Delving into life and science at Schrödinger at 75

What did students, postgrads, and visitors make of the conference on “The Future of Biology”?

The meeting of international experts and keen listeners at the Schrödinger at 75 conference concerned the future of biology and was an opportunity to hear different scientific perspectives, but not only those of the speakers. Filling the auditorium of the National Concert Hall was a blend of secondary school students, undergraduates, postgraduates, current academic researchers, and even retired professors. Some in the audience were specifically welcomed for their presence by many, including James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. However, more frequently, the young people in the audience who were framed as “the future”.

The conference organisers specifically set out to include young people, secondary school students and undergraduates alike, who likely would not have bought themselves a €100 ticket, to inspire them to become the future of science. Many undergraduates and some postgraduates were specifically assigned to help the Schrödinger at 75 speakers and were referred to as student rapporteurs. For many rapporteurs who signed up, this was an amazing opportunity to meet their scientific heros, and gain a greater understanding of their topic of choice, which they will share at the upcoming mini-symposium next month. Other non-rapporteur conference delegates included graduates of Trinity, current postgraduate researchers, and current professors at Trinity. We take a look at these different perspectives and what they came away with from the conference.

Student rapporteurs

Elle Loughran, JS Genetics, shadowing Dr Karl Deisseroth

Were you excited before taking part in the conference?

[I was excited because] the topics of the talks seemed really interesting and there were going to be a lot of interesting people there.

Is there anything that can be done to communicate science better in your opinion?

I like it when scientists describe the path they took to get to the discovery, as well as just the discovery itself – including the failures along the way. Maybe that’s just me and not representative of others, but I find it really interesting when they say “we saw this strange result, so we decided to look down this avenue, and then from that…” It’s humanising and you can get into the excitement of the discovery.

What is life?

I don’t have a snappy answer to this, but I do have two thoughts I’d like to share. One is something Nick Lane quoted in his bioenergetics talk, about how you can’t consider an organism or a cell without its environment because, say in the bacterial ancestors of mitochondria, a cell respires across its membrane, pumping protons out into the environment, and so life depends on that exchange between the world inside the cell and the world outside, separated and linked by a semipermeable membrane.

The other is also related to bioenergetics and is something that struck me while I was doing a metabolism module last year. We learned all these amazing intricate pathways and cycles, and while I was learning it I sort of subconsciously expected there to be a point at the end, that all the electrons and energy were going to be stored up or used for something in particular. But the products are just used to feed right back into the original reactions and other reactions to keep the cell and the body going. It keeps going just to keep going. Life just is.

“The products are just used to feed right back into the original reactions and other reactions to keep the cell and the body going. It keeps going just to keep going. Life just is.”

Padmaja Naik, PhD Histopathology, shadowing Dr Leroy Hood

What was your impression of the speaker you were shadowing?

My speaker was friendly and down to earth despite his achievements in his field. He did enquire about interesting places in Dublin to visit and was keen on whiskey tasting.

Why do you think these kinds of events are important? Do you have any criticisms of it?
[These events are important] to enhance the network of basic sciences, to motivate young people for basic science education and research, to facilitate and promote progress in science, and to simply enjoy and celebrate science.

Is there anything we can do to communicate science better in your opinion?
[We could] target school children before 10 because that’s when children are most curious and start developing interests in a field. This could be done using radio and television shows, school fairs and exhibitions.

According to your speaker, what is life?
Life is a marvellous system of molecules and complex networks that can be sculpted by evolution in imaginable organisms of any form.

What is your own answer to the question: “What is life?”

Life is one’s experience of this world in different phases with emotions, consciousness, and physical presence.

Jamie Sugrue, PhD Immunology, shadowing Dr Linda Partridge

What was your impression of the speaker you were shadowing?

I met my speaker at the reception in Trinity’s Long Room on the first night. She was extremely welcoming and engaging, and despite her inimitable achievements she was both gracious and willing to entertain a student such as myself. We didn’t head to the pub but shared a glass of wine and spoke about her excitement for the lavish reception they would be attending at the American Embassy on Thursday.

Why do you think these kinds of events are important?
I think events like these are important for several reasons – we need to realise how far we have come over the last 75 years and celebrate the work that we do more frequently. Secondly, it’s not often you have such a milieu of scientists from different areas of research packed into one space, so events like these provide a backdrop to develop new collaborations and exciting ideas.

“We need to realise how far we have come over the last 75 years and celebrate the work that we do more frequently.”

Is there anything we can do to communicate science better in your opinion?
I think scientists are doing much better in terms of communicating their science, and I think it is unfair to expect all scientists to have that skill set. Nevertheless, I would have liked to have seen an outreach event at Schrödinger at 75, even if it was a short questions and answers with four speakers and a small public, non-scientific audience.

What is your own answer to the question: “What is life?”

“Life’s what you make it, so let’s make it rock”, I think Hannah Montana, had a point: do what makes you happy with the time you have on the planet.

