Scientific workshops are great!

Sometimes my job requires me to manually remove the contents of a dead bird’s intestines. I call this skill “hand-pooping”. And at rare and beautiful times, my job requires me to go someplace awesome. Last week was one of those rare times and I went to Switzerland.

I have attended several scientific conferences over the years, but last week I had the privilege to attend my first “workshop”:  Ecology and Evolution of Host-Associated Microbiota. A workshop differs from a conference in one basic and important way: the number of people speaking at a given time. At a workshop, there’s only one person speaking at all times, whereas at a conference, where everyone is encouraged to give a talk, there can be 10+ people talking at once and the attendee must choose which talk to go to. These both have positives and negatives but I had no idea how wonderful one concurrent session could be! There was no agonizing over the schedule and no running around – just one person to see and, for better or worse, no other option.

This workshop had a lot of pleasant logistical aspects. There were ~150 people attending, which was a really nice size. It was small enough to be able to speak to almost everyone there but large enough that a great cross section of the discipline was represented and it was never boring. Although the main conference organizer, Dr. Dieter Ebert said it wasn’t super intentional, there was nearly a 50-50 ratio of male to female speakers, a feature I noticed after the second woman spoke. It’s not rare to see a nearly equal male to female ratio at meetings, but when it comes to invited speakers (aka “big wigs”), the ratio is usually y-chromosome biased.

Everyone fit into one lecture hall – into very hard wooden seats.

All talks were given by invited speakers, but registrants were invited to bring a poster, if they wanted. There were about 25 of us who did and it was a great decision! At least three of the invited speakers came and talked to me about my research. On top of that, I probably spoke to another 15 people about the project in depth and I met an expert on one of my focal species. I’m not sure that sort of networking is possible, or at least easy, at big meetings.

As a bioinformatics/microbiota person, I was probably most scientist-struck (it’s like star-struck but for scientists) by Rob Knight, author of the QIIME package, an amazingly comprehensive and collaborative program for Quantitative Insights Into Microbial Ecology. His talk presented some of the research his group is doing with mammal (primarily human) microbiota and the scope of his research program was staggering. One of his questions includes using micorbiota to identify an individual – like a multispecies bacterial fingerprint. They wanted to know if there was a Wallace’s Line on the keyboard: since both of your hands have totally different microbial signatures, would the keys on the keyboard have a line down the middle where the fauna completely turn over? Neat question, right?

We also heard from Jack Gilbert on the Earth Microbiome Project – a consortia of scientists trying to catalogue all the microbes on the planet. I can’t really get my brain around that, but I know it’s a cool idea. His other projects include one that monitors homes and the people living in them – does a new owner pick up the microbiota of the house or does the house become a reflection of the inhabitants?

Those two projects spoke to my interests, but basically all the talks were interesting. Eugene Rosenberg talked about his research group, how gut bacteria can influence sexual behavior and the Hologenome Concept (that the macroorganism and all its associated microorganisms is the unit of evolution). We heard Catharina Svanborg talk about urinary tract infections (UTIs), asymptomatic bacteriuria (ABU, or abundant bacteria in the urinary tract that doesn’t induce unpleasant symptoms) and how ABU may be a valid form of preventative treatment of UTIs. Jan van der Meer spoke about Integrative and Conjugative Elements (ICE) – little mobile pieces of DNA that are responsible for 20% of intraspecific variation!

There was also a one day tutorial where we walked through some microbial analyses. Weihong Qi talked about sequence quality control. Daniel Huson walked us through the various functions of MEGAN – for visualization of metagenomic and phylogenetic data. Rob Knight and Luke Ursell showed the basic functions of the QIIME package and how to use the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (which is a bunch of computing power owned by Amazon that sits around unused most of the year).

It was a great three days and an exceptional way to disseminate information to people interested in a subdiscipline of a subdiscipline. I would encourage anyone with the means to attend a workshop that sounds up their alley – I really underestimated how much I would learn in the smaller setting. The organizing committee did an awesome job.

Thanks for a great week, Basel! My mind is refreshed and I’m ready to get back to my non-Switzerland life. (No hand-pooping today – just data analysis!)

Did I mention it was in Switzerland?