4 things I learned from keynote lectures at SCS2016

SCS2016 featured keynote lectures by two senior scientists in computational biology. John Quackenbush and Janet Thornton each shared scientific findings and expert advice to the students listening eagerly in the audience. I came away from the lectures with a few ideas I will keep in mind for both my daily research work and future career planning:

  1. “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” John Quackenbush opened his talk with this well-known quote attributed to George Box. He explained that many of the network models researchers in his group create are inherently flawed — and that’s OK! No model is perfect, but good ones can solve the problem at hand.
    This is definitely something I can apply to my research — It’s easy to get bogged down thinking about the small flaws in models I come up with or methods I use. It’s better to ask “is this useful?” than “is this perfect?”
  2. “You have to work hard, and it only gets harder.” Tough words to hear from Janet Thornton, who described her path from student, to PI, to eventual director of European Bioinformatics Institute. Janet described how she thought each career advancement would bring a decrease in the amount of work required for success. Just the opposite, she discovered. Each transition brought more work and more responsibilities, but these were balanced out by an increase in excitement. Higher-level responsibilities and mentoring younger students made the increased workload worth it.
  3. “Every revolution in science has been driven by one and only one thing: access to data.” John Quackenbush described how data used to be siloed away in the towers of the elite. Access was hard to obtain — due to both policy and logistical constraints — and science moved slowly as a result. We are slowly entering a culture of data sharing, driven by the obvious results of collaboration and the means to be able to share globally and instantaneously. John was excited about the potential for science in the future as data sharing becomes even more common, and I am too!
  4. “Communication is the hardest part, and the most important.” Janet Thornton selected communication as the single most difficult part of her career. She named it the sole factor that could make or break a project, collaboration or organization. I thoroughly agree with this statement (enough to make it the theme of my blog on organizing SCS2016) but was surprised that she still considers it a challenge. Effective communication takes practice, but can be very rewarding — whether it’s a Nature paper, innovative collaborative project or a successful international symposium!

The keynote lectures of SCS2016 were special. Senior scientists gave us a view not only into their thoughts on research, but also their ideas about careers, communication and the scientific process as a whole. Students have a lot to learn from mentors like John Quackenbush and Janet Thornton, and these lessons will stick with me for a long time.

This post was originally posted in the PLOS Computational Biology Field Reports Blog.

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