I am a PhD student in my third year at University College London (UCL). My PhD studentship is joint between two disciplines: Structural and Molecular Biology at UCL, where I am studying the biochemical interactions between complement proteins and zinc, and Ocular Biology and Therapeutics at UCL Ophthalmology, where I am studying the same interactions in cell cultures.
My research has implications for understanding the pathogenesis of age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease causing more than 50% of blindness in the Western world. The travel grant kindly provided by the Biochemical Society allowed me to attend the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) “Powerful Connections: Vision Research and Online Networking” in Denver, USA. This is the largest and most prestigious research meeting for ophthalmologists in the world, attracting over 11,000 researchers from over 75 countries.
Being an overseas PhD student from Taiwan pursuing a PhD degree in the UK, ARVO was my first attendance at an international conference to present my work to the researchers from all over the world. My poster was entitled: “The effects of zinc supplements on primary human foetal retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) in culture”. During the presentation of my poster, I had interesting discussions with researchers from the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center, and the Yale University School of Medicine about potentially beneficial effects of zinc treatment on RPE cultures and the use of additional techniques such as microarrays to supplement my current findings of protein secretion including complement factor H (CFH) affected by zinc treatment.
I am presently writing my work up for publication, and this feedback from the meeting helped me understand how to write this better. Networking and contacts were also gradually built up over this five-day conference. I received contact information from scientists who use ARPE-19 cell lines at the National Eye Institute and they were interested in my results and thinking about supplementing zinc to their ARPE-19 cultures.
The talk “Vascular endothelial growth factor regulates expression of protective complement factor H in specialized capillary beds” given by Dr Lindsay Keir from The Scripps Research Institute, USA showed that a decrease in VEGF led to local reduction in CFH expression and increased complement activation in the retina. This caught my attention because my data showed an increase in CFH secretion by RPE cells with zinc treatment. Since the production of VEGF is one of the functions of RPE to maintain a fenestrated endothelium, it might be important to study whether zinc supplementation also has effects on VEGF secretion contributing to complement activation/inhibition.
As a researcher at the early stage of my career, my attendance at this international conference significantly broadened my horizons by my meeting with leading researchers, having scientific discussions, exchanging ideas and gathering feedback. I left the conference feeling extremely encouraged and more confident of my work. I will complete my final-year PhD studies with the strength, knowledge, confidence and enthusiasm acquired from this invaluable experience. Thank you, Biochemical Society!