November 9th, 2011

How to Prep for AHA: An Expert’s Advice for Fellows


Dr. Thomas Ryan explains how fellows can get the most from the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, both as attendees and as presenters. Dr. Ryan is Professor of Medicine (Emeritus) at Boston University, a former AHA president (1984–1986), a former Chief of Cardiology at Boston University (1971–1994), and a recipient of the AHA Chairman’s Award (2001). He was interviewed by cardiology fellow and comoderator of the Fellowship Training blog on CardioExchange, Dr. John Ryan (no relation).

The interview touched on other topics relating to the changing world of cardiology. You can hear the entire interview, including Dr Thomas Ryan’s description of his first AHA in 1957, when F. Mason Sones presented his first selective coronary angiogram, and the famous 1977 standing ovation for Dr Andreqs Gruentzig. 

Q: Do you think it’s important for fellows to go to AHA?

A: It’s critical. AHA isn’t just the grandfather of all the major meetings — the presenters have the strongest scientific background: future Nobel laureates, leaders in the field, rising stars presenting their first work. In the cardiology division at BU, half of the fellows attend AHA in any one year and they go with the obligation to report back on several of the presentations, for the benefit of those who did not attend. I think it is important for a fellow to go to at least one AHA during training. I have been to 45 of the last 48 meetings, having missed three in my first couple of years in practice.

Q: How should fellows spend their time at the meeting?

A: I wish someone had advised me before my first AHA, which was back in 1957. The information overload can be truly overwhelming. The core content is so diverse and voluminous that you can’t digest more than 10% of it. By your third year as a fellow, you will have gotten the hang of it a bit more, so it will be easier to narrow your focus.

My advice is to spend 60% of your time going to small sessions in your area of interest. It’s the question-and-answer sections that are so relevant and instructive, especially for fellows. Make sure you go to one small session in a field of cardiology that you know little or nothing about. I do that to this day. It stretches your mind and is a good way of discovering what is truly new in cardiology.

Dedicate no more than 20% of your time to the main presentations and the big late-breakers. These can be very exciting, and they give you new data to go home with, but they have been less exciting of late, and they don’t allow for the personal interaction.

Spend maybe 10% to 15% of your time with the posters. You can get utterly lost in the poster hall, so you should read the program and identify the posters in your key area or areas of interest. Find the fellow who is working in your area, look at the work, and strike up a conversation — it can be very instructive and can lead to lifelong professional relationships.

Then you’ve got 5% to 10% of your time left to wander around the exhibit hall, but that’s a bit of a tourist trap, in my opinion. The role of industry support is important to the ability to hold these conferences, but it’s a bit of a spectacle and the commercialization is problematic.

Q: I presented for the first time last year and found it very stressful. I offered my neophyte’s advice to other fellows. What is your seasoned advice?

A: Practice, practice, practice. First, formulate what you are going to say — only then turn to your slides. Include no more than 7 to 10 slides, and present slowly. If you know it cold, you can present it in your sleep, but you need to let your audience keep up.

I tell people to practice in an auditorium setting with a microphone and with the screen at such an extreme angle that you can barely read the slides, because that’s how it might be. And when you are presenting for the first time, you are so nervous that you will try to just read the slides, and you can’t depend on that. Also, things will go wrong — you’ll forget to turn the pointer on or you’ll have trouble going back and forth between the slides, so you need to keep practicing until you can keep your cool and focus simply on instructing your audience. The heart of the meeting is when lowly fellows and rising stars of tomorrow present their first work – achieving a career pinnacle by having their research judged worthy by the abstract viewing committee and getting the chance to present at the AHA meeting.

Q: How do you feel the AHA meeting has changed over time?

A: I have seen the annual meetings grow in size and subject matter — so much so that you cannot absorb more than 10%. . . .  But I do wonder how we can sustain the expense of these national meetings. Like the rest of the world, we are facing globalization. I do think we are going to see globalization of the meeting more and more. You current fellows will see it in your lifetime.

Readers, are you planning to go to AHA? Will it be your first time? What are you doing to prepare for the event, either as an attendee or as a presenter?

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