26 March 2013

Catalyzing landscape genomics.

Earlier this month, I participated in a catalysis meeting at NESCent on landscape genomics. There is a common theme for each catalysis meeting. Sometimes that uniting principle is a historic area of research with multitudes of literature that could benefit from synthesis and identification of uniting principles. Sometimes the theme is an emerging area of science for which new questions are being elucidated. The landscape genomics catalysis meeting was interesting in that it addressed several major themes in evolutionary biology (population genetics, signatures of selection, comparative genomics) and was looking for ways to unite them theoretically and statistically into predictive methods. I was initially curious why the organizers chose to invite me, but quickly came realize how aligned the themes of the meeting are with my own research interests. Here are a few impressions from the time I spent sharing my thoughts with other scientists.

First, catalysis meetings are an interesting conglomeration of scientists. The goal of such meetings are to throw 25-30 scientists from different research foci and at various stages in their careers into a room together.  No one person was an expert on landscape genomics. There were experts in landscape ecology, comparative genomics and statistics, and we worked together to devise common projects and goals. The beautiful part of synthesis is that contributions from various participants are required to achieve the goals of the meeting. There are many people contributing, and everyone learns something. As a recent article from NESCentians points out, this is a fertile ground for incubating new collaborations, projects, and ideas.

Second, an aggregate of such brains allows new insight into how science works. Well, that's certainly a vague statement. At this meeting in particular, several of us were struck by the differences in how genomics and ecology view data. The former tends to throw out data left and right, paring down sequences and levels of variation so the remaining data can be described more easily. Ecologists, on the other hand, attempt to describe the overall variation in a given system, and try to model the nature of that variation. I personally believe genomicists have a great deal yet to learn from ecologists in this respect.

All in all, I believe this meeting was particularly fruitful. Sometimes tempers and egos flare at these meetings, to the point that I'm urged to start chanting "Fight, fight, fight!" and hope for fisticuffs. As exciting as it is to see other scientists so passionate about their research, I was pleased that members of this meeting were more focused on bridging gaps between disparate disciplines. There are a number of incipient projects jumpstarted from it, including one manuscript I volunteered to lead.

Synthesis FTW!

1 comment:

Steve Moss said...

It sounds like it was a great meeting and there are certainly a lot of areas of research that can benefit from this sort of collaboration.

Without really knowing it, I was discussing landscape genomics with one of the other PhD students in our lab meeting this morning. They had mentioned that they thought the genomics and the availability of a genome sequence was perhaps the upper level of our ability to gain information on an organism, however I thought the many of the other -omics were relevant in increasing our understanding; the transcriptome, connectome, epigenome etc.

Exciting times we live in :)