Electron Microscopy at BPS 2016.

I did my PhD on TRPV1. Before there was a TRPV1 structure. In fact, I defended my thesis about a week before I saw the first talk on the high resolution EM structure of TRPV1 by Yifan Cheng at the NIH in November 2013. After the talk, we were huddled around a bench in the lab, lively discussing what it all meant for us and our thought on TRPV1 when a PI from a neighboring lab came over and said, “Welcome to the beginning of the end of membrane protein crystallography.” It seemed extravagant at the time, but now, a little over two years later in Los Angeles, he wasn’t too far off. Electron Microscopy is increasingly a high resolution method, and watching its progress over the last couple years and its consequent presence at Biophysics has been staggering.

Saturday night at the ‘Cryo-EM Subgroup’ session Doreen Matthies showed a figure that elegantly showed this transformation (which she graciously shared with me for the purpose of this blog).


In Feb 2015, just a year after the beginning of the ‘Resolution Revolution‘ there were 56 EM structures with resolution below 4 Angstroms. In Feb 2016, at the time of this meeting, there were already 182 EM structures with resolution below 4 Angstroms. While, this is still small compared to the number of high resolution x-ray crystallography structures deposited in the same amount of time, the scientific impact and size of each of these structures is astounding to think of. The revolution has arrived!

Travel Awardee Reception – Free money to fly to LA!

Saturday night I went to the ‘Education, Inclusion and Diversity, and Professional Opportunities for Women Committees Travel Awardee Reception’ because I was getting a Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women Travel Award! Including certificate, ribbon, and check! A grad student from our lab also tagged along in hopes of free food, and there were iced tea and cookies!

As we sat down to get ready for the awards, I decided I’d take a picture of these treats. When it turned out that my one cookie looked a little sad, I propped it up with the larger assortment from my neighbors. Then a lemon was offered so I could spice up the aesthetics of the tea. The awardee next to me was appalled saying, ‘What social media platform are you posting that on? Cause I’m going to heckle you so hard.’

When the short ceremony started, they mentioned there would also be another place where travel awardees were to be honored: the international travel awardee luncheon 12-1pm Sunday. Furthermore, they encouraged everyone (diverse or not) to attend Committee on Inclusion and Diversity Networking Event: Resources and Opportunities from 3-4pm on Tuesday.

Over the course of the reception, I was surprised by some of the numbers.  Apparently of the ~4000 attendees at this conference, there were only 447 applicants to these travel awards, and of 447 travel award applicants there were 148 winners. That means you should all have applied. Those are good odds guys! I got $500!

They also thanked the sponsors, which I think is worth mentioning here again: The Journal of General Physiology, Institute for Biological Recognition and Catalysis, and the NIH. And here’s the breakdown of the numbers for each travel award: from the CPOW there were 17 winners from 52 applicants, from the CID there were 14 winners from 25 applicants, and from the Education Committee there were 76 winners and 216 applicants.

It just so happened that earlier, the same day of the reception, a friend of mine asked if I’d ever applied for a travel award to attend a conference, and I could tell him that I had and even was just about to receive my check! I gave him a few pieces of advice: talk about how attending that conference will be particularly useful for you, how you fit the criteria for the award, but the most important advice I could give him was to just give it a shot!

After all the awards were passed out, I had tweeted my completely staged photo of the event, my neighboring awardee heckled me on the social media platform, and a group of us sat chatting until the janitors came in and started collecting the trash, a sign we should probably move on to a bar or the ongoing conference talks or something else appropriate for a Saturday night. All in all, a good night.

Ceci n’est pas une chaise: a story of the chair experience.

Arguably the most important thing I had to do this week was co-chair a platform. Not that blogging isn’t super important (and you know the people at my own talk, I’m sure were blown away) but in my and my co-chair’s hands was the success of 8 scientists talks and the audience experience that surrounds them.

I had never given a talk at BPS until yesterday, and felt woefully under-qualified to help others do this thing I had never done before myself. To top that off I kept hearing people say, ‘You’re not making any friends by going over time, either as a speaker or a chair.’ The errors just pile up. Rumors fly (‘Did you hear session XYZ has completely phase shifted?’). Everyone is angry. No one gets to ask questions. What if this happens to me?

Fortunately, after only previously knowing one other person to chair a BPS session, this time a handful of my friends were also chairing sessions! I think this is maybe related to the fact that the ‘theme’ of this year’s BPS is basically what I do, and therefore also up-regulated in my friendship circle.

