What I learned at SRBR meeting last week

A couple of days have passed and I had a lot of work-related stuff to catch up with, but I thought I better write a recap now while the iron is still hot and I remember it all. Here we go....

Surprise #1 Last time I went to a SRBR meeting (or for that matter any scientific meeting) was in 2002. I started my first blog in 2004. I started writing about science, specifically about Chronobiology, in January of 2005.

Before last week's meeting I knew of one chronobiologist who reads my blog regularly. I knew of one other chronobiologist who contacted me to ask to use some of the material for his course on Biological Clocks. I knew that 4-5 others are aware of the existence of this blog but I was not sure how often they check it out.

Writing a serious science blog post takes time and energy. It takes perhaps an hour or more to read a paper with full focus, thoroughness and comprehension, and another couple of hours to write a decent post. Such an endeavor requires some degree of activation energy, which, frankly, I did not have since I got a real job. And a reward was not there - such posts generally elicited zero comments, zero e-mails and zero incoming links. As far as I could guess, nobody in the field read my blog. So, I did the easy stuff - it takes seconds or minutes and no thought process to post a quote, or a YouTube video, or picks from ScienceDaily or news from PLoS. And those things generate the bloggers' rewards - comments, e-mails and incoming links.

This all changed last week. Dozens of people stopped me in the hallways at the meeting with a similar introduction that went something like this: "You may not know me, but I know you because I see your face every day...on your blog. I LOVE your blog!". Wow! People! Post comments! No need to say anything smart. Just write "Hi, a fellow chronobiologist here. Thanks for the post. Love your blog. Keep writing". This is all I need to bring the activation energy over the needed treshold and actually write a blog post about a clock paper. I have a big stack of clock papers on my desk, papers I think are 'bloggable', but never found time and energy to actually write about. Now I will.

Moreover, some Big Eggs in the field told me they like this blog, they REALLY liked the way I wrote about their own papers, i.e., how I "really got it" (unlike the media coverage), and how nicely I placed those papers in historical/theoretical/philosophical context in a way that lay audience can understand why the paper is so interesting.

And, a couple of people told me they use my blog in teaching - either for getting materials for their lectures, or as required readings for the students. This particularly pertains to the Clock Tutorials (which they say I should continue in order to cover all the remaining topics, though the PRC series seems to be the most popular part), but also to some extent to Clock News, Clock Zoo, Chronobiology, Rhythmic Human and Sleep posts. Point taken - watch this place: there will be more here soon.

Surprise #2 They remember me. Yes, after six years of no appearance at meetings and no new publications, many people (especially senior ones) remembered me, were happy to see me, asked how I was, how my advisor was doing, etc. I had no need (as I was expecting beforehand) to approach them and introduce myself. They came to my poster, they approached me in the hallway, wanted to have meals with me. So. Very. Cool.

Moreover, at the past meetings I was a graduate student so, in 1998, 2000 and 2002, I was mainly spending time with other graduate students. Now, perhaps due to my age, perhaps due to my blog, and perhaps due to my employment with PLoS, I am regarded as a veteran of the field and a relatively senior personality in it. I was invited to a couple of 'closed doors' meetings, including the Editor's Meeting of the Journal of Biological Rhythms. My lack of a PhD did not seem to deter them at all. I feel like a failure, but they did not seem to think so: I took a different career path and they think I am useful to the field in this way. Though, they urge me to get my PhD work published (and defend the thesis if it is still possible) so they could see the work which they heard was interesting to them.

Surprise #3 Not really a surprise - they love the concept of Open Access and love PLoS. They, including some of the top people in the field, have published something like 50 papers in PLoS ONE (keep clicking 'Next' at the bottom of the page to see them all), as well as a number of papers in PLoS Biology, PLoS Genetics and PLoS Computational Biology. Ueli Schibler, who gave the big Pittendrigh-Aschoff lecture on Wednesday, and I sat together, BOTH WEARING our PLoS shirts, at the Editor's Meeting of JBR, to the amusement of the editor Marty Zatz and the representative of SAGE.

Lots of people came to my poster and talked to me. Many approached me before and after the poster session as well (including at the airport on the way out) asking for more details about PLoS, especially about PLoS ONE which, being a new model of publishing, is still somewhat a puzzle to the scientific community. I explained it honestly and in great detail a few dozen times at least, and got more-or-less confidence-inspiring promises they will submit to PLoS ONE or at least look into it (yes, my poster also had URLs of scienceblogs.com, researchblogging.org, Nature Precedings, Jean-Claude's UsefulChem wiki, arXiv, etc. - the left column was about Open Access, the middle column about PLoS and the right column about Science 2.0 and what one can do before and after publication).

i-2fe5a4997840dba467686a7b9cf6bbd1-me at the poster.jpg

Surprise #4 Again, not really a surprise - the field has made huge leaps in the intervening six years. The State of the Union Chronobiology is Strong. It really feels mature now and there is a feeling of confidence permeating the meeting that Chronobiology today really "kicks ass" in comparison with most other areas of behavioral neuroscience.

Each meeting has its own 'theme' (SRBR alternates years with a Gordon Conference and a Chronobiology International meeting). One year, everyone is discovering clock genes. Next year, everyone is looking at their expression. Then, everyone starts using microarrays and differential expression. The following year, everyone tests knock-outs. Then, everyone moves their focus from RNA to protein. This year, it all came back together in a truly integrated fashion.

