>AGBT 2009 – Thoughts and reflections

>Note: I wrote this last night on the flight home, and wasn’t able to post it till now. In the meantime, I’ve gotten some corrections and feedback that I’ll go through and make corrections to my blog posts as needed. In the meantime, here’s what I wrote last night.

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This was my second year at AGBT, and I have to admit that I enjoyed this year a little more than the last. Admittedly, it’s probably because I knew more people and was more familiar with the topics being presented than I was last year. Of course, comprehensive exams and last year’s AGBT meeting were very good motivators to come up to speed on those topics.

Still, there were many things this year that made the meeting stand out, for which the organizing committee deserves a round of applause.

One of the things that worked really well this year was the mix of people. There were a lot of industry people there, but they didn’t take over or monopolize the meeting. The industry people did a good job of using their numbers to host open houses, parties and sessions without seeming “short-staffed”. Indeed, there were enough of them that it was fairly easy to find them to ask questions and learn more about the “tools of the trade.”

On the other hand, the seminars were mainly hosted by academics – so it didn’t feel like you were sitting through half hour infomercials. In fact, the sessions that I attended were all pretty decent, with a high level of novelty and entertainment factor. The speakers were nearly all excellent, with only a few that felt of “average” presentation quality. (I managed to take notes all the way through, so clearly I didn’t fall asleep during anyone’s talk, even if I had the momentary zone out caused by the relentless 9am-9pm talk schedule.)

At the end of last year’s conference, I returned to Vancouver – and all I could talk about was Pacific Biosciences SMRT technology, which dominated the “major announcement” factor for me for the past year. At this year’s conference, there were several major announcements that really caught my attention. I’m not sure if it’s because I have a better grasp of the field, or if there really was more of the “big announcement” category this year, but either way, it’s worth doing a quick review of some of the major highlights.

Having flown in late on the first day, I missed the Illumina workshop, where they announced the extension of their read length to 250 bp, which brings them up to the same range as the 454 technology platform. Of course technology doesn’t stand still, so I’m sure 454 will have a few tricks up their sleeves. At any rate, when I started talking with people on thursday morning, it was definitely the hot topic of debate.

The second topic that was getting a lot of discussion was the presentation by Complete Genomics, which I’ve blogged about – and I’m sure several of the other bloggers will be doing in the next few days. I’m still not sure if their business model is viable, or if the technology is ideal… or even if they’ll find a willing audience, but it sure is an interesting concept. The era of the $5000 genome is clearly here, and as long as you only want to study human beings, they might be a good partner for your research. (Several groups announced they’ll do pilot studies, and I’ll be in touch with at least one of them to find out how it goes.)

And then, of course, there was the talk by Marco Marra. I’m still in awe about what they’ve accomplished – having been involved in the project officially (in a small way) and through many many games of ping-pong with some of the grad students involved in the project more heavily, it was amazing to watch it all unfold, and now equally amazing to find out that they had achieved success in treating a cancer of indeterminate origin. I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of this research.

In addition to the breaking news, there were other highlights for me at the conference. The first of many was talking to the other bloggers who were in attendance. I’ve added all of their blogs to the links on my page, and I highly suggest giving their blogs a look. I was impressed with their focus and professionalism, and learned a lot from them. (Tracking statistics, web layout, ethics, and content were among a few of the topics upon which I received excellent advice.) I would really suggest that this be made an unofficial session in the future. (you can find the links to their blogs as the top three in my “blogs I follow” category.)

The Thursday night parties were also a lot of fun – and a great chance to meet people. I had long talks with people all over the industry, where I might not otherwise have had a chance to ask questions. (Not that I talked science all evening, although I did apologize several times to the kind Pacific Biosciences guy I cornered for an hour and grilled with questions about the company and the technology. And, of course, the ABI party where Olena got the picture in which Richard Gibbs has his arm around me is definitely another highlight. (Maybe next year I’ll introduce myself before I get the hug, so he knows who I am…)

One last highlight was the panel session sponsored by Pacific Biosciences, in which Charlie Rose (I hope I got his name right) mediated the discussion on a range of topics. I’ve asked a guest writer to contribute a piece based on that session, so I won’t talk too much about it. (I also don’t have any notes, so I probably shouldn’t talk about it too much anyhow.) It was very well done with several controversial topics being raised, and lots of good stones were turned over. One point is worth mentioning, however: One of the panel guests was Eric Lander, who has recently come to fame in the public’s eye for co-chairing a science committee requested by the new U.S. President Obama. This was really the first time I’d seen him in a public setting, and I have to admit I was impressed. He was able to clearly articulate his points, draw people into the discussion and dominate the discussion while he had the floor, but without stifling anyone else’s point of view. It’s a rare scientist who can accomplish all of that – I am now truly a fan.

To sum up, I’m very happy I had the opportunity to attend this conference and looking forward to see what the next few years bring. I’m going back to Vancouver with an added passion to get my work finished and published, to get my code into shape, and to keep blogging about a field going through so many changes.

And finally, thanks to all of you who read my blog and said hi. I’m amazed there are so many of you, and thrilled that you take the time to stop by my humble little corner of the web.

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