The Early Career Alcohol Research Symposium (ECARS) conference will be in Sheffield on 14 and 15 September 2022 and is sponsored by the SSA. Dr Ines Henriques-Cadby talks to the SSA about setting up a conference during COVID and moving from an online to a hybrid setting.

Why did you start ECARS?

I come from a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] background and moved into alcohol research in late 2018. When I moved, I realised there were no early career research conferences, get-togethers or meetings. Nothing was really set up for early career researchers. In mathematics, I had found it really useful to meet younger researchers and talk to them. I had got to know the field alongside the researchers in the same career area and stage. You then learn what they’re doing, and as an ECR it’s often easier to chat to people within the same seniority level.

I think it’s a great way of finding people who do the same thing you do at the same career level, and informally getting peer role models as well as collaborators.

I realised that some of these kinds of meetings had existed in the alcohol field, but they had for some reason stopped.

This was aggravated by the pandemic when no-one was meeting anyone. There were no seminars, and younger people who were just starting their research were particularly isolated. This sounded like the perfect idea and the perfect time, so myself, Inge Kersbergen and Jane Hughes thought this needed to be pushed forward. We got the support of John Holmes and Petra Meier and started to organising ECARS.

For the first ECARS in 2020, everything was online, so we didn’t really need financial support. We didn’t really need a room and everything was much easier.

Is this the first year that ECARS will be an in-person event?

Yes, this year ECARS will adopt a hybrid format. The face-to-face side will be held at the Leopold Hotel in Sheffield which is about 5 minutes’ walk from Sheffield train station and the university, so it’s a really nice location.

We’re going hybrid so we can collect the advantages of having an online event for people who can’t, or who are not yet ready to travel. A lot of early career researchers are affected by this, either because they are at a stage of their lives when they have childcare responsibilities and need a flexible medium to collaborate and get to research meetings, or because they don’t have as much funding as senior researchers. So, for many people, it’s easier to have the online event.

The other side of this is that you gain something else, something different by being at an in-person conference. There are lots of informal interactions and relationships that form in that setting. So, this year we’re going hybrid, and I think this is possibly going to be the future for ECARS.

We’re having early career research presented on broadly four themes: alcohol and gender, alcohol and healthcare systems, sobriety, and social processes.

What are the technical challenges of going hybrid? How is the hybrid version going to work?

The way we’ve planned it so far is that we’re going to have a 50% split between in-person speakers and online speakers. Online speakers will be projected onto a screen, so the audience will be watching them through a video. These will be pre-recorded to avoid time-lags or disruptions. In-person speakers will be streamed live, we will have an audio-visual setup, and this will allow people to follow online. We’re using the Blackboard platform as it’s the default choice used at Sheffield university. This allows online delegates to interact with the in-person audience, speakers and panelists.

What can people expect from the conference?

The conference is structured into two half-days. We start with lunch and then there are two main research sessions intercalated with a panel discussion and a social dinner. In the first year, we had talks on epidemiology, trends, harmful drinking, alcohol policy, alcohol and cognitive processes, as well as a panel discussion focusing on careers in alcohol research.

This year we’ve changed a bit and we’re having early career research presented on broadly four themes: alcohol and gender, alcohol and healthcare systems, sobriety, and social processes. This year’s panel session is going to focus on effective collaborations. The discussions will centre on how to network, build and manage collaborations, focusing on being and finding effective collaborators, with all that it takes into account.

We have some interesting senior alcohol researchers like Niamh Fitzgerald from Stirling, Robin Purshouse from the University of Sheffield, Claire Garnet from UCL, and Jyotsna Vohra the Royal Society for Public Health’s director of policy and public affairs.  Niamh who is a community pharmacist by training, has undertaken an impressive range of research on alcohol policy research using mixed methods. Robin is an engineer, and has done some internationally significant work on complex systems research involving alcohol, (agent based) simulations and modelling. Claire’s research focuses on alcohol and smoking cessation, focusing on digital technologies to support behavioural change, she’s a senior research fellow at UCL. Finally Jyotsna is a public health policy strategist advocating for evidence-based public health policies and working as a researcher outside of academia. For more details, here’s a link to this year’s programme.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about organising their own conference?

I think you’ve got to have a big reason to do it. There needs to be a gap to be filled, but you also need to feel like it’s something that you would love to attend. And then everything else comes around that, I believe. It becomes much easier to conceptualise what it’s going to be about, and who you are going to invite and who would attend it.

Is there any support to attend ECARS?

The SSA is funding some bursaries and have assigned bursaries to four delegates. That’s really helpful because it helps to widen participation and address equality and diversity issues. I’d like to advertise the fact that there are still places for people to register for ECARS, in-person and online. It’s free and incurs no expenses if you want to join us online. Deadline for registration is 29 August, you can do it on the ECARS website.

I think it’s a great way of finding people who do the same thing you do at the same career level, and informally getting peer role models as well as collaborators for your future. So I definitely recommend it to ECRs.

I think it’s been brilliant, and I’ve seen people who’ve had the same experiences I had when I went to these conferences as a young mathematician. People have found collaborators outside of their institutions, outside of their groups, and I think that’s a great way of getting some understanding on how to set up your own collaborations and of what goes into it. It also gives you some feel for research independence. So, yes, would definitely recommend it!

Dr Ines Henriques-Cadby is an MRC Skills Development Fellow within the Alcohol Group of the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR) at the University of Sheffield

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