I am writing this at quarter past midnight on day one of the #plantbiology14 American Society of Plant Biologists annual meeting and am trying to blog each day about my experiences/ perspective. Just know that this was written quickly because I need sleep for day 2!
I arrived what I thought was early this morning at the Oregon Convention center only to discover that the lines at the registration desk were already long and I first talked to two strangers in the last name R-Z line and then met someone I knew only from Twitter (@JPhilipTaylor) from Monsanto, which was cool and always fun. I got my transit pass, and t-shirt and put up my poster in the poster hall, got my free Quartzy networking cards (look pretty good, if big) and left some in an envelope by my poster as well as some 3×5 cards for people to leave me notes/ask questions or leave an answer to a question I wrote on one (this is an experiment to try and make my poster more interactive. The whole time, I tweeted. I found my way around the convention center, got a second cup of coffee, then some tea and went to the PUI networking event; a group of people who work at PUIs or are interested to work at one (if I can get an academic job, this is the kind of institution I’d want to work for; however, landing that academic job is hard/nigh impossible).
One thing that was brought up is that it’s not as possible to do the cutting edge research, the so called ‘hot’ areas that an R1 institution can and so that can make it harder to get funding and sustain a research program, let alone balance it with teaching. It’s complicated. I think this thought set off the theme of the day for me; just how kind of out in the cold from the rest of the research community PUI researchers (and they are researchers) can feel compared to the R1 system. PUIs provide a lot of grad students to R1 programs (I’m a product of one!).
The first talk fo the day was Harvey Millar, from Australia, and Stephen Hales prize winner (sorry if I have that wrong; no research tonight) talking in depth about plant respiration and mitochondria. Later in the session, Nathanael Johnson talked about how to solve the controversy over GMOs (and how it has little to do with the science/facts or even GMOs themselves). He talked about the solution being building trust, a community, a solid relationship (as Seth Godin might term it ‘the connection economy’) to bridge the gap.
Don Ort and others in the abiotic stress session talked about what could be summed up as ‘Winter is coming’ (climate change, higher CO2, more severe weather) and that will affect plant yields which is already a problem and will likely only get worse. Feeding 9 billion people is a challenge, a huge one and we need a strong community of plant scientists that can build trust with consumers of food/agriculture/plant products to solve it.
I ended the day at the iConnect Tweet up which was a lot of fun. We had most of the people who tweeted during the day there talking, connecting and bring taking pictures of people holding up pieces of paper about why they got into plant biology in as few words as possible (it was really great in the moment; and I think a really cool project ASPB should spread around the membership/collect pictures of us).
PUIs are still research institutions and can be the slow, steady, quieter ones doing research that isn’t necessarily rushed out the door (haste makes waste); more conscientious, instilling curiosity, learning and contributing to an environment of scientifically literate thinking. While R1s can focus more on the bleeding edge (PUIs can be collaborators here, no doubt) and really delve into the dynamism that is the plant world in a high throughput way (is there going to be a point where any grand funded absolutely must be systems biology level?). There does seem to be a divide, a disconnect right now, one that doesn’t serve the plant research community that well it seems to me (and perhaps I’m overstating things; I could be wrong here; one reason twitter is great, we can all share our perspectives).
I learned today that Monsanto and BASF collaborate on projects; using one another’s technological strengths to bring different products to market (ID your own target genes, but use one another’s technological expertise). I’m not sure how smooth theses collaborations are, but it seems like a very good way to better leverage resources. I don’t know if there’s an academic equivalent, but it would seem that there’s more that could be done to foster that kind of work (yes, I know, collaborations happen ALL the time; however, I think more could happen to share things with one another; I’d never heard of Harvey Millar & his many impressive collaborators until today; I’ve been too locked within my Ivory tower sub-discipline).
Twitter is great for broadening horizons, networking, and learning new things/getting feedback; as are many digital networking tools. And after today, I’m more convinced than ever that building a strong, interactive community is going to be one key to solving the problem of feeding the world and making our planet resilient/sustainable place to live for us, and our descendants; I went out to dinner today with people from Washington U. I did my Ph.D. with; most of them had kids, so do many people I know at Monsanto. One thing a lot of us have in common.