Mona Al Banna, MB BCh BAO, MSc(Res)Mona Al Banna, MB BCh BAO, MSc(Res)
In February 2020, I attended the International Stroke Conference (ISC) held in Los Angeles, California. It was my first ISC and I had made arrangements in my busy resident schedule many months in advance to make sure I had the chance to go.

I had been looking forward to this opportunity for a very long time. After all, this is the conference where breakthrough trials in stroke are presented. I still remember being many miles away and reading news about the dramatically positive results from the major endovascular trials presented at the ISC back in 2015. I was filled with excitement and curious about what the atmosphere at the meeting was at that time. As I was packing my bag for this year’s conference, I wondered ‘What will be presented at the plenary sessions? Will there be major breakthroughs? What will the experience be like?’ I wanted to make the most out of everything.

In addition to experiencing a conference where stroke and vascular neurology was the focus, I was eager to be surrounded by stroke experts from around the US and the world. I also wanted to make connections with stroke fellows and residents applying for vascular neurology fellowships like me.

Overall, the experience was very fulfilling – there are tons of opportunities for networking, learning, and most of all sparking curiosity about what the future holds for stroke care and research. Based on my experience at this year’s meeting, I have compiled some tips and advice for other early career physicians who may want to attend future ISCs — or any major medical conference in the neurology space — to help make the most out of the experience.

1. Strategic Conference Planning
Just like any major conference, there are a lot of sessions scheduled simultaneously during the day. Therefore, it’s important to plan ahead and make a personalized schedule. At the same time, be flexible with adjustments. Personally, I was very happy to see that there were multiple sessions on the topic of international stroke care delivery and quality improvement – an interest of mine. I initially focused on going to all of those sessions; however, I soon realized that focusing on only 1 topic would limit my exposure to other exciting areas in stroke management and to topics where I needed to refine my knowledge. So, I adjusted my schedule to make sure I had a good variety of exposure with an emphasis on my interests.

One of the session types I really enjoyed and would advise people to attend were the debate sessions. You learn a lot from hearing different perspectives on a controversial issue and begin developing your own opinions while identifying gaps in the literature. Not only that, during the debates the speakers would often take lighthearted jabs at their opponents which kept the audience laughing and attentive.

Finally, be sure not to miss the plenary sessions, which often outline the results of the latest major stroke trials that you should be aware of. Don’t expect things to always be as exciting as they were in 2015 though; sometimes negative trials can teach us a lot.

With such a jam-packed schedule, it is also important to make sure you give yourself time for breaks and rest. You will need some downtime to process what you are learning, catch up on your emails, connect with other people, and recharge for the following day.

2. Networking to Your Advantage
Luckily for future fellows, the ISC is held during fellowship interview season. Therefore, it’s an excellent opportunity to reconnect with program directors whom you’ve already met on the interview trail, set up interviews during the conference (this will save you time and money!), and reach out to faculty of programs you are interested in. A quick chat or getting together for coffee could go a long way.  

The ISC is also a great opportunity to find mentors who have the same research interests or career goals as you. The conference offers formal mentor meetings that you can sign up for beforehand (though you will need to sign up early because seats fill up fast). You can certainly arrange for informal meetings, too. Poster viewing is great for this as you can easily find authors with the same areas of interest as yours and connect with them via the conference app. Being proactive always helps and you’ll find that most people are very eager to meet and offer advice.

READ MORE: Small Vessels, Big Impact: The Cerebrovascular Condition You Should Watch For

Remember that networking also involves connecting with your peers. Try to get out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to other fellows and residents. Fellows will offer you invaluable insight on their stroke programs and other residents will give you a sense of community as you embark on this journey of becoming stroke specialists together.

One of my realizations during the ISC was that vascular neurologists and other health care professionals working in stroke are a small community. They all know each other and reconnect at the ISC every year. Therefore, it’s important to introduce yourself to this community early because not only will that open doors for your career, but you will be seeing them again and again for many years to come.

3. Sessions Geared for Residents and Fellows
Be sure to sign up for to the Fellow and Early Career Mentoring Luncheon where you will learn what things look like for you after residency. You will hear about the nuts and bolts of fellowship, application timelines, tips from program directors, and have the opportunity to ask questions. Topics addressed here also include mentorship and sponsorship, navigating research, and how to get involved in clinical trials as an early investigator.
There are also sessions throughout the ISC geared for professional development. These sessions are catered to junior physicians and include topics like building your CV, tips on giving a scientific presentation, negotiating your first job, getting published, and work-life balance. Make sure to keep an eye out for them!

4. Be Involved
To really enjoy the ISC — and any medical meeting — experience, do not merely be a passive attendee. Obviously submitting a poster presentation and sharing your research is an excellent way to participate, but it isn’t the only way. During the sessions, do not be reluctant to ask questions or approach speakers at the end. If you’re too shy to go up to the microphone to ask your question, there’s a great and simple way to post it through the conference app. I was often pleasantly surprised when the questions I submitted were discussed by the panel.

One of the easiest ways to get involved is through the social media platform Twitter. For those who don’t know, there is a vibrant online medical community on Twitter. Utilizing Twitter during conferences allows you to be in multiple places at once as you are then exposed to key takeaways from sessions you missed. It also allows you how to share what you’ve learned with others and is a great way to start conversations, share opinions, and connect with new people.

5. Be Inspired
It’s not every day that you are surrounded by people who share the same passions and goals that you do. I felt lucky to be able to listen to fruitful conversations between experts about cutting edge stroke research. I felt excited by new developments in the field such as the possibility of neuroprotective agents. I am more curious than ever about the future of telemedicine in stroke. I left with more questions than I had walking in and it feels great. This is my community.

This conference was a reminder of how grateful I am for being in a field that I love and for what my job allows me to do every day for patients with stroke. I love that as physicians we continue to better ourselves through learning and sharing ideas. When you attend, the most important thing of all is to not lose sight of why you are there, how much you will get to learn, and how that knowledge will ultimately impact the patients you will be taking care of.  

This was my first ISC, but here’s to many more to come! I hope to see you there next time.

Mona Al Banna, MB BCh BAO, MSc(Res), is a PGY3 neurology resident and junior Chief Resident of Education and Curriculum at the University of Minnesota. She is a medical graduate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland - Bahrain. She completed her MSc by Research from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin. Her research examined metacognitive impairment in cerebrovascular disease and associated biomarkers. Al Banna hopes to pursue a Stroke and Vascular Neurology fellowship after residency. She is passionate about cerebrovascular health and improving the quality of life of stroke survivors. In addition, she hopes to be involved in medical student and residency education and is currently enrolled in the Neurology Educator Track. Al Bana is also an active member of the Women in Neurology (WIN) Minnesota based group. You can follow her on Twitter @DrMonaAlBanna.