When I see a young scientist talking to one of the grizzled leaders of the field at a meeting I have organized, I hope that the new scientist will discover something valuable from her elder. Likewise, I hope the seasoned expert can find a new collaborator. Everyone should remember why they went into this field in the first place. Everyone should discover something new.
The question is how to facilitate learning at a meeting. I think the key is to take people out of their comfort zone and put them in contact with people they have something in common with that they would never have guessed. How do we do this?
First, choose participants carefully. There should be a theme, but it should be cross cutting in some way. Our theme for the small meeting we organized for 21 to 25 May 2015 was organismality, or what does it take to make an organism. (We have a few papers on this topic easily discovered on Google Scholar and we had funding for the meeting from the John Templeton Foundation). We chose people working on diverse systems, including social insects, fungi, marine invertebrates, plant symbioses, genomics, and cancer. We chose ecologists, evolutionary biologists, developmental biologists, genomicists, microbiologists, sociobiologists, and philosophers. We did not pick just the first people that came to mind. We dug deep, spending months researching hundreds of people before settling on a nice mix of disciplines and career stages. We followed some of the creativity principles we learned from KnowInnovation. We particularly tried to balance senior and junior people, with senior defined simply as someone having a tenure track job. We are aware of inadvertent gender bias and consciously avoided it. We missed lots of excellent people because we had only 33 fly in, and another 13 or so from our institution, including everyone from our lab group. You can get a flavor of the meeting from the tweets which Sam Diaz-Muñoz kindly assembled with Storify, here.
David Queller gave a 40 minute talk setting the stage after the first event of the meeting, dinner. Otherwise everyone, senior or junior, gave a 15 minute talk with 5 minutes for questions. Only the 10 people from our own lab group did not give talks. They gave posters as did a number of other people.
Besides the talks we had three afternoon sessions of two hours each in small groups. These groups were asked to come up with an important problem in organismality and address it in a ten minute talk on the last day. We hoped some of them would do more, perhaps someday writing something for publication, or finding new collaborators.
We did not let people choose their small groups. Instead we assigned them, carefully assembling a balance of areas and disciplines. Each group had a focus (philosophy, social insects, microbes, etc.), but each group also had people outside the focus. Each group had senior and junior people. Assigning groups mixed people up. It lets them discover something new. It keeps sizes and satisfaction high and removes the agony of choice.
Dave and I circulated among the small groups. It looked fun. They were grappling with questions, arguing, putting things on the whiteboard, then erasing them. It was important that they had a goal to work toward, that 10 minute talk. I heard mostly positive things about the groups. More than one person said they had no idea how much in common they had with another discipline (gender-neutral mismatching plural used on purpose – see Pinker’s The Sense of Style).
This structure meant that we had four hours of talks a day, two hours of discussion, and an hour each day for the posters. Was this a good plan? I like to think so, though perhaps the lunch break could have been longer than 80 minutes.
Some might prefer fewer talks. Indeed, I have been to a number of small meetings with almost no talks. The reason we wanted talks was that it is a very efficient way to discover what people do. Let them tell their stories. Let others be amazed at connections between different disciplines. Sometimes with no talks I have looked people in my group up and just begged them to tell me about their work. I’m not a big fan of talks, but they do work well for discovery. Here are the details of our meeting: OrganismalityProgram.
We had an evening reception outside our own laboratory space, with guided tours of social amoebae. We had another evening reception at our home, walking distance from the venue. Everyone from away stayed on campus at the Knight Center, a wonderful venue. Our visitors commented that it was so much fancier than their own universities, but I pointed out that their own universities probably also had places where the business folks held meetings that were just as nice.
Many people asked me what my goal was for the meeting and was it met. This is a hard question to answer. The first goal is to get people to think about something I think is really important, what is an organism? After all, there are so many that study species, and so few that take on this question. Why? People think they know, but the more we learn about smaller or more different organisms, the harder it is to say. The more we learn about genomes and within genome conflict, the more confused I get. Where does cancer fit? How about symbioses, obligate or not? David Queller and I have proposed a new approach to the question, but we might be wrong. The only way to find out is to consider the question. In their talks and discussions, people did this.
My second goal was to change somebody’s life. How might I achieve this? The most likely path is for a junior person to discover something or someone wonderful for them, a new idea, a system they had not considered, a postdoc or route that would be new. To do this, all I could do is to facilitate conversation and hope it happens. Did it? Too soon to say, but if it did, I hope they let me know!