Saturday 10 May 2014

VIBErant in The Midlands

Well yesterday all went off swimmingly - this Swan floated around chatting to old and new pals and the Annual Meeting for Irish Binformatics motored along keeping mostly to time. I was careful to choose session chairs only from the ranks of Irish Women of Science. You may be sure that there was a satisfying variety in the the talks and posters presented.  Bioinformatics, as it says on the tin, is a cross-disciplinary field, and by keeping a foot or even a toe in both camps there is good potential for a Great Leap Forward.  Keeping a foot in means that you have to be challenged with new materials and methods rather than staying in your same-old same-old comfort zone. Meetings such as yesterday's are a handy way of achieving this prerequisite for being near the cutting edge.  If there isn't at least one talk that is largely over your head, it hasn't been worth the registration fee. In my report from last year's meeting, I kept my detail focussed on the key-note speech from John Greally, from which I abstracted a great anecdote about how foot-in-each-camp synergy was achieved by having two chaps, who were tooled up in complementary ways, talk to each other and share their skills. The delegates' talks were deliberately left a little blurry because some of the material was unpublished and so intellectual-property sensitive.

Of course if NUIG could wheel out an inspirational key-note speaker from New York, I had to see that stake and if at all possible raise it.  My choice had to be someone from outside our incestuous Irish Binf community or it wouldn't qualify as a keynote and the Westies would have to dig deep into their natural good manners not to patronise me at the 2015 meeting. I spent a good bit of time scanning the far horizons for a big potato until I realised a month ago that we had one just the other side of town: in the leader of the Irish team of the Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium (PGSC).  Genome sequencing is one of the key sources for generating data for binfoes to analyse and also poses interesting binfo challenges in the process of getting the DNA sequence into the correct order and making sense of it. Dan Milbourne was willing and so I had the cap for my programme of speakers.  The Potato genome poses a number of logistical problems because of its genetic structure but you can solve those with clever biotech tricks to simplify the genetic complexity. It was less easy to solve the strategic issues within the multinational consortium.  Molecular biological science is vertiginous in the pace with which technology is developing. Originally, the consortium divvied up the genome, chromosome by chromosome, and each group went off to source the money to deliver their contribution.  I won't bore my Russianside and Ukrainside readers with the details, but the countries which were best resourced had been fast out of the starting gates with current best-practice technology and had invested in it: strategically, intellectually, emotionally. New sequencing technology appeared on the scene in the middle of the project and the late starters were leaning towards the New Good Strategy which was likely to yield much better bangs for bucks.  But it would be difficult to integrate the new data with the old and there was a wholly understandable reluctance from the early birds to start over from scratch.  You can imagine the to-fro: "if you dozy lumps had got off your sofa and done half of what we did, we'd have the whole project in the can by now" . . . "would you listen to the dinosaurs?".  ANNyway, Dan hosted a plenary meeting of the consortium and they thrashed out the "Carlow Accord" which in due course delivered the genome sequence of Der Schpud Solanum tuberosum; for which much thanks because I was able to set one of my project students to analysing it earlier this academic year. I thought it was excellent that the youngsters in the audience heard how science is carried out by people who have the strengths and weaknesses, sensitivities and boorishness; that you have to develop a modus operandi with them all - even, perhaps particularly, the disagreeable ones.

As with last year, I won't blob about the talks - you really had to be there.  But we were told about an extraordinary new development in sequence alignment theory which reveals that 25 years of hard graft and crossed eyes has been entirely wrong-headed.  It's not often that you're there when the paradigm shifts.

As promised I spent the previous couple of evenings cooking 4 kg of flapjacks: these were all hoovered up in the coffee breaks even in preference to the fancy shop-bought biks supplied by the Institute's catering department.  So home-made cookies is something I put to the organisers of next year's meeting - which looks like being at Dublin City University - getting a key-note speaker is now necessary but not sufficient.

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