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Reflections by Ian Aird

It was with a feeling of mixed emotions that I entered the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) on the first morning of the Fertility 2020 Conference – the 13th Fertility Conference of the Joint Fertility Societies. More than anything, I was excited at the prospect of a stimulating programme of scientific presentations; a programme that I had helped put together along with colleagues from the Meetings Committees of the British Fertility Society (BFS), The Society for Reproduction and Fertility (SRF), and also the Association of Clinical Embryologists – soon to become the association of reproductive and clinical scientists (ARCS). But, outside of the programme itself, there was also the excitement of the opportunity to meet up with friends and colleagues in the field of fertility and assisted reproduction: to share experiences, catch up on the gossip, and to generally socialize in an environment outside of the workplace.

Of course, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t also feelings of anxiety, too. Would the programme run smoothly? Would all the speakers turn up? Perhaps most worryingly of all, would the other delegates find the programme as stimulating as the Programme Organizing Committee obviously did?

Fortunately, the early signs were encouraging. A record number of delegates had registered for the event – including speakers and exhibitors, the numbers of delegates exceeded 1000 for the first time – with over 130 international delegates from over 30 countries emphasizing the increasingly International nature of the Conference. As well as the strength of the programme accounting for this record attendance, it is possible that the slightly later start date in January and the choice of Edinburgh as the host city also accounted for the increased registration.

With over 340 abstracts submitted, leading to nearly 80 oral presentations and over 200 poster presentations (another record for the books!) it was clear that the joint nature of the Fertility Conference was proving to be an increasingly popular forum for the presentation of research and as a means of professional development.

The theme for the Conference as a whole was ‘Reproduction in a Changing World’ and the format would follow on from previous joint conferences.  The three days were structured to look at different aspects of the changing nature of research into and clinical application of reproductive science. The first day was focused on Global and environmental impact on fertility and reproduction with excellent presentations on recent trends in research, the effect on animal conservation, and a sobering update from Christian Sonne from Denmark on fertility effects related to ecotoxicology in the arctic.

Sociological impacts of assisted conception and new technologies was the theme for Day Two with an enlightening and thought-provoking presentation from Marcia Inhorn on the sociodemographic factors behind the increasing uptake of social egg freezing. This was followed with a highly visual and entertaining presentation from Philip Ball, Editor of Nature, entitled ‘New Ways to Grow a Human’ focusing on the field of cell reprogramming and tissue culture and what this might mean for biomedicine and our notions of individuality. Finally in this session, a presentation from Guido Pennings reviewing the longer term implications of increasing use of commercial DNA testing for home genealogists and the implications for donor anonymity.

On the Saturday morning I had the pleasure of chairing the final plenary session themed around advances in technology and how these are impacting on reproductive options. For me personally, this was one of the highlights of the conference. A wonderfully lucid and informative presentation from Ben Davies from the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics on the feasibility and associated risks of germline editing which, for a jobbing clinician like myself, explained the mysteries of the science behind technologies such as CRISPR in a clear and understandable way. Finally, in this session Jacques Ravel from University of Maryland USA gave an excellent overview of microbiomes, reproductive health and fertility.

One of the duties of being on the organizing and programme committees of the conference is that of chairing session. This can have the slightly limiting effect of restricting which of the short paper and update sessions that one can attend but I was fortunate enough to hear some excellent presentations. Highlights for me in the short paper sessions include the papers detailing Kisspeptin and neurokinin B interactions in women with PCOS and an excellent presentation by specialty trainees from London on the under-reporting of OHSS. It is difficult to pick out presentations from amongst so many and I had a number of delegates and colleagues tell me how difficult it was knowing which session to go to as they all contained such strong abstracts – wealth of choice being a criticism any organizing committee would gladly accept, I’m sure.

For the update sessions, I was fortunate enough to chair a stimulating session on Emerging techniques in ART including benefits and risks of segmented IVF by Abha Maheshwari, endometrial receptivity from Nick Macklon and PGT-A from Sebastiaan Mastenbroek all leading to excellent and sometimes challenging discussion with the audience.

Another of my personal highlights was the update session on luteal support with a thorough review of the physiology of the corpus luteum by Colin Duncan, clearly describing how nature intended things to happen followed by a review of the evidence behind luteal support from Mostaffa Metwally indicating how far we have come ( and still have to go ) in attempting to replicate this.

Again, across all update sessions there were presentations covering an enormous breadth of the field of reproduction and assisted conception with plenty on offer to cater for all interests.

The final session of the Conference took the form of a debate with the motion put before the conference, “This house believes in legalizing genetic enhancement of humans.” Speaking for the motion Helen O’ Neill from UCL, and against Felicity Boardman from the University of Warwick. The debate was an excellent example of how to engross and audience with the power of oral presentations (and no slides!).

Finally the presentation given by Amy Dickman from the Wildlife Conservation Research Project on the problems and practicalities associated with Lion conservation in Tanzania, was a truly inspiring and educational way to conclude the scientific programme of the Conference.

The conference concluded with the prize-giving ceremony and closing remarks from Jane Stewart, Chair of BFS, who will be the Chairing Organization for Fertility 2021.

Throughout the Conference, the Exhibition Hall at the EICC was a venue for companies to advertise their products and also provide educational sessions. The hall also provided a venue for all those selected to present their research in poster format. There was ample opportunity for the presenters to discuss their work with other delegates and members of the scoring committee and again the standard was extremely high

No Conference would be complete without the social programme and Fertility 2020 was no different in this respect. There were the usual curry nights, wine receptions, and parties to attend, allowing great opportunities for social and professional networking. The highlight, as always, was the Conference Dinner. Due to the number of delegates there had been over 600 tickets sold, again a record, and despite the numbers the catering staff had prepared an excellent meal served with professional efficiency. It was always going to be a challenge to provide a dance floor large enough to cater for all those enthusiastic attendees wanting to join in the Ceilidh and so it proved with some interesting interpretations of the Gay Gordons and the Dashing White Sergeant! Personally, I left the dancing to my younger, more energetic and more agile colleagues!!

So to sum up Fertility 2020 from a personal perspective, had it satisfied my hopes and expectations? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Great science, great company and great opportunities to socialize. More importantly though, had it satisfied the expectations of the record number of delegates? Judging by the detailed feedback received after the conference, it is a relief to say that also appears to be an unequivocal yes. In all sessions, the results for nearly all the presentations were more than 85% of delegates scoring as ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good,’ along with some very positive comments.  As with all things, nothing is perfect and there have been some very useful suggestions made which have been reviewed by the programme committees for Fertility 2021 to try and make things even better.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer the sincere thanks of myself and other members of the meetings committees to Profile Productions Limited, who handle all the organizational aspects of the conference, keep the members of the meetings committees on track, and ensure that the scientific and social aspects of the conference all run according to plan. You did a fantastic job for which we are all hugely thankful.

So, the bar for Fertility 2021 has been set at a very high level. As the Chair for the Conference, I can give you an advance notification that the programme is coming together extremely well and promises to be as stimulating and informative as this year’s conference. For next year we will have the added complication of COVID-19 to contend with, and all the travel restrictions and social distancing that may or may not still be in effect, but I do hope in some way, shape or form it will be possible to meet up in Liverpool.

Ian Aird

Programme Chair