In December, The Company of Biologists hosted its first virtual workshop on Cell State Transitions: Approaches, Experimental Systems and Models. Ten early-career researchers were given the opportunity to participate along with several invited senior scientists. Instead of meeting in-person at the Wiston House, we used the Remo platform to convene online, utilizing a virtual stage for presentations and individual tables to facilitate smaller discussions. The variety of model systems represented, from cell culture to organoids to embryos, was only rivaled by the areas of expertise of the speakers, which included mathematicians, physicists, and cell biologists. Some key themes of discussion included defining cell identity and heterogeneity, autonomous and non-autonomous regulation of cell behavior, as well as advancements and limitations of current technologies. As some of the early-career researchers invited to participate, we each provide our perspectives on this incredible workshop below and collectively express our gratitude to the workshop organizers, Kevin Chalut and Austin Smith, as well as the Company of Biologists, for this experience.
PhD student, Stony Brook University, USA
This workshop could not have come at a better time for me, as my research has recently become more focused on cell fate acquisition and maintenance. I feel very fortunate to have been selected to participate alongside this impressive cohort of junior and senior scientists. From the very start of the workshop, we began collectively thinking about difficult, perhaps philosophical, questions related to our field, including “how does one define a cell state?”. Each presentation spawned inspiration, including different tools and analyses to utilize and new experimental questions and approaches to explore. At the conclusion of each day I was excited to return to the laboratory to apply what I had learned. Finally, the workshop ended with lively themed discussions surrounding open questions in our field. The result of these, as Sally Lowell put, is that “we still don’t really understand cell state transitions, but we now understand more about why we don’t understand them.”
In addition to the content of the workshop, I really enjoyed the format. Unlike most conferences, where junior scientists can feel like small fish in a large pond, early-career researchers like myself made up about a third of the group and were given priority to encourage our active participation. In fact, the topics of the themed discussions at the conclusion of the workshop were decided based on our suggestions. Additionally, there were plenty of opportunities for intimate discussions during breaks and “meet the speakers” sessions. I had the opportunity to have one-on-one chats with several brilliant scientists from across the world from the comfort of my own home. While I certainly can appreciate the benefits of in-person meetings, the virtual format was convenient for me personally as the mother of a young child. Thus, I hope that, even post-COVID, organizers of conferences and workshops will consider the benefit of a virtual option for parents and caretakers.
PhD student, Max Perutz Labs, Austria
When the application deadline arrived in spring of 2020, I never imagined how this year would play out. I was still naively optimistic, that by fall we would be “back to normal”. However, it quickly became clear that a pandemic lasts longer than just a couple of weeks and that the workshop could not take place in the original in-person format. There was the perspective to postpone it for two years, but especially as an early career researcher this was only little comfort. Therefore, I was happy that the workshop was moved to a virtual format at the end of a turbulent year. I do not think that a virtual setting can fully replace face-to-face interactions and especially informal conversations, but the way this workshop was organized was the best proxy I have experienced so far.
Even though the workshop was called “Cell State Transitions”, one fundamental question came up repeatedly and was even one focus during the themed discussions at the end of the workshop: How do we define a cell state? And, maybe even more important: How can such a definition not be just semantics, but aid our understanding of biology in development and disease?
It is clear that the last years have seen fantastic advances in single cell methods, which have changed the traditional concept of cell state based on characteristics like function or morphology to the consideration of multiple modalities. However, my biggest take away message from this workshop is the need to place this single cell knowledge back into the broader perspective: To understand dynamic cell fate transitions, we have to consider the spatial and temporal context of each cell. Can there be the same cell state in different contexts? Can we distinguish cell autonomous from non-autonomous effects? How can we integrate our generated knowledge across experimental scales?
These questions will surely drive the field for several years to come, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the discussion.
Postdoctoral research fellow, Bar-Ilan University, Israel
As an early-career researcher, I was excited to be offered a place at this great workshop. For me, it was the first opportunity to present my recent unpublished research, which was one of the bright sides of 2020. Looking at the smiling face of my 3-month-old baby, I can say that last year I took “cell state transitions” research one step ahead 😊.
I have always dreamed of visiting the south coast of England. Picturesque villages, greenery and sweeping valleys, and iconic landscapes – I didn’t get to see them this time. What I got was a chance to meet a group of exceptional senior and early-career scientists in a fruitful and mutually advantageous virtual environment, which encouraged them to share their distinct experiences and provide honest feedback to each other. The format of the pre-recorded presentations allowed me to reconsider each slide in order to make it more relevant, concise, and tailored for the audience.
While I looked forward to hearing the talks on stem cell decision-making, which is one of my research interests, it was exciting to see how other computational scientists like me present their research. I really enjoyed the research topics that, to some extent, were new to me, for instance inspiring synthetic biology approaches for reconstituting developmental mechanisms, as presented by Miki Ebisuya. On the other hand, I learned a lot of new aspects of mechanical signaling in controlling cell fate choice from a highly interesting talk by Kevin Chalut, who described a computational approach to explain the spatial segregation of embryonic cell lineages. Lastly, I was more than glad to hear about the new experimental model of signal transduction pathways responsible for cell fate decisions during gastrulation in human ES cells, presented by Aryeh Warmflash. These pathways are very well conserved and operative in mouse, and can hence be used for the construction of genetic regulatory networks and further in silico analyses in my current project.
I truly believe that the combination of experimental knowledge and computational models can provide important clues about the dynamics of cell state transitions or can reveal missing regulatory interactions that control them. Using gaps between sessions, I raised this discussion with experimentalists, encouraging them to consider multidisciplinary partnerships. This workshop was a real opportunity to broaden my network of scientific collaborators. I would like to express my sincere thanks to the organisers, Austin Smith and Kevin Chalut.