GRC 2014: Ageing

The 2014 U21 Graduate Research Conference was held at the University of Auckland from 30 June to 4 July 2014. The theme – Celebrating Ageing Research – struck some as ironic, given the average age of the conference participants, but it was clear from the oral presentations, posters and the discussions that took place during the conference that graduate students throughout the network are right to celebrate their research on ageing. Over the course of the conference 31 students gave oral presentations and 11 presented posters.

A keynote speaker opened each of the first three days of the meeting. First to present was Professor Merryn Gott, who embraced the theme of celebrating ageing with a presentation that challenged stereotypes and created new images of ageing. Merryn concluded by showing a video of The Zimmers and their wonderful rendition of My Generation. After such an upbeat beginning, the graduate student presenters discussed pole-walking and older adults, health system reforms and ageing, ageing muscles, residential aged care facilities, and skeletal mineralisation, bone health and ageing. The interdisciplinary nature of the conference was apparent from topics covered on day one, and continued over the course of the conference.

The first day concluded with a second keynote address given by Sir Peter Gluckman, the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. As such, Sir Peter has been instrumental in developing the country’s National Science Challenges, one of which is concerned with Ageing Well.

Associate Professor Susan St John, co-director of the University of Auckland’s Retirement Policy and Research Centre, opened day two of the conference, discussing her work on the economics of ageing. Students then discussed their work on the ‘costs’ of ageing, before others spoke about ageing bodies and where older people live. The final keynote was given by Dr M Fabiana Kubke, who revisited the ageing brain.

The posters presented also reflected the interdisciplinary nature of the conference. They showcased work from the fields of biomedical engineering, engineering, health, management, medicine and medical sciences, nutrition, public health and policy, and pharmacy. Jacomien Feilzer from the University of Amsterdam won the poster competition for her work (with Guus van Loon, who gave an oral presentation) on Senior Nutrition: Contributing to the Prevention of Malnutrition.

Alongside the oral and poster presentations, the attendees also worked on a group project. In their conference bags they found a piece of paper that told them who was in their group and the topic on which they had to present on the final day of the conference. These presentations could be no longer than ten minutes, could be accompanied by up to five power point slides, and were expected to reflect the diverse fields of research, experiences, cultures and perspectives of the group members. The topics ranged from impacts of an ageing population, technology and ageing, and intergenerational issues in ageing, to questions as to whether better wealth was leading to better health, and whether hospitals are the best places to deliver health services. Although there was a (small) prize for the winning group, the real success of the group project was its role in bringing together participants from a range of institutions, countries and disciplines.

Participants were also brought together during two field trips to labs in the University of Auckland where research on ageing is undertaken. The ageing brain is a focus at the Centre for Brain Research in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, while in the Robotics Laboratory in the Faculty of Engineering designs intelligent robotic assistants to improve the quality of older people’s lives.

At the end of the conference all the participants voted for the person they considered had contributed the most to the conference. Andrew Watt from Melbourne, who presented on The dementia epidemic: investigating diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for Alzheimer’s disease and Chris Gaffney from Nottingham, who posed the question Do worms hold the secret to why ageing muscle fails?, were both presented a small prize for being joint best contributors.

Overall, the conference was both enjoyable and successful. The participants were generous in the questions and comments at the end of each presentation, embraced the social events (a reception on the first night and a dinner on the final evening), and clearly enjoyed the opportunity U21 and their home institutions provided.

Associate Professor Caroline Daley
Dean of Graduate Studies
University of Auckland