In some ways scientists are a bit like mountaineers. We spend most of our time alone with our teams, exposed to harsh weather, attempting to climb impossible peaks. Sometimes, we fall off and bruise ourselves, and often we have to retreat, realising we’ve taken the wrong path. We do all this in isolation and away from view. But each year we get together to swap war stories, to show off our successes, and to share new opportunities related to the lands we have seen from the mountain tops. We do all this according to the age-old and trusted format of the Annual Society Meeting.
This year the ASBMB meeting was in Fremantle. The Western Australian Chief Scientist, Peter Klinken, himself an accomplished biochemist and long-time successful leader of a medical research institute, spoke at the opening. He amazed me with his new skill – speaking in the language of the Indigenous Noongar people. He also set the tone of the meeting, talking about old friendships and new technologies.
The first day was dominated by talks about CRISPR-mediated gene editing. It is very impressive how quickly new technologies are harnessed to address important problems. I talked about how we’re using CRISPR to edit in naturally occurring beneficial mutations to treat inherited blood disorders, like Sickle Cell Anaemia. I also took the opportunity to talk about the history of blood research and the first observation of sickled cells in deer in the London zoo in 1846.
But the talks that followed were probably of most interest to the audience. Kaylene Simpson described her platform for doing genetic screens using CRISPR, Marco Herold described his success with identifying key cancer genes via such screening, and then Gaetan Burgio took the stage. He stole the show with a captivating CRISPR talk with the ironic title ‘Any idiot can do it’.
Gaetan has extensive experience in making genetically modified mice and is always on the look out for new technological advances. He reads the literature carefully and provides very useful summaries of new advances as soon as they emerge. Similarly if what’s in the tin doesn’t match the label, he’ll point that out. He talked a bit about the ‘reproducibility crisis’ and how sometimes preliminary results in CRISPR technique papers don’t live up to expectations.
To my mind this is a great example of how science can be quickly self-correcting. The advent of social media means that work can be publicly discussed and errors can be rapidly corrected. Sometimes if the genie that has been released from the bottle is disappointing, it can be put back in.
Gaetan spoke with great humour and his measured tone on the stage is something that one doesn’t always notice in tweets – Twitter has genuine value but tends to present things in black and white and can lead to confrontations. Long form articles or conference presentations provide an opportunity to provide more measured perspectives.
I went away confident that I now knew the most efficient modern way to make conditional knock-in mice and also happier that science could work properly to get to the right answer in the end.
At the end of the symposium we also had a good discussion on the power of social media and how it could sometimes give rise to vigilante cultures that could cause great damage to individuals. We talked about, just as it helps to be polite when disagreeing in person, it’s also a good idea to be considerate on the internet.
As the days unfolded there were more early and mid-career talks and a series of ASBMB Award lectures that celebrate high-performing role models for our community. Gavin Knott, who went from Perth to Jennifer Doudna’s CRISPR lab in Berkeley, won the Boomerang Award, and talked about the evolution of CRISPR and anti-CRISPR genes. Kate Shroder won the Merck Medal and spoke about drugs that can control inflammation, Tatiana Soares da Costa won the Eppendorf Edman Award for her work on antibiotics. Maria Kavalliaris, received the Society’s highest honour, the Lemberg Medal, and gave a talk about drugs to combat cancer.
To round out the session Terry Mulhern, the winner of the Shimadzu Education Award, gave a highly engaging lecture, replete with videos, showing how theatre and dance could be used to painlessly embed foundational biochemical concepts into the consciousness of even the most indifferent medical students. I particularly liked his personification of the amino acid tyrosine, that had a polar moiety in the form of a red beanie, and sunglasses to absorb UV light.
There were many other great talks, but, of course, no ASBMB conference is complete without the Annual General Meeting. When I was younger I was amazed that grown ups spent their time fluffing about the Society Constitution and the financial accounts. But I guess I have grown up myself. The Treasurer Marc Kvansakul explained how the Society, with its roughly 1000 regular members, and healthy conference attendance was faring. Briony Forbes the Secretary did introduce an important change to the Constitution – the Common Seal (whatever that is – but an attempt to draw it is shown below) is no where to be found, so has been declared free to go.
After that important piece of news, the President Joel Mackay, neatly summarized what the Society was all about and how it could be even better. The annual conferences are vital for spreading knowledge of new techniques and approaches, they support the career development of students, early and mid-career researchers, as their reputations grow. They provide a community for celebrating achievement and sharing the fundamental pleasure of knowing about biochemistry. They are also now vital for exploring new opportunities in teaching – Terry Mulhern’s dramatic approach is refreshing and Gareth Denyer similarly explained new ways of using virtual reality to get across complex concepts in structural biology.
But most of all the conferences provide us with a community to underpin the purpose of our discipline. Our purpose is immutable and involves generating new knowledge within the discipline of biochemistry and molecular biology. Knowledge that we hope will serve society and make the world a better and more interesting place. But on a daily level our personal experiences oscillate between multiple disappointments and occasional triumphs. Having a Society and a community smooths things over and provides a constant foundation from which to launch new and ever riskier expeditions.