At MASAMB XXIII

Apr 26, 2013
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So I’m back… Well, I have actually been back for a little while already, as this year’s Mathematical and Statistical Aspects in Molecular Biology (MASAMB) meeting was held last April 11th and 12th.

Mission accomplished, it is fair to say. The idea was for me to acquaint myself face-to-face with research areas — bioinformatics and statistical genetics — which Nature Protocols has always covered, and in which it hopes to be even more active in the near future. For sure, over a day and a half I had the opportunity to attend a total of 25 presentations divided into five sessions: statistical bioinformatics, computational cell biology, next-generation sequencing, systems biology, and evolution. I will not claim to have understood everything I heard, but all presentations were stimulating and thought-provoking. Given my background in ‘wet’ chemistry and biochemistry, I guess it was no surprise that I found it easier to follow the biological side of the talks than the parts that dealt with mathematical and computational models, but I am now much more familiar with the landscape in this research area.

My attendance of MASAMB, as I discovered on site, was primarily made possible by the engaging and amiable host of this year’s MASAMB, Dr. Michael Stumpf of Imperial College, via the intercession of my email contact, Dr. Louise English. During one of the poster sessions, Michael explained to me that one of the main goals of MASAMB is to provide PhD students and post-docs with a workshop-like venue in which to present their own research in an environment that is more ‘intimate’ and less intimidating than the average meeting. Students and post-docs are those most encouraged to present their work, Michael added, and most of the conference speakers belong to this category.

Besides the scientific quality of the presentations, I was quite impressed with how well they were timed and organized. Each talk was to last 20 minutes, including eventual questions from the audience, and not a single presentation out of 25 went long, while the switch between speakers always ran smoothly and quickly. I found this to be quite the impressive feat, both in terms of the technical prowess of the meeting organizers and of the scholarliness of the young — and one would assume generally relatively inexperienced — speakers.

This year’s MASAMB conference attendance was about 110, toward the high-end of the average, but it still felt quite ‘cozy’ for participants and reporters alike (well, for the only reporter, me). Speakers were mostly from UK institutions (e.g., Imperial College, UCL, University of Glasgow, University of Warwick, University of Bristol, Cancer Research UK, Brunel University, University of Manchester, University of Sheffield and the University of Reading), but there was also a significant representation of researchers from other European countries, including Cyprus (University of Cyprus), Germany (EMBL Heidelberg), Austria (Center for Integrative Bioinformatics and the University of Veterinary Medicine), Switzerland (ETH-Zürich), Poland (Polish Academy of Sciences), and Finland (Aalto University).

If I were a young scientist being trained in computational biology or bioinformatics in a European institution, I would try my best to attend MASAMB, and apply to either give an oral presentation or present a poster on my own research. Talking about posters, the poster count for this year’s conference was 35, which, according to Michael Stumpf’s concluding remarks, included “not a single stinker!” The high quality of the pool made it all the more impressive for the winners of this year’s best poster competition: Ann Babtie, Dominic Smith and Phoebe Jones from Imperial College for “A moment expansion approach for stochastic simulation and inference” and Agnes Jonas from the University of Veterinary Medicine of Vienna for “Modelling allele frequency trajectories of experimental evolution with fruit flies”. On presenting the awards, Stumpf remarked how pleasantly impressed he was that three of the four recipients were women, even though the vast majority of entrants were men. Well, you heard it, if you’re not just a young scientist, but also a woman, it’s time to do your best to attend the upcoming MASAMBs and extend the flattering gender-slanted tradition.

Well, attending MASAMB XXIII was an excellent experience, which would not have been nearly as pleasant or useful if it weren’t for the current and former members of the Stumpf laboratory. Aside from Michael himself, I had the opportunity to meet and converse (about science and everything else) with research fellows Tina Toni and Sarah Filippi, post-doc Juliane Liepe, graduate students Ann Babtie, Adam McLean and Delphine Rolando, and former Stumpf group member (now a post-doc at the University of Cyprus) Kamil Erguler. I sincerely thank them for their invaluable help and for making me feel very welcome. I feel Nature Protocols and I have now an ‘in’ into the world of bioinformatics research, and I look forward to receiving news and feedback on how Nature Protocols can be of more help to researchers in this field — right Juliane?

One last bit of information: the general preference is for the yearly MASAMB meeting to take place in the UK for two consecutive years, then somewhere else in Europe, before returning to these shores. Tentatively, MASAMB 2014 will take place at the University of Sheffield, a venue that was preferred by this year’s participants to the other two candidates, Warsaw and UCL. Stay tuned…

Baldo Lucchese

Editor, Springer Nature

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