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YEN 2015

Posted by , on 18 May 2015

My review of the Young Embryologist Network London Meeting 2015


As I write this, I am currently listening to the third very impressive senior PI talk in a row addressing ‘how to succeed in science’. This one is from an incredible woman who came through the German system, did a PhD at the EMBL in Heidelberg, did a postdoc there for about 10 minutes where she developed an incredible new model system, won loads of prizes, and is now running a large and successful lab at Cambridge basically solving every medical problem in pregnancy. In Cambridge she has started a family and been incredibly successful. She looks about 32.

So, I have decided to stop listening (and stop crying inside) and to start a review of the research talks. Hilariously, I am actually a judge of the talks this year (I have taken off marks for every time someone says ‘’so we took a system approach’’, and then speaks about a phenomenon/gene/conceptual framework that was entirely known or in place before people said this in talks. It’s not their fault of course – we are all prisoners of fashion. But here I am, I can be no other, as somebody once said). As ever, I have just picked out a few highlights. This is not because the other talks were bad, but because I have a very fat son who is 7 weeks old. So I have been getting up approximately every 2 hours for about 90 minutes every night for the last 7 weeks to feed an apparently insatiable baby who has supplanted me as the most important man in my wife’s life. I have slept through some talks. Sorry.



Vanessa Chong (Oxford)


This talk was awesome. This girl is at the end of her 2nd year (remember that). She is a student of Tatjiana Sauka-Spengler at the Wetherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. This is an institute that reverses the reprehensible modern trend, and has a translational name but does incredible basic research. She has developed a method for purifying nuclei from genetically targeted cells in zebrafish neural crest, and then conducted large-scale transcriptomics. She identified very counter-intuitive expression of neural crest developmental transcripts in non-neural crest tissues. What? But, she also found opposite strand transcription of these same genes in only the neural crest lineage. Antisense non-coding transcription is correlated with gene expression but not transcription (of neural crest genes). She is a 2nd year. Don’t know if I mentioned that. Impressive stuff.



Lizzy Ward (UCL)


A wonderfully old-fashioned bit of developmental biology examining the signalling of the notochord to the forming somites and ultimately vertebrae. She showed really nicely and elegantly that the notochord does signal to the somites, and that this signal is generic i.e. doesn’t vary in nature along the A/P axis of the notochord. It might only end up in a smaller journal (thought the last such study from the Stern lab ended up in Science), but it was beautifully presented and very elegant.


Rebecca McIntosh (KCL/UCL)


A talk on a favourite topic of mine: basal progenitors. These are proliferative cells in the CNS that unlike most CNS progenitors maintain a connection not to the apical surface, but the basal one. Such cells have expanded enormously in number in the primate neocortex and are suggested to underlie the evolution of large neocortices; they have expanded enormously in the cerebella of amniotes and are suggested to underlie the evolution of large cerebella (some wonderful work from an extremely talented and very good looking young lecturer in East London). Rebecca’s talk examined their biology in a much more simple and elegant system: the zebrafish spinal cord and hindbrain. This talk was a really nice combination of sophisticated genetic labelling and high-end microscopy, combined with really sensible and simple questions. The work quantified basal divisions in zebrafish (i.e. in a very small brain) and showed that elaborate cellular behaviours accompany their specification and patterns of division. As ever with good research, it generated more questions than it answered.



John Robert-Davis (KCL/Crick Institute)


John is a great bloke who is incredibly charismatic and depressingly bright. His thesis examined the molecular and mathematical basis of contact inhibition in Drosophila hemocytes and won the Beddington Prize for the best thesis produced in the UK last year in developmental or cellular biology. He is now a postdoc at the Crick Institute and I suspect a shoe-in for some incredible fellowship – he published his PhD work in Development and Cell. His talk was crap. That is all you need to know.

Okay, okay, it wasn’t crap. It was, in fact, utterly brilliant. And entirely predictably so. He won the prize for the best talk. And he used zorb ball (look it up) as a genuine scientific metaphor. Apparently he’s also a standup comedian. And he’s a great bloke. Urgh.



Alexander Fletcher (Oxford)


I should preface this review by saying that I am generally quite unimpressed by a lot (though certainly not all) of the modelling that is done in relation to developmental biology. I am sure that I am quite possibly completely mistaken and very very happy indeed to be corrected and saved from my own ignorance by the armies of physical scientists now being recruited into biology. Nevertheless, insert Martin Luther quote here.


I recently sat through a talk that had the sentence: ‘’of course without any inertia, you generate chaotic Turing signalling patterns.’’ And people say that recruiting physicists into developmental biology is confusing the field…


With my very poor mathematical ability (it is actually not that poor), I took the following from this other talk, as from so many others: we made a model using real data and we know how to do this (at this point the vast majority of the audience who do things like experiments become very scared – there is usually a slide with lots of maths on). We tested the model using real data. The real data supported the model. The model generated zero (this is the point of distinction between the good modelling studies and the majority) novel hypotheses. We concluded that the laws of physics apply to living things. A room full of biologists (or possibly just those who make funding decisions?) was incredibly impressed.


The final talk thus came as a wonderful surprise. It was brilliantly cynical, entertaining and I think important. It discussed how the process of writing code for models for scientific applications like developmental biology is hugely ineffective and should be assessed and rigorously examined by people who know how to write good code, before being foisted upon those who don’t. An idea whose time I hope has come.

Thumbs up (3 votes)

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2 thoughts on “YEN 2015”

  1. Haha! You took a lot away from the talks for someone who was jetlagged by babies and China..
    I’m glad we were able to get such high quality research/speakers and inspirational PIs to wow even your socks off. Thanks for judging.

    I hope everyone who attended was able to network as well as cry inside about how we are not all Melina Schuh/Sarah Woolner/everyone who took to the stage…


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