A First Time For Everything (ZHA & AALAS) – by Mollie Millington

As one of the Advancement Fund recipients, I cannot wait to fill you in on AALAS.  For members outside of the USA, AALAS stands for American Association for Laboratory Animal Science and their conference is held annually in a different city each year.  In 1998, AALAS had 8,994 members, 48 branches and 19 affiliate organizations so you can imagine how many they have today.  In speaking with other attendees, I have heard 6000-7000 can attend annually, so was surprised to learn that only 3600 people attended this year.  Personally, I felt the conference was huge in terms of expo and number of sessions, talks, and workshops (especially compared to the UK equivalent, IAT Congress).

Due to my experience with jet lag for Aquaculture American in San Diego in 2021, I intentionally arrived in Salt Lake City a few days early to help my body adjust.  It was a seven-hour time difference from London, UK, which meant I had lots of emails to answer each morning before the talks started at 8am.  Sunday was the first day of AALAS and was a slow crescendo of what was to come.  I started the day by attending the Tecniplast welcome breakfast after registering for the conference.  It was jam packed and there were activity tables with BRAD (Biomedical Research Awareness Day), VOEN (Vivarium Operational Excellence Network) and the 3RsC (The 3Rs Collaborative).  I met some other first time attendees at this event, as well as other international attendees.  After I ate and took part in the activities, I headed to Office Max to fetch some supplies for the ZHA booth.  When I got back, we had a handful of people ready to move our boxes and start the set up.  I was able to meet current e-board members, as well as some volunteers.  It was fantastic to connect with other members in real life after being a part of the online community previously.  At 2pm, there was a short orientation for first time AALAS attendees and then a welcome session with a buffet, quiz night, and networking.  I only stayed for one drink but did bump into Marcus Crim from IDEXX before heading to a AALAC fellowship dinner hosted by Purina and Lab Diet. 

On Monday, I spent most of my day learning about compassion fatigue, emotional well-being, building resiliency and creating an employee assistance program that is familiar with the work that animal technicians so.  These sessions were suggested by my manager and department head as we are expanding our Culture of Care program for employee support.  Many great ideas were shared and I am looking forward to putting some of these into practice at the Francis Crick in the new year.

One of the highlights of the week was a talk about the management of brine shrimp in the Great Salt Lake by a representative from the Utah Department of Natural Resources.  Aquaneering hosted this fascinating talk at their booth.  We discussing how long the management program has been in place and how stock levels and allocations are regulated.  Questions from the audience included how climate change may affect the industry (and therefore supplies for zebrafish facilities) in the future.  After the talk, Arrow Megginson won a framed stamp panel of “Life Magnified” which includes Dan Castranova’s zebrafish image.

The day wrapped up with a ZHA happy hour, hosted by many of the vendors exhibiting at AALAS.  It was extremely well-attended and a way for everyone to catch up.  The day’s programming goes from 8am-5pm without any set breaks, so it was easy to miss people during the conference.  Of course, some of the chats became shop talk, but we had fun too.  There was a ton of delicious food and a raffle with gift cards and an R&D Clipstation for fin clipping.  At this gathering, I realized how many international members we had attending AALAS this year.  I was grateful to have everyone in the same place to allow for introductions and catch ups.  Many of the ZHA members I was fortunate enough to meet online during the pandemic but I haven’t had many chances to meet them in person yet.  A few I had met at Aquaculture America in 2022, so it was good to see familiar faces too.

Tuesday was fish day!  We started at 8am with four husbandry sessions.  These touched on basics of aquatic systems and managing a facility; importance of water quality; larval feeding strategies; how to create mutant and transgenic fish.  We had a short break before Lynne Sneddon have a lecture on optimizing fish welfare using behavioural strategies.  During the afternoon, I manned the booth while the ZHA hosted a “Danio Zoom Live” session, fielding questions from the audience.  Tuesday afternoon was also the poster session.  Authors stood by their posters for two hours in order to answer any questions people may have.  While I provided Xenopus laevis samples to Charles River for their new frog health monitoring service, I didn’t contribute to the analysis. 

The last zebrafish-themed session was from 3-5pm and focused on infectious agents and disease processes; developing an importation and quarantine programs; non-infectious diseases surveillance; implementation of a health surveillance program. Unfortunately, I missed this session too but I heard it went well.  

Lynne Sneddon and I were going to have dinner together Tuesday evening and we were kindly invited to join Aquaneering for a meal.  Many people at dinner were excited to meet Lynne in person, having read her worked or corresponded with her via email.  I didn’t stay too late as my talk was scheduled in the first session on Wednesday morning.

The 3Rs session I was scheduled to present at started at 8am.  The session started with a talk about surgical implants in ferrets and then an overview of the Marseille Declaration.  Kyra Byrd (Stanford University) gave a talk about using pebbles and group housing as enrichment strategies for zebrafish before my talks on analgesia pre- and post-fin clip and skin swabbing as an alternative to fin clipping.  My talks went well from my point of view and there were questions afterwards (which is always a relief!).  We have been providing analgesia for fin clips since 2014 and I was surprised that it hasn’t taken off more in the USA.  The UK now requires implementation of analgesia and will be enforcing over the next few years, based on the individual project licence renewal schedule. 

Sadly, the ZHA booth has to be taken down by 1pm so a few of us met to do so.  I took a quick trip to the hotel to back up before heading to the farewell reception (which was mostly a fundraising auction) and casual ZHA meet up at the Beerhive.  It was time to say our goodbyes.  Some ZHA members were staying in town and going to a local aquarium the next day.  Others were headed back home.  I was going to Memphis, TN to see Transnetyx’s lab and present at their weekly meeting a summary of our skin swabbing collaboration.

Salt Lake City must have been said we were all leaving as it was pouring with rain on Thursday morning.  I met with Marco Brocca for breakfast for a catch up before heading to the airport.  It was a whirlwind of a trip and I would like to attend again at some point.  It is brilliant at ZHA are able to showcase the work our industry does.  I encourage those who are interested to apply to give a talk or poster about the work you do related to zebrafish.  AALAS is a fantastic place to learn new things about many species and network.  Hope you can make it to Nashville in 2024.

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