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.

How do you organize an international symposium?

One word: communication.

I was approached by the ISCB Student Council leadership almost a year ago with an invitation to work as the co-chair for SCS2016. Yesterday, students from around the globe came together to share their research in computational biology here in Orlando. Throughout the many month-long organizing process, one theme stayed constant: the importance of communication.

It’s communication that convinces senior faculty to travel and give keynote lectures. Communication that persuades pharmaceutical and publishing companies to sponsor travel fellowships and our networking event. Communication that gets the word out to students around the world, communication that enables us scientist to speak in a common language despite different backgrounds, educations, accents and opinions. And most importantly, communication that allows students in different time zones come together and work to put an event like SCS2016 together.

To this end, a few practical tips: Doodle polls with timezone support are key for organizing meetings with people from different parts of the world. Skype or other web-based group calls keep people together and on track. To-do lists and documents of people’s responsibilities prevent you from forgetting what was decided at the last meeting. Gentle reminders via email are sometimes needed to make sure deadlines are met.

I learned a lot about the way I work with people. I’m quick to take on additional responsibilities if I feel I can complete a task quicker than delegating it out to someone else. I had to learn that “fast” or “better” isn’t always the end goal. It can be much more rewarding to give the responsibility to someone else and let them learn from it.

Inevitably, communication will break down at some point in the process. At this time, responsibilities fall on the head organizers to complete what needs to be done, even if it involves losing sleep!

Organizing SCS2016 was a lot of work, especially in the few weeks before the conference. Was it worth it? Without a doubt. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to learn and work with other motivated students, and I’m proud of the event we pulled off yesterday!

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