Ellen Tuck, SS Human Genetics, shadowing Dr Feng Zhang

What was your impression of the speaker you were shadowing?

Dr Feng Zhang is an incredibly busy man, but despite the intense workload and full schedule, he remains polite, kind, and calm. Arriving into Dublin the morning of the conference and flying out again the following morning left time for little else than his impressive presentation on gene-editing.

What was your favourite part of the conference?
Seeing how well our own home grown talent stands up amongst the greatest contemporary scientists. Doctors Emma Teeling and Lydia Lynch gave two of the most engaging lectures, in my opinion. Their talks were appreciated by non-scientific members of the audience for being more accessible, while the science they presented was just as exciting, relevant, and important. They inspired pride and confidence in me that great research can come out of our little country.

What is your own answer to the question: “What is life?”

Life is the happy accident resulting from billions of years of random chemical reactions, and such an unlikely outcome deserves our endless wonder and respect.

Laura Perez Denia, PhD Gerontology, shadowing Dr Linda Partridge

What did you think of the event?

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m really grateful to be here and also for having had the opportunity of shadowing one of the speakers, Dr Linda Partridge. She did an amazing talk, I thought it was very interesting. She talked about aging but from a very different perspective from mine, because she did more from genetics and the cellular level, while I do physiology from a bioengineering point of view. Other topics are also very different from my background, like chemistry, genetics, and immunology. So it was very enjoyable.

Do you have any criticisms of the event?

The only criticism that I have was the fact that [although] the hall was filled up to 70% most of the time, we had to sit behind the screen. That’s my main complaint, because when we applied to be volunteers, we were told we would get a free ticket, and that meant, I supposed, free entrance to the hall, et cetera. If [the hall] had been absolutely full, I would have been really happy just listening to them, but it was very difficult to follow a presentation without the slides. Apart from that, everything was wonderful.

Anonymous

In the advertising for rapporteurs it sounded like just going to the talks and then doing your own talk about one of them at a conference a month later, but when we arrived for our briefing we found out it was to be a lot more than that. We were to be “go-fors” for the speakers to get them wine, a charger, whatever they wanted, and to “get out of their sight” if they didn’t want to see us, as well as brushing off journalists who were annoying the speakers and generally acting like bodyguards – though this was very unclear and a lot of fellow rapporteurs were confused after the briefing about what we were actually expected to do.

In general, the organisation of the rapporteurs was not ideal. To apply we had to write a piece about why we wanted to shadow the speaker we’d chosen, but after slaving over the application they decided to allocate speakers on a first-come first-served basis, while also not following the deadlines they had given.

There were some issues where volunteers were treated poorly for no clear reason, such as being made sit upstairs behind the screen where they couldn’t see anything even though there were loads of seats free elsewhere. It would’ve been fine if there were no seats, but there were plenty, and there were a few instances of that sort of thing. After we got our lanyards, which contained normal tickets, the tickets were taken off us and replaced with ones that were supposed to only give us access to the upstairs seats, though it wasn’t always checked. Apparently this was because of space constraints but that clearly wasn’t an issue.

I didn’t mind helping the speakers out and helping with set up for the conference even though it wasn’t what I thought I’d signed up for, but it seemed like we were treated as third class citizens (speakers, [then] attendees, [then] volunteers) just for the sake of it, e.g. getting restricted seating even when there was easily enough room for us to sit in seats where we could see the screen, and flawed organisation so that we were unsure of what we’re expected to do. I certainly respect the speakers and agree with them getting special treatment but it felt like there was too much enforcement of an unnecessary hierarchy even when it wasn’t actually helping the speakers or attendees.

Delegates

     

Patrick

“I thought that the conference was wonderful. It exceeded my expectations. [There were] lots of amazing speakers from a whole bunch of amazing disciplines. The lack of a question and answer session is obviously slightly frustrating, but at the same time, they got to fit so many speakers in and so many questions that people ask are really annoying and pointless. In general, I think it was really well run.”

Caitlin

“It was a really inspiring conference. [There were] so many different angles on the question. [It was all about] celebrating Schrödinger and his time here in Ireland. You’re not always going to agree with everything you hear, but that’s what it was about.”

Luke Fehilly

“It was absolutely excellent to have such a varied panel of speakers who spoke so eloquently on a range of different topics. It’s actually quite rare that you have such a good selection of experts who are able to communicate their ideas in a way that is accessible to non-biologists. I study materials science, so I won’t necessarily be familiar with a lot of the topics that they brought up, but the fact that it was so conceptually interesting and was done in such a well-explained way just made it really beneficial, I think.”

Maria Pachowiz

“I felt so honored to hear actual experts in their field…I’m a 19 year-old student who knows barely anything about anything they talked about, but seeing and hearing people who would have been mentioned in my textbooks or would have written my textbooks was just overwhelming.”

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is the current Deputy Scitech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister Genetics student.

Danielle Olavario

Danielle Olavario is the current Scitech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister Microbiology student.