Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The 2017 ISMB Retreat

The Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) at Birkbeck and UCL holds a conference each summer where all members of the Institute's constituent departments come together to discuss their research. In even years, this takes the form of the ISMB Symposium: two intense days of research talks from ISMB core members and invited research leaders. In odd years, the focus turns to the younger members of the Institute with the ISMB Retreat. This, usually held in Cambridge University's Robinson College, is a two-day residential event featuring plenaries from outside speakers, shorter talks by students and postdocs from the ISMB, an activity designed to get young researchers thinking about science-based careers outside an academic lab, and a poster session. The 2017 retreat, held on June 29 and 30, was the seventh in the series.

There is a full report of this retreat (written by me) with photos on the ISMB website. Do check it out! Here are just a few highlights that are relevant to students of structural biology.

The three keynote speakers were Lori Passmore (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Cambridge; Bill Rutherford (Imperial College, London); and Bart Vanhaesebroeck (UCL Cancer Institute). Structural biology was a feature of all three talks, although most prominently in Passmore's. She was recently appointed as a group leader at the LMB, where her group uses high resolution electron microscopy to study the process of poly-adenylation (link to PPS section 8): the addition of the 'poly-A tail' to newly synthesised messenger RNA molecules during the maturation process. Much of the work she discussed has still to be published, apart from a section on techniques development: a physicist in her group, Chris Russo, has worked with her to devise a novel, gold-based substrate for mounting specimens in the electron microscope that eliminates most specimen movement and thus increases resolution.

Bill Rutherford gave an engaging talk, unusually featuring hand-written slides, on the mechanism of action of photosystem II, one of the complex proteins involved in photosynthesis. The evolution of photosynthesis was responsible for the increase in oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere that made multicellular life possible, and Rutherford explained how the increase in oxygen had led to further changes in the structure and mechanism of the photosystem that had the overall effect of decreasing its efficiency. Bart Vanhaesebroeck's lecture, which ended the retreat, described the mechanism of the phosphoinositide-3-kinase family of proteins and their role in cancer. Inhibitors of these kinases (link to PPS section 5) might prove useful anti-cancer drugs, almost certainly as part of combination therapy.

The programme also included nine short talks by students and young postdocs. The excellent quality of these was highlighted by the judges of the best talk, who were unable to come to a consensus judgement. In the end, two equal prizes were given, to Jennifer Booker, who studies the structure of sodium channels (see e.g. this post from September 2016) in Bonnie Wallace's group at Birkbeck, and to Sapir Ofer, for a talk on her PhD studies of the structural and molecular biology of archaeal histones. Proteins in this family are responsible for packing DNA into the chromosomes of eukaryotic cells; bacteria pack DNA using an entirely different mechanism, but the mode of packing in archaea - single-celled organisms that have no nucleus and are defined as prokaryotes but are more closely related to eukaryotes than to bacteria - was unknown until recently.

The retreat always includes an activity to challenge ISMB students and postdocs to think about career opportunities beyond academic research, and this year's proved particularly popular. It was a Dragons' Den style competition in which the younger delegates were split into teams, assigned mentors and given an hour to create a fictitious life science company, develop a bid for funding and present this to a panel of 'dragons'. Three finalists were chosen to battle it out in front of the rest of the delegates. The competitors worked hard and all 'companies' produced ideas that held water to at least some extent, but there could be only one winner. That was a company named TerraNova, which presented an antibody-drug conjugate for primary progressive multiple sclerosis.