Plant Biology 2016 reflections.

I got back from Plant Biology 2016 in Austin, TX a few days ago and have been trying to dive back into projects there though I also need some rest too. Conferencing is exhausting.

That said, conferences and engaging in the online community are worthwhile. Though the meeting was a blur of twitter, attending sessions, interviewing people for the how plant scientists work series (and getting interviewed myself) as well as writing digital dispatches and storifying each day of the conference (see here), I thought I’d write some reflections of it here as well and see if there’s some themes of the conference that struck me. (and if you attended, feel free to share your experience in the comments).

The science themes were hands down the small molecules of biology: small RNAs and small peptides in particular. I wrote about on example of small peptides in the first year of Quiet Branches. There was also a lot of developmental integration as well; how plant cells communicate with their neighbors as well as long distances throughout the plant. Examples came up again and again in the minisymposia, posters, and in discussions. Plants are complex (I hope I’ve conveyed that to readers of this blog).

There was also a great session dedicated to making better tasting, more nutritious, and even therapeutic plants (plants that we’d eat, but deliver therapeutic level benefit through our diets). And Allan from New Zealand also talked about changing apples to be more nutritious and not just the skin where a lot of the nutrients currently reside, but the flesh as well. It’s possible to use high throughput genetics and genetic modification technologies to change the expression of a few genes to really enhance flavor and nutrition value of foods (the GM approach also tends to be more rapid when talking about trees that take a long time to selectively breed).

My favorite talk of the session was not from a plant scientist, but a phsychophysicist, a psychology professor that focuses on the study of human perception and understanding how people might experience the same thing in different ways. In Dr. Linda Bartoshuk’s case, she talked about taste and flavors of tomatoes. It turns out there’s a relative few volatiles that we really perceive when it comes to a good tomato.

There was also a theme of listening– to the plants we study as well as to audiences we’re trying to communicate with. The final session on plant specialized metabolism really drove that home where careful observation and understanding plants in their own natural context really aids understanding.

Kevin Folta gave a workshop on effective science communication and said something that I think most scientists may not fully grasp: Facts don’t matter. Values and ethics do. There can be room for the science too, but those two things come first when talking about things like GMOs with non-science audiences. Mostly, they want to know if something is safe, good for them, affordable, and good for the farmer and the environment (though these last two are a little bit far from immediate self-interest). In science, we use the language of science to be precise and technical in our meaning because we have to be and in STEM, the technical side does matter. A lot. When talking about scientific topics, leading with our motivation, our values is how we build trust.

It was similar when hearing about the publications of ASPB- The Plant Cell and Plant Physiology (celebrating 90 years this year!). They’ve been revising their submission and eidtorial protocols to better serve the community, to me that means listening, and I think that that’s a good trait in an editorial board.

Simiarly, with social media, and Plantae- the new social network dedicated to plant scientists the world over, plant scientists need (and did) express just what would be useful features for them. I really like the idea of a specialized plant science social network where users can contribute content, have their own groups (private of public), and make it easier to find what plant scientists around the world are up to. That infromation can then be shared on other social networks that are open to everyone.

The final theme was just how much high throughput sequencing, coding, programming, etc. were. CRISPR is a big deal too, of course. High throughput phenotyping, and getting students involved in these larger scale projects was everywhere. As were examples of going from large data to focused ones, using the large datasets more effectively in narratives. The big data is still something I need to get to grips with more, though i’ve taken a few steps in that direction. I hope in a future career as a writer I can also still look at data and make sense of it and continue to hone my abilities in that area.

I really like the Plant Biology community. It was good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones as well.


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