Sympo-celium: A fungal network of student organisers – Course and Conference Office


Our mission is to train scientists. This blog is a platform for us to share updates on our annual programme, tips and tricks for scientists, new e-learning opportunities, and sometimes just something to make you smile.

Sympo-celium: A fungal network of student organisers

Thoughts of a Symposium Organiser: 25th EMBL PhD Symposium

Collective behaviour is everywhere we look. From the macroscale of worldwide shipping lanes to the ordered chaos of searching bees. Unfortunately, we are not bees. But, we, as an organising committee have tapped into a hive-mind mentality to bring you this year’s 25th EMBL PhD Symposium!

The beauty of these symposia is the unique perspective each organising committee adapts. Looking at the symposium logo for each year is enough to see how much the approach changes. I would have loved to see an 80s’ disco take on it – neon snazz everywhere… let that image fluoresce your senses for a moment. 

We want to use our opportunity to try doing things a little differently.

Despite the interchangeable parts, every year the outcome is a student-organised conference. This defines a collective: individual parts facilitating unique characteristics and resulting in a shared ultimate goal. I’m shying away from terms like “the greater good” for obvious reasons but I strongly believe in functional, autonomous units and I wanted to be one of them to provide what expertise I can. 

The first thing I realised is that I know nothing about organising scientific conferences. But, I do know people, and I am lucky to be surrounded by extremely talented individuals. This means we already have the knowledge we need, as students, to provide what students want, all we need is a joint effort. 

So who are we? What do we know – do we know things? Let’s find out…

First of all, I think it has been amazing to see how harmoniously we have worked together. I imagined each group being autonomous and, when trusted with responsibility, I think each group has thrived. For as many decisions as possible we have used a diplomatic process including our whole PhD cohort. This has led to the symposium theme, volunteers for each organising group, invited speakers, panel discussion topic (more on this later) and even food options. If you want detailed information on our invited speakers please take a look at one of our punchy posters or rather flashy website.

Outside of these overarching decisions, each organising group has budded with its individual qualities. Groups also self-arranged their structure as they saw fit i.e., how many team representatives they need and in which areas. I am continuously impressed by the resourcefulness of my peers as someone will always bring in past experience and know-how whenever there seems to be a gap in knowledge. It is a testament to the power of a collective that we supplement each other and I personally have immense trust in my fellow organisers that will go beyond this symposium. 

The autonomy of each organising group has left the traditional core organisers to take care of minor disputes, confusion and the weaving together of each unit. With four of us, we each oversee two groups and I was definitely a bit out of my comfort zone overseeing the Promotion team having never made a single tweet in my entire life. But, they educated me so – thanks team! I would also like to make a big shout-out to Leonie Lorenz who volunteered to be the core team scribe and provided a constant voice of reason while allowing us to spit-ball and let the creative juices flow!  

Our system may conjure up images not of a beehive but of a mycelium of sporulating fungal bodies (hopefully the other organisers love that reference). But, if we were a beehive then our Course and Conference Officer Iva Gavran is for sure the queen bee! To weave our fantastic scientific talks together, our fun-goal is to provide an environment conducive to natural conversation, encouraging everyone to feel comfortable. By this I mean not structured talking time but instead chatting akin to a Friday beer session. Expect some slightly outlandish mid-session intervals and don’t be surprised to leave with a few songs in your head forming the backdrop to the mental notes you’ve taken. 

If you are like me then you have met our friend nihilism… but also greet them with a sprinkle of dogged optimism. To reflect this feeling we will be holding a Science Slam on the first day to hear from past students who have felt the same. Following this theme we have also chosen our final day panel discussion theme as Sustainable Science: Under the Macro-scope. We anticipate this being a realistic examination on both the past and future of research in the context of global warming. We have gathered experts in the area with a passion we hope to draw from, including Marta Rodriguez, one of our own EMBL sustainability officers. This is a hugely important time to discuss the future of sustainable research, reinforcing how only a collective effort from all of us will make a difference.

As part of EMBL you can join a day session for free as well as participate virtually. With posters and flash talks, we also strongly encourage you to submit abstracts as the symposium is a chance to share what we do here. Submissions can be made using the links on our website, but also please get involved through your favourite social media platform.

Luckily enough, the abstract deadline has been extended to 8 September 2023! Whoop whoop!

My biggest lesson during the organisation of this symposium is knowing I don’t need to know everything. I have so much to learn from those around me and I feel we have all learned from each other in some way. We have tried to optimise a collective in the most holistic way possible and constantly think “what do students want?”. We hope our symposium will reflect our individual qualities to demonstrate how collective behaviour is more than just the sum of its parts. 

Join us in looking at the past, present and future of collectivity to go beyond individual systems, into the greater impact we have together and the true Power of Many.

See you soon!

Thomas Beavis 

(together with the organising committee)

25th EMBL PhD Symposium

Want to join the PhD Symposium? Register here.