Day 2: Food, Talks, and the Sinister Side of Science
A quick update, because the first talks start in 20 minutes. The food here is merely “edible,” meaning it’s better than your standard cafeteria, but actually putting effort into the food would simply be too much work because there are over 100 people eating at each meal. One thing about the meals is that they are much more casual than the actual talks, so people are much freer to discuss which aspects of their projects are frustrating, annoying, or confusing. I bet that about 70% of the actual science that’s done at these conferences is done over a burger and beer (although, since WHOI is in Massachusetts, it’s more likely to be a bowl of chowder and a Sam Adams). One observation I made is that the people here (especially the professors) seem to enjoy wine. A lot. Most meals resulted in enough bottles of wine being emptied that there’s probably a vineyard or two near Wooster that’s scrambling to replenish their inventory. Either way, there’s a lot of interesting discussion happening over meals that are really useful to doing science. The talks and posters are for telling everyone what you’ve done, but the meals are for talking about what you’re going to do.
There is a sense of disenfranchisement with science that I’m still getting used to here. Even from my perspective as a graduate student, I have (or maybe had) this idea that science was more or less a pure pursuit. As long as you have the evidence to back up your claim, you were accepted and your idea is reported as fact. There’s very little room for politics or pettiness in a system like this, because the truth will always win. That’s still somewhat true, but I have definitely seen something that I’m not too happy about here. There are a few people here (no names, for obvious reasons) that get away with making just about any claim and having it be accepted. I saw a talk today where someone clearly used the wrong statistics for their graph, but because he was the student of one of the “masters” of the field nobody called him out on it. This old guard of sea urchin biologists will let each other give talks without so much as a single insightful question, but as soon as a lesser known biologist takes the stage they act like vultures in the desert, just waiting for the smallest mistake to slip through so they can pounce on it and discredit their entire talk. It’s really disconcerting to know that disagreeing with them could mean something as serious as being ridiculed in a public forum, especially because the thesis I’m working on right now may disagree with the single most important man in the field. I’m super happy I’m not presenting anything at this meeting now.
Tonight I got some great evidence that my general feelings are actually true, and it comes from two talks that happened during the evening session. First was a talk from one of the “old guard.” He described work he did that investigated how two different types of cells that were next to each other could “know” what cell type they should be, even though they all started out the same. What he presented had some flaws in design, and the pictures he showed of his results were not very good. But this presentation was met with acceptance and thoughtful discussion. Honestly, it wasn’t a bad talk, but if I was on stage showing many of the pictures he did, I would have been embarrassed by their low quality.
Talk number two was from a new person. She had a presentation about how the embryo turns on a set of genes at a specific time to make a certain organ. In her talk, she presented a lot of computational data that can be difficult to understand, but it all looked fairly solid in my opinion, although her conclusions seemed a little far reaching. When she finished, she showed a “network map” of all the gene interactions that she thought were happening in her work. At this, a question came in from a man the back: “What evidence do you have for [this specific] interaction?” It was a question from one of the “old guard,” and it was asked in a rather brusque, rude manner. She began explaining that, while she did not have any physical evidence for that interaction, it was strongly suggested by her data that the interaction was happening. The man in the back replied: “So none, then.” Honestly, in science this is about as close as someone can come to telling you that you’re worthless in a public setting. It would be absolutely devastating to have that happen during one of your talks. But more to the point, I did not hear this sort of scrutiny happening to any of the “old guard” or their students, even if they were doing work that was equally questionable, or worse. It makes me worry for the future of science, if it is as hard as it seems to break into a field.