Friday 2 September 2016

How to run a meeting

At The Institute we take roll-call for every class, a practice which seems wildly disrespectful to someone from the university sector. But the management insists on a roll-call for the teaching staff on the 1st September each year: we all have to line up outside HR and sign a book to indicate that we are back from Barbados or Ballyhack and are available for work. The ritual reminds me of signing a condolence book, so it's a little bit like being present at your own funeral. But by asking for dispensation and pleading CPD [continuous personal development] and completing a green LOA [leave of absence] form, I was able to avoid that networking opportunity and go to Dublin for a much more valuable one. 1st September was the date fixed by the TCD lab of Aoife McLysaght [prev], a noted Woman in Science for the 2016 VIBE [2013 - 2014 - 2015] meeting.

VIBE is my annual family gathering, when the 200 or so people engaged in research in molecular evolution and genomics in Ireland get a chance to showcase their work and hang out over tea & biscuits or coffee & croissants as the host's budget allows. Actually, we have a tradition of showcasing the work of our students rather than hearing another highly polished talk from the principal investigators PIs who lead each lab. Last year, for example, I asked one of my final year undergraduate students to present her research on dolphin Tursiops truncatus immunity which triggered the most active discussion of the day - win! for her. This year, we heard the presentation of work by a second-year Summer intern who had turned up something interesting in the McLysaght lab - win! too. Nice also because I first met AMcL as a scorching Summer intern in 1996. This year, the whole meeting was organised by the post-graduate students in the McLysaght lab which was another nice example of empowering rather than infantilising the young.

I got up at 0500hrs to breakfast at leisure, do a little light bloggin' and catch the bus to Dublin. I had a great day, taking notes on all the talks (ever hunting ideas for new research projects for our final year cohort), nattering in the tea breaks and being asked to chair the last talks session of the day. 2014 was the second time I'd hosted the meeting. In ?2005?, when I was working in St. Vincent's Hospital, my graduate student and I organised the VIBE meeting.  It was easy, I asked Ger L-R, the amazingly competent executive administrator to book the room and call down tea & coffee. I mentioned sandwiches for lunch and she gave me a choice of two external companies: cheap&cheerful or pretentious&dear. St Vincent's was badly placed for getting lunch quickly and cheaply. A free lunch raised the bar for subsequent VIBEs. We also persuaded one of the speakers at a just prior genomics meeting up the road in UCD to hang out in Dublin for an extra day and give us a key-note talk. That was also a first for VIBE.

The key-note in 2016 was Prof Laurence Hurst from U. Bath in England. Back when I was working in a hot-shot SFI-funded lab at the turn of the century, Hurst was one of the rivals to watch. He could turn out papers that made you mutter "B'gad Whistler, I wish I'd said that" but I'm sure he felt the same about us. Hurst hasn't lost his touch and gave a stonking talk outlining a new layer of constraint on the sequence of protein coding genes. As Hurst said "if you retain one thing from my talk today, remember ESE" [exonic splicing enhancer] there's a lot of them about and they have to be accommodated.

What else did I learn about how to run a meeting?

  • let the the students chair the sessions
  • make sure that the wheel-chair access toilets are unlocked [shame]
    • it is not a disabled toilet!
  • make sure that family (youngsters from the host lab) circulate the biscuits
    • this makes things fatter easier for everyone and so good manners
    • gets the youth thanks & eye-contact with their potential next employer
  • how difficult is it to print legible name badges?
    • wear the goddam badge! not everyone can remember who you are
    • include affiliation
    • long-standing note to self: Bring Own Name Badge
  • apply oil to the doors / seats so that people can leave talks discretely
Next year VIBE is across town in UCD.  Time after that to go down the country again.

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