Thursday 5 September 2013

Conferences (NZSBMB)

Report for the NZSBMB

Conferences are about learning. And from them I have learnt a lot, not only in terms of scientific knowledge, but also in terms of common sense.
I went to two conferences in July, namely SMBE 2012 (Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution) in rainy Dublin —Ireland was rightfully called Hibernia, the land of winter, by the Romans— and the Gordon Biocatalysis 2012 conference in sweltering Rhode Island.
The first thing I learnt was that three successive red-eye flights are a bad idea regardless of cheapness and of how well-travelled one is as no amount of travelling can make one prepared for it. Another thing I learnt was that when the airhostess insists a poster-tube be given to her for stowage one should behave like a tigress protecting her cubs, lest one want it inexplicably sent to Denver…
The lab I work in studies enzyme evolution via promiscuity, which means that we scare evolutionary biologists by talking about kcat and KM values and enzymologists by talking about selection pressures. Therefore, I went to two conferences, one for each side. The work I presented as a poster was the change of various enzymatic activities (main and promiscuous) of an enzyme across different lineages.
The SMBE is a big conference, which is not necessarily a good thing. There were six parallel sessions, which nominally means one could go to relevant ones and avoid the irrelevant ones and within the first day I mastered the art of flitting from one session to the other. However, I soon found out that some sessions I was very keen on were full to (EU fire-code) capacity. A further side effect of parallel session is that often one has to make a tough choice between two interesting talks, whereas at other times one has to choose from a series of utterly uninspiring talks.
In addition to talks, there were the poster sessions, where I presented my newly reprinted poster. Many complicated factors are at play in the (unappreciated) art of poster placement in a hall. The main factor that determines whether a passer-by stops to read a poster is not due to the content although a QR code can help, but due to the presence of other readers (nucleators). Therefore, due to the queues, being close to the bar is probably one of the best places to attain this phenomenon. And next to the bar was exactly were my poster was.
My second conference, the Gordon Biocatalysis conference, was diametrically opposite: it was small, which meant it was a good environment to easily interact with other participants, both students and faculty. The talks were longer (i.e. not crammed) and all were fascinating. I left the conference having met many really smart and nice people, having learnt a lot about the frontiers of research and having been awed by what the future holds in store.
I did however learn another piece of common sense, namely to not make promises that cant be kept: I promised Wayne, my supervisor, I would not do anything embarrassing, yet I did so twice. In a first instance, there was a discussion of Star Trek that degenerated into a biggest trekkie competition, which I unfortunately won by having been wearing star trek themed socks. Then during a free afternoon, I let out a bellowing scream when a volleyball flew towards me referred to by others as my Klingon battlecry. Not my finest hour