A Report of the Co-Chairs of the Gordon Research Conference in Theoretical Biology and Biomathematics

submitted by Claudia Neuhauser, University of Minnesota, co-chair and Alexander Mogilner, UC Davis, co-chair

The 2002 Gordon Research Conference (GRC) in Theoretical Biology and Biomathematics took place in Tilton, New Hampshire, from June 9 to June 14, 2002. The overarching theme was complex networks; the talks ranged from genes to ecosystems. About 100 participants gathered in the informal setting of a boarding school in Tilton to discuss current research topics in phylogenetic trees, visual cortex, Parkinson disease, chemotaxis, morphogenesis, global environmental changes, gene regulation networks, and transcriptional regulation. The conference concluded with a discussion of computational biology in a changing scientific culture. The speakers were a mix of junior and senior scientists, which is typical of Gordon Research Conferences. The program and abstracts are still available on the web.

Traditionally, the conference has strived to span a large range of topics to encourage theoretical and mathematical biologists with diverse research interests to participate. The breadth of this conference is particularly exciting for young scientists who make up a large fraction of the participants. Since senior scientists make an effort to introduce junior scientists to established researchers, this conference also provides an unusually nurturing environment for graduate students and postdocs.

This year, an impromptu afternoon session on “Women in Mathematical and Theoretical Biology” was held to address the persistent problem of a lack of women at all academic levels in mathematical research, including higher level administrative positions (department heads and deans). Though the situation has been improving, there are still few women faculty employed in mathematics departments at major research universities. This lack of role models continues to discourage students from pursuing a career in theoretical or mathematical biology. Many young scientists also question the feasibility of juggling a career and family; this problem needs to be addressed much more aggressively by both university administrations and funding agencies.

The form of Gordon Research Conferences is very conducive to informal discussions among participants. GRC does not allow any recordings of the talks or dissemination of results through conference proceedings or other reports, which encourages speakers to discuss unpublished research and provocative hypotheses. Talks are held in the mornings and after dinner; afternoons are free and used for informal sessions and one-on-one discussions. A large number of posters were presented that resulted in lively discussion among the participants. In addition, canoeing trips, hiking, and excellent food facilitated scientific exchange.

Reflecting recent trends, many sessions and talks were devoted to explosively growing areas of bioinformatics, genomics, proteomics (and other –tics and –mics), such as phylogenetic trees, gene and transcriptional regulation networks, and computational biology in general. These sessions highlighted the importance of ‘discrete mathematics’ (as compared to traditional methods of analysis and differential equations).

The participants received a clear message that mathematical biologists must ‘speak biology’ to contribute to biology: models and data from empirical studies must be combined. Mathematical models that are only loosely motivated by real systems may very well contribute to mathematics but may have little impact in biology. The tight link between empirical and theoretical studies was nicely demonstrated in the neuroscience talks where theoretical neuroscience talks were complemented by experimental talks, and in the talks on ecological topics where global ecological models were directly linked to data.

Very thought provoking was the last session. Dr. Charles DeLisi, one of the pioneers of the human genome project, talked about perspectives and challenges in genomics and proteomics. Dr. Marvin Cassman, former head of NIGMS and NIH, now director of the QB3, the Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, spoke about ‘collectivization’ and ‘industrialization’ of modern biology driven by a shift in funding philosophy among federal funding agencies. He compared the changes in biology to the changes occurring in human societies when the switch from hunters to gatherers occurred. This paradigm resulted in a lively discussion about the value of ‘big science’ where individuals’ contributions are frequently obscured by the compartmentalization of large projects versus the value of highly individualistic science where the entire project is carried out by few individuals.

A number of talented young researchers presented talks that promise a bright and exciting future for mathematical biology. To name but a few, Dr. Ed Munro, who just finished his Ph.D. with Dr. G. Odell, dazzled us with computer movies. Drs. Oudenaarden and Levchenkos’ talks pointed us to where the future of mathematical biology lies: experiments and theory combined in the same project.

The participants gave the conference high marks and unanimously voted for continuation of this conference series. The 2004 meeting will be chaired by Dr. Tim Elston (University of North Carolina) and Dr. Ray Mejia (NIH); Dr. Paul Bressloff (University of Utah) will be vice chair in 2004 and chair in 2006. Input on the content of these meetings is always solicited from the entire mathematical biology community. One of the most important issues when organizing this conference remains the balance between a conference that is too narrowly focused and thus only attracts a limited number of people, and a conference that is so broad as to lose attractiveness.. In addition, the conference needs to be well balanced with respect to theoretical and empirical talks. This year’s conference saw a large number of new faces with very diverse backgrounds, from exclusively experimental to hard core mathematics, but a smaller number of ‘founding fathers and mothers’ compared to previous years.

This conference is held every other year, typically at the same time of the year and in the same place. Come and join us in 2004!