The ASCB meeting brings scientists from all levels to talk about cell biology, which is actually almost anything “biology”. But there’s also a full program dedicated to other matters, like science careers, science publishing, science communications and science policy. This is also a great venue for companies to show their products, and for organizations/institutions to recruit new members. If I remember the numbers correctly, there were over 550 oral presentations and over 2,700 posters. I overheard someone saying there were ~6000 people attending the meeting. I typically go to RNA meetings that are mostly in the lower 100’s of participants. So, to me, that’s a large meeting.
Here are my recollections from ASCB15, my first ASCB meeting. It took place at the San-Diego convention center, pretty far from Israel.
On Thursday morning, I landed in LAX after a long, terrible flight, and took the train to San-Diego, where I checked in to the Wyndham hotel. It is a very nice hotel with view to the ocean, and to the ships of the maritime museum. That afternoon, I went for a walk around the neighborhood (little Italy) and tested a couple of pizza places. Napizza is so good! I collapsed into bed around 7pm.
On Friday morning, I woke up early (4am. Damn you, jet lag) and at 8am joined the biocom/KGI minicourse “Managing Science in the Biotech Industry“. There were three parts: the morning session was dedicated to case studies of a couple of biotech companies. Then there was lunch-mingling with people who moved from academia to biotech. the afternoon session was dedicated to discussions on how to read “wanted” ads, write the resume and pass the interview.
It was much more interesting than I anticipated, and very educational. If you are not sure about what career path to choose – academia or industry – I highly recommend such a (mini) course to get some perspective. In my case, it further convinced me to stay in academia.
We returned around 6pm and I immediately went to sleep, I was so tired (damn you, jet lag).
Saturday was the first day of ASCB15. I skipped the morning sessions and started the meeting with the “special subgroup interest” on extracellular vesicles.
I was impressed by the work of Matthew Shurtleff from Scheckman’s lab. He studies how miRNA are packaged into exosomes. He developed an in vitro system to study this. Using this system he found a protein that is required for sorting certain miRNAs into vesicles. He also found a cis element, a short (4nt) consensus sequence in miRNAs that is required and sufficient for sorting into exosomes. I asked him if he can estimate through this system the average number of miRNA molecules per vesicle, but unfortunately, he never attempted such calculations.
In the middle of the session I randomly move to another session just to hear something new. I landed in the “building the cell” session, which is all about clever people trying to (re-)engineer cells or cell structures. It was rather technical for me, but I was truly impressed by the things they do. After two lectures I had to leave, to judge the undergrad poster competition.
It was a very good experience for me, also, I think, for the two undergrads whose posters I judged. I tried to give only positive feedback and be encouraging; although one of them did a very good job that I hardly had any comments. I gave her 29/30 points. Actually, I don’t know who won.
Also, there were brownies, yum!
The “meet and greet” was nice. At first I made a mistake and took the nachos w/ salsa sauce. Too hot for me! The cheese & crackers were more to my taste…
I met with two nice guys there. I went by and overheard them saying “single molecule”. So I turned to them and we started talking. I learned that they do interesting things with light microscopy – optogenetics and single molecule tracking in live cells. It was a nice way to pass the time till the keynote symposium.
The keynote symposium featured two speakers. Jane Lubchenco spoke about science policy. Her main point – scientists should improve their communication skills to the general public, particularly to politicians, to promote science-friendly policy.
Next came up Sallie Chisholm who talked about phytoplankton. It was interesting, but I was already very tired (damn you, etc…) so I nodded a lot and I don’t remember much. The day ended with free food
Sunday started with three amazing talks by: Eric Betzig, Xiaowei Zhuang and W. E. Moernmer, on pushing the limits of microscopy.
Betzig advocated SIM and light sheet microscopy as the next best things. The movies he showed made me so jealous. It was so pretty. And it’s an incredible technical achievement. In one case, he said something like “Well, SIM got us to this and that resolution but we wanted more so we just changed the objective to one with 1.7 NA”. He showed improved resolution with TIRF-SIM and then something he called grazing SIM. Last method he advocated was lattice light-sheet microscopy which yields fast hi-res 3D images but with very low phototoxicity. In his words (more or less): lattice light sheet microscopy will be height of his career, more than Nobel Prize.
I do not remember all the details of his talk, I think he talked about 7-8 different stories, but I’m sure we’ve read them, or we’ll read them soon. One of the coolest slides was the one showing live overlay of 6 organelles, each labeled by a different dye. Also, somewhere in his talk, he referenced gremlins!
After Betzig came Zhuang, who told us three stories. The 1st was the finding of actin ring-like structures in axons, using STORM. This is a real nice story, already published, how with STORM she could detect ring-like structures of actin all along axons. Based on the distance measured between these rings, she found a structural protein of that same length (Spectrin, ~180nm if I remember it right) that holds the rings separated. And then there are other proteins, both structural and functional (e.g. ion channels) similarly ordered along the axon. She next showed how DNA FISH enables studying chromatin density, and correlating that with epigenetic marks. The last part of her talk was dedicated to MERFISH, a single-molecule RNA FISH approach that enables analysis of 100’s to 1000 mRNA species in a single cell.
After her talk I approached her, because I plan on doing MERFISH myself. Hopefully, that 2min talk will inspire cooperation in that regard.
The last speaker was W. E Moernmer, who gave a rather technical talk to my taste about improved imaging. Specifically, he engineered the pupil of the objective: instead of clear pupil, he put a “double-helix” pupil, which helps to resolve 3D images. There were other shapes besides the double-helix. He then told about the research of one of his students (that I met at the meet & greet). Here, they used Snap-tag to follow a membranal protein, Smoothened, in the primary cilium of a cell at single molecule resolution. They detected events in which the protein stopped diffusing, probably bound by another protein complex. This behavior could be modulated by signaling agonist.
I will stop the account here and continue at the next post…