We know pretty much all the main clock genes and most of the supporting ones. We know where, when and how they are expressed. We know a lot of what is happening on the protein level. We know a lot about the way cells signal to each other and the organization at the level of the tissues. We have known for a while what is happening at the level of the organism and the interaction with the environment. I know that the term "Systems Biology" is the most abused catchphrase in the history of the Universe, but I just saw what Systems Biology can do once the field is ripe for it and it is awesome. All the old black boxes have been busted open, or at least made partially transparent, and the Big Biology approaches are now useful. Every talk - at least talks by Big Names - connected several levels, from DNA to RNA to protein to cell to tissue to organ to organism to, in some cases, social environment (i.e., groups of organisms in their natural or semi-natural environment). And the mass analysis of huge datasets is powerful if we have an idea what to make out of the results, i.e., once the theoretical and conceptual issues have been taken care of. Thus, many talks and posters are now connecting the clock with the rest of metabolism, biochemistry and physiology.

Decades ago, the field of Chronobiology covered many different topics. Then, some topics became easier to do due to new techniques and everyone jumped on a couple of shiny bandwagons. The other topics started bumping into walls and were abandoned and ignored for decades. But now, with so much known and with so many new techniques, these old questions are again amenable to research and people are starting to revisit them. I lamented for years the lack of developmental studies - this year there were dozens of posters on development. Photoperiodism is coming back, so is food-entrainment, tidal and lunar rhythms, migration, clock-compensated Sun orientation, effects of drugs, field-work, evolutionary/ecological questions, studies in unusual organisms (e.g., protists) etc. Plants, the mainstay of the field for a couple of centuries, then ignored for several decades, made a big come-back - the Arabidopsis circadian system (as well as photoperiodism and photoreception) is now as well understood as that of Drosophila, Neurospora, Synechococcus and mouse. The only area where there is very little is what used to be the cornerstone of the field - formal analysis of entrainment (various Phase Response Curves, splitting, Aschoff's rule, transients, aftereffects, etc.), done these days only by Gorman/Elliott labs, or so it seems. I bet by the next meeting, there will be more of that, with people addressing this kind of arcane circadiana with modern techniques. But first they have to learn that formal/mathematical stuff and it is HARD! It makes one's head hurt. And it is all found in some very old papers. Which brings me to the next point....

In discussions of Open Access, we always focus on brand new papers and how to make them freely available for readers around the world as well as for people who want to mine and reanalyse the data using robots. But we almost never discuss the need to make the old stuff available. Yet we often lament that nobody reads or cites anything older than five years. Spending several years reading everything published in the field in the 20th century up until about 1995 (as well as some 19th century stuff) helped me greatly in my own research. It would help others, I'm sure, especially those who are now revisiting old questions with new techniques. How are the classical papers going to be made available for today's students?

SRBR is working on it now, and I assume that this will be done piece-meal, with each society doing their own work on making old literature available. What I saw (not yet available for public) is a development of a ChronoHistory website. Yes, people will send in pictures and anecdotes and old posters and stuff (and I hope once that material is online that SRBR will get a professional historian of science to make sense of it all), but the most important part of the site will be a repository of the old papers. Services of a real science librarian have been secured to deal with everything from copyright to technical problems in order to provide copies of many old papers on the site. Probably some of the papers will be available to everyone for free while others, due to copyright, may be available only to SRBR members with a password.

That site will than be linked from the SRBR website which was recently completely redesigned and shown for the first time live on Wednesday. The old site was fine, but the new site rocks - it has everything and all sorts of features that were previously missing. I am sure they will ask the members for feedback, and I will probably ask for some member-only password protected areas to be made public, for inclusion of the PRC atlas (in hope that someone will update it), and for addition of complete program/abstract books from all the past meetings - currently only 2006 and 2008 books are available but others can be scanned in and posted - I have 1998, 2000 and 2002 and will gladly scan them and send them in. Heck, perhaps this blog (or at least the ClockTutorials category) can be included in 'Other Interesting Links'.

So, you really want to know what are the newest, hottest findings in the field? Well, after reading the responses to this question I decided NOT to directly report on the research reported there. Instead, I have asked a number of people, from bigwigs to undergrads, to grant me interviews for the blog. There, they can decide how much they want to reveal. Watch this place throughout the summer for their responses.


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Dear Bora, this was a really interesting post. I have read it with great pleasure. All new ideas are fascinating. Who knows, one day you will find time to defend your PhD. All mothers are the same. Terrible, isn't it?Love you, mom

Hurrah for old stuff. I personally seldom read anything published after say, 1912 (oh well, it's social sciences, I know ...)

By Marko Zivkovic (not verified) on 27 May 2008 #permalink

1912 was a good year. Almost as good as 1729, 1888 and 1928.

Hi, Bora - what is particularly inspiring in your story is that you have created your own niche. You have adapted to your temporal as well as spatial environment. As well as if/when you get a title appended to your name. You *do* provide a useful service to the community, not least by your living example.

[My lack of a PhD did not seem to deter them at all. I feel like a failure, but they did not seem to think so: I took a different career path and they think I am useful to the field in this way.]

Will you be attending Science Blogging 2008 in London?

By the way, blog interviews is a great idea that gets around the sticky confidentiality issues. I might try to do the same for the International Society in Stem Cell Biology conference in a couple of weeks in Philadelphia.

Sorry I missed you at SRBR. I kept trying to come round to talk about PLoS but I kept just missing you. I love Open Access ideals, and your blog. We are resubmitting to PLoS-One this week, and have so far had a great experience. Hope to catch you at the next SRBR or maybe the Gordon Conference this summer.
Northwestern Univ.

By Joe Owens (not verified) on 29 Jan 2009 #permalink