On the importance of conferences

I just returned from the biennial Fungal Genetics Conference held at Asilomar State Park in Pacific Grove, California. It is wonderful, exhausting, invigorating, at times overwhelming firehose of new information. Nearly 900 researchers who work on fungi in some form come to attend.  This meeting grew out of a primary focus on fungal genetics, but has now become a gathering that encompasses epigenetics, genomics,  ecology, population and evolutionary biology, fungal associated chemistry, medical and animal associated mycology, and education and outreach on fungal biology. For me, it has become a special meeting since my first attendance as a graduate student. I’ve made friends, met mentors, got to know the fungal biology stars and rockstars (and more).

On the importance of gathering

I was thinking about the need for conferences and whether it was worth it for ~900 people to get on planes and cars and assemble in one place for a 4-5 day meeting. We read the papers, communicate by emails and video, what is special about a conference? I think there are a few essential things that come out of the meetings.

One is building community. Science is not done in a vacuum. The connections with close friends are strengthened, projects are discussed well past normal bedtimes. The zone that separates competitors and collaborators can be more flexible, or at least the shape of the competition can seem more human than the generic sense of trying to be first to finish and prove a new theory or idea. The mentorship and advice that comes from late night talks at poster sessions and over breakfast are not easily had outside of the conference. I met my postdoc mentor first at this meeting and that helped chart a lot of career.

Another is to hear the latest work. While some people may only cover summaries of published work, there is the exchange of  information all at once that is hard to get in any other way. The nuance of the ideas shared in a presentation can also communicate more effectively than a written publication in some ways, so I enjoy the chance to hear and share the science in this way. Often the Q&A can bring up additional perspectives that add to the discourse.

A concentrated time to think just about the science. The increasingly busy daily routines make it hard to really sit and think about new ideas. While this conference no means has a lot of time for sitting and thinking, there is both the forced occasion to summarize your own work in a short talk and to try and digest the key points of a research project from others. The constant storm of work before the meeting does lead to the inevitable “I’m still working on my talk” that continue before you give you talk … but still this provides a chance to plant a flag on where you are in a project and get perspective on what the rest of the field is doing.

On the importance of place

I’ve only ever attended this conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds. It is a fantastic place for conferences, because of its history, the setting on the dramatic California coastline, the hallowed ground of historic scientific conferences as well as just the general fun and collegiality that being at ‘science camp’ on a grounds that was at one point a YMCA,YWCA summer camp. It is definitely one of the places many who have attended like to call one of their scientific homes. Much like MBL – Woods Hole or Cold Spring Harbor, or Friday Harbor are key places for doing science (and also places for great meetings) I think Asilomar has a clear place for defining the history of Fungal Genetics.

I’ve been to meetings without the sweeping landscape and in sterile hotel conference rooms. That certainly is less exciting, but doesn’t diminish the scientific discussion. But I think there is something different about a place which has the feel of a camp with outside and inside areas to gather in groups to discuss. Some years when the weather is less cooperating and we only can see misty fog and tug up the zippers on our jackets instead of a short sleeve, I still find myself taking a beach walk to catch up on latest projects with colleagues or listening to stories from the seasoned scientists about how a particular technique was perfected on account of seredipity.

Personal connection

The Fungal Genetics and Neurospora Genetics meetings are also a personal waystone for my career and friendships. I gave my first talk at this meeting as a graduate student and have had the opportunity to continue participate and serve on policy committee to help represent the community. I learned I got tenure just before one of the conferences and was able to celebrate with colleagues and friends where it (usually!) feels like success of any is success for the community. Conferences like these have been an important part of my scientific education and a chance to make lifelong friends with shared interests. I see grad school classmates, mentors, former graduate students or postdocs, and meet new people every time.

Future

I wanted to write these thoughts because it is has always been an exhausting but satisfying conference I look forward to. I also know the perpetuity of these events are not guaranteed. It is expensive to run one of these meetings. We are lucky to have the support of the Genetics Society of America for so much of the logistical aspects of organizing the meeting. Nor take for granted that the costs are still approachable for many to attend. Especially as part of my policy committee service, I am more aware of how much it costs to stay, feed, and rent space at a seaside resort in Northern California. Things can change as to who attends these meetings: pricing inevitably goes up, funding available for travel and conferences may be harder to get, or if for some other reason the diverse spirit or culture of the attendees of meetings might change. I can hope we keep infecting new folks with excitement for fungal biology and genetics to keep our field growing and engaged.

Not all change is bad, influx of new people or shifts in the scope of main research topics can invigorate a field with new ideas. Certainly some things will be different by 2019, but I hope many of us find ourselves back to Asilomar for the next installment of the Fungal Genetics conference.

 

Link to the program and a PDF link

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