This year I attended the Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) from July 8-12 in Orlando, Florida. But before I talk about my experience of the conference (and amazing Disney World!), let me roll back a bit and tell you about why I was there.

Wiki editathon ISMB 2016.jpg

ISCB Competition

Several months ago, I wrote a short describing my submission for ISCB Wikipedia article writing competition. For those who don’t know, the competition invited people to improve upon existing computational biology articles on Wikipedia by adding or improving upon existing resources. The simple aim of the initiative was to propagate the idea of open-science and open-research, and to encourage collective community efforts for knowlege curation.

So, after the official editing period finished in January, I got busy in other college activities and nearly forgot about it until one day in June when I received an email from Alex Bateman. He let me know, much to my suprise and joy, that my contributions were judged in top 3 by the review committee, and whether I would like to come to ISMB 2016 and receive the award in person if possible. He also generously agreed to partially sponsor my travel and accommodation for the conference!

A few weeks later, I was walking through the meandering hallways of the conference venue, the wonderful Disney World resort, marveling at the sheer scale of the conference—thousands of people from all over the world, enthusiastically swarming around conference halls and ball rooms.

BOSC, ISMB and Dinner!

Since I went a day before the main conference was scheduled to start, I could attend a half day session of BOSC, a special interest group meeting, organized two days before ISMB. Bastian Greshake, founder of OpenSNP and also my mentor for Google Summer of Code project, gave a talk about latest developments with the project. It was a fun experience to see my name feature twice on presentations as a Google Summer of Code student for OBF and OpenSNP. In the evening, I joined about 20 other people including Peter Cock (lead developer of BioPython), Shaun Jackman (developer of LinuxBrew), Bastian Greshake (founder of OpenSNP.org), and Nomi Harris (co-chair of BOSC ‘17) for a dinner in Orlando city.

The main ISMB conference started from next day. It was, however, a struggle to wake up at 9 am in the morning while I was still jetlagged. As a result, I missed the morning keynotes for consecutive two days. Furthermore, it was really hard to decide which talks to attend since I did not know many of the speakers. I followed the talk descriptions and went to the ones I liked—mostly related to challenges of machine learning and big-data in Biology. Later that day, I met with Alex Bateman and we discussed about organizing the Wikipedia editathon the next day. He also introduced me to Alastair K., a post-doctoral student at UCSD and also one of the former winner of the ISCB competition.

Wiki editathon ISMB 2016.jpg

Since I didn't explore much of area around Disney resort the previous day, I used the rest of my evening to enjoy the atmosphere and explore dinner options. Finding food, however, turned out to be a real struggle. Unless you can live on french fries and coke, or are ready to burn holes in your wallet (not a problem if your expenses are reimbursed), moving around and relying on Disney World eateries is best to be avoided. Guess which one I did?

zzz...

Next morning, I met Alex and Alastair again. We reviewed the presentation and a general workflow of the editathon to be organized later that evening. Alex also introduced me to Sarah Teichmann, Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, one of the keynote speakers of the conference. For the rest of the day, I spent time walking around the posters and listening to the presentors. It was quite a coincidence when I run into Johannes Koster, one of the lead contributors to Bioconda project. He was quick to recognize my name since I had made several contributions to the repository. It's surprising how small the world can be sometimes. There were also a couple of funny instances when people mistook me for a graduate student.

By the end of it, however, I felt overwhelmed and slighty sad too. I felt like I am missing something.

ISMB Wikipedia Editathon 2016

After the poster session was over, we conducted the editathon as planned. Alex led the editing session with a few demonstrations done by Alastair, while I was available as an assistant if someone faced any issues. We attracted a moderate crowd (~20 people) of interesting people. The important takeaway lessons from the workshop are documented here.

Later that night, I spent some time walking around the beautiful decks of the resort area, ruminating over the overwhelming thought I had earlier. It was an unbelievingly beautiful night. Occasional fireworks washed the sky with colors often shadowing the vibrant brightness of lights that decorated the decks. Children enjoyed night performances by several artists, while adults paused to spare a few intermittent laughs. That’s when I understood the true nature of my emotional uneasiness.

Mixed feelings

I was not sad, scared or intimidated because of the scale of the conference and science involved. I was sad because I too wanted to be a part of that community. The event triggered a deep seated longing in my heart, the satisfaction of working on your passion and proudly presenting it to the world—for all the accolades and criticism it has to offer. I felt a deep sense of understanding as I walked back to my room to get some sleep and prepare for the final day of the conference.

Next day, also the final day of the conference, I hopped through some sponsor exhibits and collected a few tee-shirts and goodies. Finally, my excitement surged to its peak when the awards ceremony began as the culminating element of the conference.

Overall, it was a great experience—made possible only due to generous efforts of Alex, and Gustavo Glusman, my mentor, at Institute for Systems Biology in sponsoring my expenses. I made several friends, met influential people, and above all, took a closer look at the cutting-edge research research of the field.

See you at ISMB/ECCB 2017 conference in Prague next year!

blog by Vivek Rai