Monday, August 11, 2014

SIAM Conference on the Life Sciences 2014 - Joint Recap and Post Mortem

This post was written by both Precocious Llama and Frogee:

We've just returned from Charlotte, North Carolina where we attended the 2014 SIAM Conference on the Life Sciences. Both of us were fortunate to have received student travel awards to present our respective posters at the conference, and between the plenary talks, the minisymposiums, the panels, and the poster session, we took away many new (at least to us) ideas.

There were two talks that we found particularly motivational. The first that we heard was during a minisymposia on Genetic and Biochemical networks by Eduardo Sontag; he told us of work on the resolving scale-invariance, the phenomena of fold-change detection, in biological networks by considering multiple time scales. He told us stories of these proposed biological models that didn't hold up to mathematical inspection with respect to scale-invariance and how by tweaking the model they uncovered an unknown component of the biochemical network (at least this was our understanding). The second talk was a plenary talk by James Collins' on synthetic biology. Collins took us through the timeline of his work in synthetic biology from modelling toggle switches to implementing them into bacteria and all the applications that they have been involved in since.

When Frogee and I discussed these two talks after the conference, we enumerated some qualities that we appreciated about these talks:

  1. These talks struck a nice balance between the application and the mathematics used to solve the problems at hand. These were well-motivated stories.
  2. Through their collaborations and research it was clear that they were open to learning new fields, and that by doing so they had a mastery of both the mathematics and life sciences. They didn't self-identify as mathematicians or physicists. They were scientists solving problems.
  3. Both these speakers had phrases that began like "About 40 years ago, I was interested in ____". It's interesting to hear the insights of somebody who has been working on related problems for 40 years.
  4. Neither of these talks are directly related to the research that we are currently pursuing, but we really enjoyed their accessibility; it reminded us why it's beneficial to make your work accessible across disciplines.
Although the conference advertised that it would provide a cross-disciplinary forum to catalyze applied mathematical research to the life sciences, it seemed that the majority of the minisymposia's presenters did not clearly bridge their theorems and algorithms to applications in life sciences, nor did they care to provide a life science motivation to their research. Multiple speakers even proclaimed that there was no real-life application to their work, but rather they were just exploring the properties of different mathematical models. Unfortunately, this caused many of the minisymposia talks to have far less impact than the plenary talks. Regardless, we were still able to take away a few ideas that are translatable to our work.

Throughout the conference, there seemed to be a strong focus on neuronal signaling and biochemical reaction networks, with cellular behavior/movement/biophysics following close behind. Cancer modeling also made a strong showing, though not nearly as dominant as we expected it to be. Gene regulatory networks had a brief gasp of a showing. We found it very surprising that genomics and genetics in general were almost entirely absent from the conference. Of note, there was one plenary talk by Oliver Jensen on plant root modeling that was relevant to the modeling that we have started pursuing in our work.

Unfortunately, there was an undercurrent of condescension towards both females and life scientists at the conference. Specifically, comments like "You should have more equations; it's what draws people in at this conference", and "Women tend to take research more personally" were particularly disappointing. We applaud one of the panelists who, during the Lee Segal forum, expressed his displeasure with a male conference attendee (who remained anonymous) with respect to a misogynistic attitude. The panelist and the attendee had been on the hotel elevator along with a female non-attendee; in response to the female non-attendee describing her position as a manager at a bank, the male conference attendee replied "Oh, so you have an easy job." 

I think we took away many useful and innovative ideas from the conference. Overall, the conference was productive, and we'd like to attend again if we're given the opportunity to do so.

And now for the post-mortem.

What worked:

  1. We extended a poster mailing tube we had scavenged from around the department using duct tape and cardboard. We had no problems carrying this on the plane as a carry-on (American Airlines).
  2. Going to the grocery store to get some snacks for the hotel room. We actually ended up getting full-blown meal materials from the grocery store so that we could eat meals in the hotel room given the relatively short duration of the meal times.
  3. Using the coffee pot to cook oatmeal and macaroni and cheese.
  4. Getting some sleep. At the beginning we tried to attend every session, but the 8am to 10pm duration of the conference every day eventually wore us down. We then started prioritizing sessions so that we could get a decent night's rest.
What didn't work:

  1. Having only a 2 hour layover between connecting flights. A delay on the first flight caused us to nearly miss the next one. 3 hours seems a reasonable buffer.
That's it. Here we are the morning after the poster session!
Ryan McCormick at poster session for SIAM LS 2014
Sandra Truong at poster session for SIAM LS 2014

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