“Educate. Inspire. Connect.” This is the mission statement of the Lindau meeting, and this year’s meeting absolutely succeeded in fulfilling all three objectives. Here, I tell some stories in a series of posts to illustrate some of the highlights of the meeting as they relate to these three goals of this meeting.
One week after the conclusion of the Lindau meeting, the easy answer to “What inspired you about this meeting?” is “EVERYTHING.” However, the words that will remain with me long after the details disappear came from the three eldest Laureates who attended the meeting. Oliver Smithies, Edmund Fischer, and Christian de Duve won Nobel Prizes for embryonic stem cell-based gene transfer into mice (2007), elucidation of the phosphorylation-based signaling pathway (1992), and for descriptions of basic structures within the cell (1974), respectively. Whether due to their personalities or perhaps their age, the talks given by these three were more reflective than the detailed scientific talks given by the rest of the Laureates. At times, it felt like we were getting a history lesson, and the audience was captivated.
Dr. Oliver Smithies, a self-proclaimed “graduate student who never grew up,” showed photographs of his lab notebooks from 1952 (his graduate student years) until 2011 (in which, incidentally, there are still notes made at 10 am on Saturday). He pointed out stream-of-consciousness notations in the margins of his notebooks that were afterthoughts at the time, but later became some of his biggest discoveries. He told a story about how he devised a new, faster way to separate proteins for characterization. In his words, “out of laziness, I invented gel electrophoresis.” Another gem from Dr. Smithies: “There was no PCR machine back then, so this is the one that I made,” followed by a picture of a jumble of wires hanging precariously over a water bath. I think everyone walked away from his lecture with a sense of empowerment and the feeling that with a little bit of enterprising spirit and curiosity, we can all make significant advances in our respective fields.
Dr. Fischer’s talk similarly had a historical perspective, highlighting his contemporaries who helped him discover basic pathways within a cell. The excitement he still feels about the science he was doing 40 years ago was, amazingly, still palpable. I had the pleasure of sharing a dinner table with him and his wife one evening, and he was genuinely excited about the next generation of scientists. To feel like you have someone like Edmund Fischer in your corner can only enliven the excitement one has for a future as a scientist.
Dr. de Duve was the final speaker of the week, and his lecture resulted in a standing ovation by all, wet eyes in many. His message seemed dire at first, as he discussed how natural selection cares only about the “here and now,” and not the long term future. He stated that partially due to this nearsightedness, our earth has become increasingly strained with people demanding increasingly large amounts of limited resources. His message turned to one of hope when he said that the human race has been given a gift – the ability to overcome natural selection by looking further into the future and implementing measures such as resonsible population control, protection of the earth’s natural resources, and my personal favorite, “giving women a chance.” I cannot do justice to the way in which he said his carefully selected closing words, but I feel an obligation to repeat them here: “My generation has made a mess of things. It’s up to you to do better. It’s in your hands. I believe in you. Good luck.”
To watch some of the lectures from the conference, click here. I highly recommend watching lectures from any or all of the scientists I discuss above, regardless of your field of interest.