On Tuesday I will travel to Knoxville for the annual meeting of the Society for Mathematical Biology. On Wednesday I will give a talk there about my work on the NFAT signalling pathway. The programme of the conference is very dense: apart from the times when there are plenary talks there are seven sessions in parallel. My usual tactics at conferences of this type is to choose whole sessions to attend rather than individual talks. Anything else is usually frustrating due to the poor synchronization of the talks in different sessions. Maybe it will be better in this case. It is planned to have music to mark the breaks between talks which will be heard in all the rooms. This could overcome any lack of discipline imposed by the chairs of the individual sessions. Since all the rooms are in one building and, to judge by their numbering, close together it may really be practicable to attend individual talks.
What is the advantage of going to a big conference like this? The primary one is the opportunity of networking with people working in the field. Given that so much of the time is filled up with lectures this will require serious effort. It is good that the list of lectures was available well in advance of the conference. This allows a certain overview of who is taking part. It would have been even better if a full list of participants had also been available in advance. The second most important aspect of the conference is learning new things by actually listening to the talks. Since this is not a subject that I know so well that I can almost predict what the talks will be like just by seeing the titles and authors, there is plenty of opportunity for me here. Making the best of this opportunity will nevertheless require careful planning.
In the schedule there are eleven talks under the heading immunology and in addition a minisymposium on cancer immunology. These are things for me to focus on. There is also one plenary talk (by Becca Asquith) containing the phrase ‘immune response’. There is a session with the title ‘systems biology’ and four talks. My feelings towards this subject are ambivalent. On the one hand the idea – a concentrated theoretical approach to understanding biological systems – seems to me a very good thing. On the other hand I am not convinced by the way this idea has been realized up to now. One problem I see is that the definition of systems biology is rather vague and hence it is difficult to see what the content is. Another is that I have the impression that there is too much dominance of the quantitative over the qualitative (and high throughput over low throughput). My negative impression may just be due to lack of knowledge. In any case, I feel that I want to be enthusiastic about systems biology but I have not yet found the right point of access. A few weeks ago there was a conference on systems biology in Leipzig. I would have liked to attend but was prevented by other commitments. A highlight was a debate between Sydney Brenner and Denis Noble. I was not able to be there and so I was happy when I recently found that a video of it is available on the web. In fact the debate was not marked by strongly conflicting ideas. Both participants stressed that their views were not very far apart. I did not feel that I had a much clearer picture of the subject of the debate afterwards than I did before. Brenner dominated the proceedings. As usual he had a lot of interesting things to say. For instance he talked about a bacterium which adapted to live in I always find it inspiring listening to him and I recently had the opportunity to experience him live in a talk he gave in Berlin with the title ‘Reading the genome’. Through this I came upon a resource where short general articles by Brenner can be found. These one-page texts appeared under the names ‘Loose Ends’ and ‘False Starts’ and were published each month in the journal Current Biology between 1994 and 2000.