Features: The ASCB Meeting from a young biologists
point of view
After the BSCB spring meeting, I soon forgot that in addition to
the pretty sounding Young Cell Biologist of the Year title, my prize
also included a free trip to the ASCB meeting in Washington. However,
towards the end of November, my correspondence with Dr Kellie (the
treasurer of the BSCB) got busier and busier and as I started getting
bombarded with massive numbers of leaflets from various biotech companies,
I started realising that I was really to go to Washington to attend
one of the biggest scientific meetings.
Although I tried to get familiar with the abstract book while still
at home, asking for advice on what to go to and what to miss, the
first real opportunity to delve into the abstracts came only on the
plane. After a few minutes of trying to adapt my eyes to the size
of the characters in the abstract book, I concluded that it was a
mistake not to take a magnifying glass with me. Even the stewardess
could not pass me without looking horrified and wondered how the publisher
could have expected anyone to read that.
I spent two hours in my room recovering from my jet lag and then
headed to the Washington Convention Centre, where the meeting was
held. My first impression was 'ohmygod', how can I find anything and
anyone at such an immense place. However after having noticed a few
familiar faces in the crowd, I started relaxing and relating to the
conference as (I guess) one was supposed to. Huge but accessible,
highly organised but informal.
The kick-off plenary session was given by David Botstein
followed by Gerald Rubin and Cornelia Bargmann, all describing the
advances made in genome-wide studies by sequencing the genomes of
model organisms. Exploration of the genome using DNA microarray techniques
makes it possible to assess the mRNA profiles not only of individual
cells but also of whole tissues. Therefore comparing profiles of stem
to differentiated cells, cycling to quiescent cells, healthy to diseased
tissues will provide us with all the candidate genes that could be
involved in bringing about these fundamental changes.
My first thought after the plenary session was: that is all nice
and well, the biotech companies will do all the array comparisons,
isolate the genes, develop the drugs, so where is the need for me,
for bioscientists outside industry? But when I took it further, I
realised that although cDNA microarrays are very efficient means to
characterise variation in human gene expression, no revolutionary
(at least, not in the last year) means were developed to study the
function of genes, so while genome-wide studies will undoubtedly accelerate
the isolation of novel genes, their actual characterisation will take
as much time and effort as it is taking now. Good news for young cell
biologists, I guess.
The plenary sessions covered broad areas of cutting-edge cell biology,
but unfortunately their size was a bit intimidating for open discussions.
The minisymposia were on a much more tolerable scale, and could therefore
cater for my taste for useful comments and heated debates. I especially
liked the session on cytoskeleton assembly and dynamics (please, excuse
me for my biased opinion), as it provided such an excellent overview
of recent advancements in the understanding of the behaviour of microtubule
and actin cytoskeleton from Dictyostelium to mammalian cells. Finally,
I cannot fail to mention Dr Alsop's talk on cleavage furrow positioning
in animal cells, which was not only very interesting but also I could
not stop being amazed by the fine microsurgical technique they were
using to manipulate mitotic spindles in living cells.
Although I mentioned plenary sessions and minisymposia already, it
is only now that I reached my favourite part of the conference: poster
sessions. Posters were big, and there were a great number of them,
just like everything else at this meeting. However they were well
presented and nicely distributed, so despite 600 posters being on
display every day for four days in a row in a hall of 250,000 square
feet, one could still find it enjoyable to read, discuss or contemplate
on them. And when I grew tired, I walked up to one of the biotech
companies, checked out their always colourful displays in exchange
for some ever useful goodies, such as cookies and key-rings. Obviously,
the conference was not only about science, a lot of talks concentrated
on social aspects of today's science education and constant career
advice was provided to lost PhD students and postdocs.
When science became a bit overwhelming, I sneaked out and indulged
myself with a few visits to museums, restaurants and cafes in Washington.
Another unforgettable experience involved a visit to an exhibition
by the Hungarian photographer, Brassai, called The Eye of Paris which
was a compelling portrait of cosmopolitan life in Paris from the beginning
of the 20th century. I felt there was something common between us:
we both left Budapest and went a long way before reaching Washington
- Brassai through Paris, and myself through Cambridge.
The Wellcome/CRC Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology
University of Cambridge
Tennis Court Road
Cambridge, CB2 1QR
I would like to thank Kim Jeffers, Debbie Kidd and Jordan Raff for
their contribution to the work I presented on the winning poster and
the BSCB for the opportunity to attend the ASCB meeting.