Embracing Science and Culture: My Memorable Conference Experience at SMBE23 in Ferrara, Italy

The Open Bioinformatics Foundation (OBF) Event Fellowship program aims to promote diverse participation at events promoting open-source bioinformatics software development and open science practices in the biological research community. Nehemiah Ongeso, an MSc graduate at the University of Nairobi, was awarded an OBF Event Fellowship to attend the SMBE23 conference.

Attending a prestigious conference can be a turning point in any scientist’s career; for me, it was no exception. The Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) conference, hosted in Ferrara, Italy, was an unparalleled experience that combined cutting-edge scientific research with a unique cultural immersion. As a recipient of a travel grant from the Open Bioinformatics Foundation, I participated in the extraordinary SMBE23 conference, which broadened my horizons and inspired me to pursue even greater heights in my postgraduate research.

The Unconventional Conference

The SMBE23 conference was unlike any other I had attended before. Breaking away from the traditional hotel-based format, the conference was diffused across Ferrara. The diffused nature of the conference allowed attendees, including myself, to interact with the local community, experience their culture, language, religion, history, cuisine, and even engage with local authorities. The city of Ferrara became an integral part of the conference experience, fostering a unique atmosphere that encouraged both intellectual exchange and personal growth.

Presenting my Postgraduate Work

One of the highlights of my journey was the opportunity to present my postgraduate work titled “Co-expression network analysis of genes mediating Meloidogyne incognita parasitism in tomato-plant nematode interactions.”  Sharing my research findings with a diverse audience of scientists and graduate fellows was exciting and nerve-wracking. To my delight, my work garnered attention from numerous researchers interested in advancing their studies in systems biology. The constructive feedback and stimulating discussions further motivated me to explore new avenues and refine my research objectives.

Symposium on Regulatory Evolution and the Emergence of Diversity

During the conference, I actively participated in a symposium titled “Regulatory Evolution and the Emergence of Diversity.” The symposium proved to be an eye-opening experience as I learned valuable skills in effectively communicating scientific breakthroughs, including new concepts, methodologies, models, and potential areas for collaboration. Engaging with like-minded individuals from diverse backgrounds sparked my enthusiasm for interdisciplinary research, and I left the symposium with a fresh perspective on my work.

Open Science and Networking for Global Advancement

On the last conference day, I participated in the SMBE-IDEA symposium, which provided a platform where the SMBE society and affiliate research groups committed to advancing science in the global south while eliminating the detrimental effects of “helicopter science.” I actively contributed to and championed for SMBE to adopt open science practices. By advocating for accessible data, reproducibility, and collaboration, I aimed to advance science in the global south while ensuring equitable opportunities for researchers from all regions. The conveners of the symposium passed a resolution to sensitize donors and collaborators to always listen to the needs of researchers from the global south.

Through the symposium session, I was privileged to connect with researchers who shared similar passions for promoting diversity, inclusivity, and equity in the scientific community. The interactions opened doors to future collaborations and partnerships, potentially broadening the impact of my research and fostering international connections.

Humanizing Science

An intriguing observation during the conference was witnessing senior scientists actively participating in poster presentations. It was heartening to see that their dedication to science extended beyond their academic achievements, and they remained humble and open to sharing their knowledge and insights with their peers. Additionally, some senior scientists were accompanied by their non-scientist spouses, which humanized the experience and emphasized the importance of maintaining a balanced and fulfilling personal life alongside a successful scientific career.


I sincerely thank the Open Bioinformatics Foundation for their generous travel grant, which made this life-changing experience possible. Additionally, my heartfelt thanks go to the organizers of SMBE23 for orchestrating an exceptional conference that transcended the boundaries of traditional academic events. As I return to my research station, I carry with me the valuable lessons learned and the lasting memories of a conference that will forever hold a special place in my heart. The memories and knowledge gained will undoubtedly shape my future endeavours as a scientist and global citizen.

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