18 Aug 2014
Mike Limb was awarded a Messel Travel Bursary in May 2014. He attended the Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) and Conference (GRC) in Computational Chemistry in Vermont in July 2014. Mike shares his experience of the conferences.
About the conferences
The Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) and Conference (GRC) in Computational Chemistry is one of the premier conferences in my field, featuring a diverse programme of eminent speakers from the Computational Chemistry community.
The ethos of Gordon Conferences are unique; aiming to provide an environment which promotes interaction and debate between all attendees, together with a programme showcasing new and cutting-edge research. In order foster this type of atmosphere, the conference follows a novel format that differs to other meeting I have previously attended. There is dedicated time in the schedule between talks to allow for discussions, lectures take place only in the morning and the evening (allowing participants to break off into their own discussion groups and work on new collaborations throughout the conference), and finally there is a strong empathises that the research presented at the conference should be from unpublished and active research.
It was therefore with the promise of a week of lively scientific debate that I climbed on the bus from Boston to take me up into the remote mountain resort of Mount Snow. For the first couple of days of my stay in Mount Snow I attended the GRS which takes place in the weekend preceding the main conference. The seminar is designed to enable PhD students and early-career researchers to present their own research in the form of an oral presentation which otherwise would not be possible at the main conference (which only features invited speakers). Moreover, the GRS also provides an invaluable opportunity to interact and network with other scientists who are also in the preliminary stages of their careers, as well as the more senior members of the scientific community.
For the GRS I was accepted to give a talk in the biophysics part of the programme, speaking alongside two other graduate students from leading American research groups whose research also deals with biological modelling of enzymes. I thoroughly enjoyed presenting my research, with the discussion section of our session featuring some intense and stimulating debate. I fielded numerous challenging and insightful questions from the audience which served to provide me with a new perspective on the context of my research, as well as giving me new insights into the strengths and potential weaknesses of some of the methods I have utilised in my work so far- a truly invaluable experience, especially at the point in my PhD where I am starting to ready my research for peer-review! At the close of the GRS there was a panel discussion, which enabled me to obtain advice and information from various high-calibre scientists about the wide-variety of future career paths that are available to me in Science; both within industry and academia. By the end of weekend I had been able to develop a strong network of researchers (and friends!), and felt confident that I could meaningfully contribute to the GRC, which commenced in the same location the following evening.
Traditionally, the GRC takes place over five days, with the first evening featuring two keynote speakers. This year these were Bill Jorgensen (Yale University) and Peter Gill (Australian National University), both scientists who are leading researchers, who have been (and still are) instrumental in development of modern Computational Chemistry that I work within today.
Bill Jorgensen gave an inspiring talk outlining the methodologies and techniques pioneered in his lab which are used to aid the optimisation of pharmaceutical compounds identified in a drug discovery programmes. The talk was a masterclass in 'in silico lead optimisation' focusing on the techniques that enabled the group to develop the world's most potent HIV drug (a compound that has also been shown even to be effective against even the more resistant strains of the virus that have emerged recently). In a contrasting talk, Peter Gill, an eminent Quantum chemist, gave a controversial and highly entertaining presentation that tackled 'The Future of Quantum Chemistry', which provided an excellent overview on the current state of Quantum Chemistry and what he perceived were the strengths and limitation of research currently taking place within the field. Both talks were delivered expertly and were hugely inspiring. They featured numerous examples of ground-breaking research that has been conducted in the field, bringing home to me the ever-increasing importance, utility and acceptance (in the wider scientific community) of this relatively new field.
The keynote talks set the tone for a highly stimulating and intense week of science. Over the course of the rest of the GRC I was able to talk about my own research with a wide variety of leading academics through the poster sessions, as well as attend numerous talks that covered every subfields that makes up the full spectrum of research conducted under the umbrella of Computational Chemistry. Many of the talks help to expose me to new methods and applications of computational modelling that I was previously unaware of and I learnt of many new techniques which will no doubt go on to inform my own work.
What I gained
My personal highlight of the GRC was the session chaired by Vijay Pande (Stanford University) on Community-Assisted Distributed Computing. The session featured three leading scientists working in this rapidly emerging subfield which is exploring new ways to use parallel computing and the internet (among other things) to 'crowd-source' novel scientific insights and gain access to increased computing hardware with the aim of tackling challenging problems faced in biochemistry and medicinal chemistry. Vijay Pande's talk, on the Folding@home programme and Markov State Models, and Rhiju Das (Stanford University), on the EteRNA project, emphasised how embracing a multidisciplinary approach to Computational Chemistry propelled innovation in their research, with both talks showcasing some impressive results achieved within their labs by employing this approach. The demonstration of these paradigm-shifting projects successfully convinced myself, and the assembled audience, that this type of research is an exciting and productive new direction that the field can pursue.
The GRC and GRS were incredible experiences, not only due to the wealth of inspiring new research I was exposed to during the meeting, but mainly due to numerous interactions that I was able to have during the conference. The unique atmosphere at the GRC was best exemplified by an intense debate that I was able to have with a Professor who is a leading researchers on the biological system that I am studying. In previous conferences I have attended, the opportunity to be able to talk, in depth, about my research with such a knowledgeable figure has never been possible, however, due to the type environment fostered by the GRC, not only was I able to have ample time to discuss my results, but I was (for better or for worse) subject to a full-on Viva / defence of my PhD, which went well into night (fortunately accompanied by several local pale ales!). Attending the conference was a special and rewarding experience and I sincerely hope that I will be able to attend the next conference when it takes place again in two years time in Europe.