Field Trip! Computational Biology on the Road

A few weeks ago I took my students to the Association Computing Machinery Conference on Bioinformatics, Computational Biology, and Health Informatics (ACM-BCB) in Seattle, WA.  It was a fantastic experience for everyone involved – the organizers did an excellent job running the conference.  I asked my students to reflect on the conference, and I figured I should do the same.

With such a large cohort of undergraduates at a scientific conference, my role shifted to encompass one of an educator as well as a researcher.  I honed in on the accessibility of the material in talks, feeling a bit of pride when the speakers showed an image or mentioned a topic I have taught in class.  I also had some moments of “wow, should have taught them that” when a speaker presented a fundamental concept we have not yet covered.  Many of my students came out of sessions excited about what they had just learned – they talked with the speakers, asked for their papers, and are now delving into this new material.  Graduate student attendees became mentors, fielding questions about why they went to graduate school and how they picked their research topic.

ACM-BCB was an ideal size – the conference had compelling talks and tutorials while being small enough to chat with the keynote speakers and conference organizers.  I caught up with existing colleagues and met some potential collaborators in the Pacific Northwest.  I also found myself in discussions with  graduate students about my position in a liberal arts environment.  Reed had a research presence, since three Reed students submitted posters to the poster session.  My students had garnered enough research experience — either through their thesis, summer research, or independent projects in class — to have engaging conversations with other attendees.

Finally, the trip to ACM-BCB as a class taught everyone (including me) the importance of logistics.  Some gems:

  1. Make sure the taxi to the train station can fit the entire group.
  2. Remember who you gave the posters to in your mad dash to find parking before your train departs (see #1).
  3. Make sure your PCard credit limit is set so it’s not declined at the hotel.
  4. Tell your students the correct time of the first keynote.

And the question of the day: is a (very detailed) receipt for a can of soda written on a napkin by a bartender reimbursable?

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