association for Cancer Research, and Experimental Biology. However, after attending these meetings for the first time, I noticed that there were zero symposia dedicated to CIPN.

Tell me about the symposium, how/why did you decide to plan it? What was unique about the symposium? Are there other symposiums like it?

At Cancer Research 2014 in San Diego, I met Dr. Jennifer Smith (Jen) and Sarah Benbow, a postdoc and graduate student from University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). We discussed at length about the need for a dedicated symposium for CIPN. Our mentors encouraged us to seek out means to put on a symposium.

However, we needed to ask ourselves the most important question – what is our justification to organize a focused CIPN meeting?

This was our answer: “We believe that the chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy field is ideally suited for a small, focused meeting to promote interdisciplinary crosstalk to generate new ideas and collaborations. The main goal of this meeting is to provide a venue at which the currently partitioned field can become more cohesive and interactive. By bringing research groups and clinicians together, we hope to foster discussions and encourage interdisciplinary collaborations. It is essential to include graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in these discussions, as they are the researchers actually immersed in the work at the bench and the future of the field.”

In the weeks following, Jen determined that the American Society for Cell Biology has a unique funding opportunity in which trainees can apply for initial budgetary support to organize a one-day symposium. Consequently, we three organized a proposal to sponsor the CIPN Symposium. This was quite difficult as we had to organize completely the symposium from start to finish, including potential speakers, total projected costs, vendor information, etc. Luckily within a few weeks, we received word that we were approved for the maximum $1500 of funding. This got the ball rolling to get a bare-bones symposium planned at UCSB. 

However, we also wanted to help curb travel costs for our keynote speakers as well interested graduate students and postdocs from around the country. Thus, we sought sponsorship from other sources, and were emphatic upon additional commitments from EisaiGenentechUCSB Neuroscience Research InstituteUCSB Women in Science and Engineering. These monies were sufficient to organize a very good meeting, inclusive of talks from field experts, a poster session, food and refreshments, a closing reception, and all the requisite costs to rent space and equipment.

We stretched every dollar as far as possible, but still there were things that needed to be done without financial compensation. For example, Jen’s husband did an extraordinary job designing a website for the meeting, that included information about schedules, registration forms, announcements, housing, and travel. Also we, the organizers, initiated all digital correspondence and advertising. Each component of this meeting was very important and required meticulous coordination, especially since I was here in San Antonio, and Jen and Sarah were in Santa Barbara. However, the event was a huge success! We had hugely favorable responses in our post-meeting survey by all attendees. Not bad for a postdoc and two graduate students.

What was the agenda? What was interesting about it?

The agenda was fully devoted to CIPN and the schedule was rigorously organized to maximize the experience for all attendees.

We were very fortunate to get very well published and respected CIPN researchers Drs. Gary Bennett (McGill University, Montreal, Quebec) and Patrick Dougherty (MD Anderson, Houston, Texas) to participate as our keynote speakers.

We also had shorter seminars including investigators from Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic, UCSB, and Genentech. We intentionally planned for both clinicians and basic scientists to speak to enhance the understanding of the clinical and preclinical components of CIPN for all attendees.

Graduate students and postdocs (and anyone else interested) had the opportunity to present their own work in the poster session. I must emphasize smaller poster sessions are much more personal and allow for extensive discussions between presenters and other researchers.

We also included a panel session where several of our esteemed speakers responded to big picture questions from the audience. This helped to prioritize knowledge gaps for researchers. Lastly, we have a very nice reception, which included local wine and cheeses actually made by investigators at UCSB. This was very nice to wrap up a long but productive day of exploration into CIPN.

Why did you pick California and not Texas? How did it go? Would you do it next year? What did you learn from it?

We chose to have the event in Santa Barbara over San Antonio because the majority of attendees were from UCSB or from other parts of California.

With that said, Santa Barbara was magnificent! The weather could not have been more perfect. The mountains (which run east to west!) were so beautiful. The food was remarkable as well. Everyone I met welcomed me as if I was a long-time friend. Santa Barbara was a fantastic venue and, if anything, I encourage all to visit there at least once in your life.

We are excited about the future of the CIPN Symposium. It was so well received by our attendees that we already received offers from Johns Hopkins and others to host it next year. We, the organizing committee, do have some decisions to make since we all are very early in our careers and may not be in the CIPN field forever. We need to decide whether we should give the organizing rights of the symposium to a society or a CIPN non-profit organization. We recognize that such groups have access to greater resources. If we choose an approach such as this, we want to ensure that the mission of the CIPN Symposium is not lost diluted or lost entirely.

During this process, I could not have done this without the support of so many people here at UTHSCSA. First, I want to acknowledge the Dean’s Office, because without their financial support, it would have been difficult for me to attend the symposium in Santa Barbara.

In particular, I thank Dean David WeissJanice Smith, and Alyssa Felan for all their help in this process! I also thank my mentor Dr. Bill ClarkeDr. Kelly BergDr. Susan Mooberry, and Dr. April Risinger for their continued guidance during my dissertation and training.

I also want to thank Dr. Linda McManusDr. Andrew Giuffrida, and Dr. Teresa Evans for their insight into important considerations of this project. My graduate experience here at UTHSCSA has transformed my life forever and I am eternally grateful for every opportunity.

Would you recommend other graduate students to plan their own events/symposiums? Any advice?

I would encourage senior graduate students or postdocs to plan their own event, however with two major precautions.

The first is consideration of the demand for a specific theme-based meeting and potential benefits. In our situation, there was no prior dedicated meeting to CIPN. We felt it prudent to organize the CIPN Symposium to facilitate communications between those in the field and to foster new and productive collaborations.

The second (and perhaps most important) is the time commitment. Time is a valuable commodity in the research enterprise and it behooves one to ask the question whether organizing an event is in their best interest early on in their career. Would it be more beneficial to conduct experiments, read, and write manuscripts or instead take the time (a lot of time) to contact people about attendance, to write grants for financial sponsorship, to organize vendors, to collect abstracts? Don’t get me wrong, I, if anyone, can find “value” in service on committees or in other capacities. Nevertheless, I implore you to consider the entirety of the commitment before moving forward. A priori > a posteriori.

I would be remiss without acknowledgement of the potential benefits of organizing a symposium. For example, a very exciting benefit was the result of networking. I interacted with so many people during this process, including investigators from all over the country. To my surprise, I was offered multiple postdoc opportunities from very accomplished PIs at outstandingly prestigious institutions. While this was never an intended goal, I believe the display of competency and work ethic from my own science and that which went into organization of this event helped senior scientists gauge my potential.

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