My name is Kathryn Madalena and I have been doing research in spinal cord injury or related injury fields for almost nine years. First, in Jerry Silver’s lab while I was an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University. There I developed my love of working at the bench and gained an interest in regeneration after SCI.
Currently, I am a senior graduate student at Ohio State University in the Popovich lab. I am working towards my PhD in Neuroscience and I study how the glucocorticoid receptor acts as a transcription factor in different cells to influence outcomes after spinal cord injury, as well as pain after peripheral nerve injury.
Here at OSU, we have an amazing group of spinal cord injury and neurotrauma researchers, and I am thankful for the many great collaborators and friends working in this field.
This year was my first opportunity to attend Unite 2 Fight Paralysis’ annual symposium: Working 2 Walk. I heard about this conference through my friend here in Ohio, Ian Burkhart, who has a C5 SCI. (You may also know Ian from U2FP's Cure Advocacy Network, where he and other SCI advocates helped secure $3M for SCI Research here in Ohio; or you may have read about his success with an experimental brain implant).
When registration for Working 2 Walk opened, I also heard how impactful and meaningful this conference was from Drs. Phil Popovich and Dana McTigue, and so was excited to have a chance to be a part of it.
Working 2 Walk has an edge not found at other conferences – it brings together researchers and people with spinal cord injuries. This allows a researcher like me to get to know the population that I serve on a personal level, and gives people with an SCI a voice in the conversation about research and funding.
Given the impact of COVID-19 this year, I have attended many webinars, but Working 2 Walk was my first virtual conference.
For me, the value of a conference is that it gets me out of my bubble, helps me meet new people, and get a fresh outlook and renewed energy about my research. I wasn’t quite sure how this would be achieved given the virtual format. How will I meet other researchers and engage with the SCI community? I thought.
I pondered these questions going into the first day, but quickly discovered that the virtual format offered new opportunities that I might not have experienced in-person.
The flexibility of a virtual conference is one of the biggest advantages in my opinion. For SCI researchers, our animals require bladder expression and care twice per day. Going out of town requires shutting down experiments for a period of time, and therefore slowing your progress. Alternatively, you can ask other lab mates (really nicely) to take care of your animals for however long you might be gone.
Fortunately, neither myself nor my other lab colleagues needed to stop or slow down our research because there was time before and after the conference to handle animal care. The added benefit of not having to travel anywhere meant you could watch from wherever you were.
Personally, I enjoyed the presentations and panel sessions from my couch with my cat, Vance, who was also interested in watching.
The streaming platform that U2FP utilized was much more enjoyable than being on a gigantic zoom call all day. There were multiple “rooms” to participate in live chat discussions with other attendees in (A Networking Room, Virtual Sponsor Booths, and the General Session area), as well as links to open forum or issue-focused video breakout rooms, both before and after the conference.
The themed sessions covered a diversity of topics and gave a dynamic overview of what’s happening now in SCI research, funding, and advocacy. U2FP termed these "Stakeholder Sessions", which were broken out into the following areas:
- Pre-Clinical Research - Research done in laboratory experiments and animal models
- Clinical Research - Research performed with humans
- Industry - Companies that are trying to bring a research discovery to a clinical product
- Funder - Agencies or foundations that fund research of all kinds
- SCI Community & Organizations - SCI foundations/nonprofit organizations working to influence all the above
The zoom breakout sessions (specifically the open forum) were easily my favorite part of the conference. I was able to log on and meet a mixture of researchers and people with an SCI, U2FP board members and session moderators, and have a variety of conversations.
While a conference is great for being face to face (you can get together at happy hour, you can visit sponsors at their booths, etc.), there can also be some awkwardness or nervousness in just going up to a new person and introducing yourself.
To my surprise, joining the zoom breakout sessions totally eliminated that stress. Everyone got a chance to speak and introduce themselves and seemed to want to genuinely get to know each other. I made really great connections that I don’t think I would have made otherwise.
Another unique aspect of this conference was the artist interludes, which were interviews with musicians, mixed media, graffiti and visual artists who all had an SCI. They were truly incredible. I loved hearing their stories and seeing the expansive creativity of each individual. When graduate students like myself (who don’t have an SCI) talk with the SCI community, we typically focus on day-to-day life, needs, struggles, and potential treatments. The artist interludes gave us all a deeper story about the person. Not just how they live or adapt with SCI but how they thrive as individuals.
Living through this pandemic has not been easy. Working towards completing a PhD during a pandemic has been even harder. There’s a lot of extra stress and distractions this year. Working 2 Walk gave me three days to hear the stories of people with an SCI and learn their perspectives on our research: where we are getting it right and where we could do more.
The conference was a great reminder of why we rise and grind each day to keep our research going. And for that I’m very grateful.
You can find Kathryn on social media here @KathyMadz (Instagram & Twitter)