Anyway, I was able to get some friendly advice from people who had chaired the day before me, which was comforting. I learned there would be an IT guy who would take care of both setting up computers and setting up the timer, which was a huge relief. There’s this green light that turns yellow at the twelve minute mark, as a warning for the red light of doom that’ll come at 15 minutes. It was also suggested I get a pad of paper to take notes and jot down question ideas, because it is the chairs responsibility to not only keep the session on time, but also pay attention to the science and have a question handy.

This quickly became the most terrifying aspect of chairing. Especially as I noticed in other sessions how often this extra chair-induced question lubricant was necessary. Furthermore, I am not usually that great at thinking of questions in talks, generally getting my brilliant ideas a few hours after they’re actually useful.

So when the time came, I was a bit riled up, but luckily my co-chair turned out to be a relatively senior guy who seemed to know what he was doing, and I relaxed quickly. According to a grad student witness, the best part of the whole session happened before it even started: my co-chair’s phone alarm accidentally went off with a jazzy little tune, and I instinctively did a little dance, apparently visible to the audience because they laughed.

The first few talks went pretty smoothly: things were pretty much on time, and I was able to think of good questions! Then somehow we started slipping minute by minute later off schedule. Maybe because the talks were pretty cool ( phosphorylation near drug binding sites, green and black tea polyphenol’s effect on amyloid-beta formation in alzheimers, finding ligands that increase the probability of a particular protein-protein interaction, etc.), and I was concentrating on question duties. I think by the time we hit the fourth speaker and I was introducing the speakers instead of my co-chair (as part of our splitting-of-duties agreement), we were starting a full 7 minutes late. Then we had some technical difficulties. One of the speakers had to reboot their computer so it would be able to connect to the projector! Utter disaster.

What do we do? Do we stop letting people ask questions? Should I be making wild hand gestures in conjunction with the lights? But all the speakers are being really great about being on time, it’s just me with the questions and transitions that has been a little off. The little green light is surprisingly misleading, as it only relates to the speaker’s internal timing, not to the overall fact that we had already started seven minutes late!

Luckily it didn’t really matter that much. We’re here to do science. The talks were good. The questions were good. We started encouraging people to keep their questions quick, and overlapped questions with next speaker setup a little bit more, and I think ultimately we ended on time, with my talk at the end. At the end of it all, I think it all wrapped up well. I even had someone come up to me and say ‘Nice job chairing,’ then I must have made a surprised face or something, cause they followed up with, ‘Oh yeah, and nice job on the talk, too!’

The art of perusing the program guide.

The Biophysical Society Program Guide is a beast. Throughout the conference, we’re all flipping through it page by page in the back of talks, trying to figure out what is the best use of our time. Some even skip sessions so they can concentrate on studying the program. I’ve yet to find my own perfect zen to navigate this guy, but as this is now my fifth time attending this conference, I thought a buzz-feed-esque top five ways to peruse your program guide, might be in order:

1. The classic: pen and paper.

A tried and true method popular among veterans and rookies alike. Part of the appeal of this method is its flexibility: boxes for people you know, stars for that demi-god of your field, smiley faces for clever titles, underlines for things you’re interested in but are not at all related to anything you do, etc.

2. The techy: fancy PDF highlighting on your super cool tablet.

I tried this last year using an Evernote app on my tablet. I looked forward to having the flexibility of pen and paper, but without having to lug around this huge ridiculous book. Sadly, the PDF was so big it took a long time to load and a long time to save. One time I even lost all the amazing little pink bubbles I made around the Tuesday Posters I wanted to check out. Needless to say, I’m back to more traditional methods this year… It is possible that the BPS 360 App, has made this a new and amazing experience, but… I haven’t tried it…

3. The PDF: mobile, simple.

Download the PDF (47.8 MB). Look at it on your phone. Search for things on your phone. Write gmail drafts to yourself if you need to remember a poster number or room number.

4. The company line: Biophysical Society’s web-based program guide.

It’s here. I have been using it to search for specific things when I’m doing other things on my computer anyway, or if I am hankering for another dose of that awesome fake page turning sound.

5. The random walk: there’s a program guide?

Follow your friends/labmates/PI’s. If you lose them, wander aimlessly until you make new friends, happen into something interesting, or decide to check out the aquarium on your own.