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A Community of Smiles : SMiHA conference

By Dr. Paul Norton, University of Newcastle.

In what could only be described as a rousing success, the Skin Microbiome in Healthy Aging (SMiHA) network recently hosted its inaugural conference at the Marriot Victoria & Albert hotel in Manchester. So, let’s go through a whistle stop tour of this incredibly thought-provoking event, which is sure to whet your academic appetite.

Manchester – a city of a thousand musicians, and a deep ancestry of some of the best global skin scientists – proudly saw the return of SMiHA, following the successful sandpit event from the previous year. My attendance was dependent on gaining a travel grant which covered my hotel and travel costs, joining 7 other recipients. The night before the conference, I met up with my PhD supervisor – the brilliant Prof Julie Thornton, SMiHA network director. We caught up over food in the heart of Spitalfields, where I was able to network with colleagues from UEA and QMUL and make connections before the conference had even begun!

Up at the crack of dawn the next day, I assisted my colleagues from SMiHA with registration – a very quick and friendly way to meet everyone. Naturally, a large cohort was present from the University of Manchester, with delegates from Hull York Medical School (HYMS) and University of Bradford also present. The conference started well. Prof Julie Thornton gave a great opening speech welcoming the 80+ attendees and setting the tone for the conference. The first speaker was Prof Richard Farragher (Director of the BLAST network), who I really enjoyed getting to know. He highlighted the importance of the SMiHA network in the UK and how we can all be doing so much more to tackle ageing! I particularly enjoyed the presentations given by our industry partners, Dr Mike Hoptroff and Dr Tina Woods. They made clear the rigorous gauntlet R & D must endure to get personalised products (which can help with eczema etc.) to the market. Products can modulate the microbiome of an individual to reduce pathogenic colonisation and encourage microbial diversity across diverse ancestry and age groups.

My favourite presentation was delivered by Dr Holly Wilkinson from HYMS. I appreciated the absolute fluidity they had when presenting over 60 slides in 15 minutes on ‘Using Long-Read Sequencing to Explore the Microbiome in Skin Ageing and Repair’. This highlighted novel methodologies to probe the skin microbiome. For the flash talks, Dr Sara Henderson delivered a thought-provoking talk on being ‘too clean’ and the use of triclosan as an antimicrobial – like my own PhD, I enjoyed the philosophy of this message, to not eliminate our microbiome, but to target pathogens.

Finally, the most rousing discussion was centred around body odour attractiveness to mosquitos delivered by Dr Alicia Showering. What intrigued me most was the honesty of her talk and science – they were unable to conclusively prove the skin microbiome related body odour had an effect on mosquito preference, but they owned it, showing that all results matter!

With the close of the academic part of the conference the long-awaited evening event began. The stars aligned – and I mean literally as the Crystal Palace football team were staying at our hotel, along with the one and only Roy Hodgson! They weren’t there for the conference though, just to lose 3-0 to Manchester United. But I’m getting off topic. Back the evening event. The food was fantastic, so much so that I attempted two portions of everything, with some success and regret to come later. The conversation flowed and as the evening progressed, so did the fun. I had one discussion with somebody who had stared down hyenas in the African Savannah! Socialising at a conference really is something else.

The next morning, I had the dreaded 6am train to catch back to Newcastle. But I can’t stress enough how much on an incredible experience this conference was. It was a great opportunity to grow academically and socially with like-minded people. I’d liked to say thank you to the organisers and all the best with the continual expansion of SMiHA.

One final note, the entire SMiHA network and I would like to say good luck to Dr Gill Westgate who was the long-time Business Development Manager for the Centre for Skin Sciences at Bradford University. After forging an incredible career, she retired the same week as the conference and we all want to wish her happiness and success for the future. Her presence will be sorely missed by the Bradford team and she truly is an irreplaceable individual. It is worth noting Gill will be continuing with freelance work as the founder of the Cosmetics Cluster, UK. All the best, Gill.

The Skin Microbiome in Healthy Aging (SMiHA – also the Hindi word for smile) is one of eleven UK anti-aging networks – without any bias, also the best – and part of the UK aging network (UKAN).

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