“Life in motion” attracted 170 young international scientists. And a Nobel Prize Laureate

The 2nd IRB Barcelona PhD Student Symposium was held on 17-18 November 2011 in the Barcelona Aquarium. 170 young international scientists took part in the second edition of this event, which provided an unparalleled opportunity for IRB Barcelona students to gain experience in all the aspects of organizing a scientific symposium. The first event of this kind took place in 2009.

Students made a special effort to identify and invite a panel of top-class speakers, among the best scientists in their field. They brought to Barcelona Aaron Ciechanover (Israel), Julius Brennecke (Austria), Sarah Teichmann (UK), Anne-Claude Gavin (Germany), Conly Rieder (USA), Piet Gros (The Netherlands), Mónica Bettencourt (Portugal), Christian Griesinger (Germany), Erik Sahai (UK).

The participation and satisfaction of the scientists after attending the meeting was a reason for gratification for the organizers, a committee of 12 PhD students. Discussion was lively, and for once, as Nobel Laureate Aaron Ciechanover put it, “the sharks are behind the speakers and not in front of us,” pointing at the fish tank of the room in the Barcelona Aquarium where the conference was held. At the end of two intense days of lectures, discussions, and poster sessions, prizes were awarded to the best short talk (Michal Breker, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel) and to the best posters (Miquel Duran-Frigola and Sílvia Vilaprinyó, from IRB Barcelona, and Benedikt Schwartz  from MPI, Berlin). 

Logo of the 2nd PhD Symposium

Aaron Ciechanover, one of the eight invited speakers (Photo: Sònia Armengou)

Aaron Ciechanover, one of the eight invited speakers (Foto: Sònia Armengou)

Aaron Ciechanover: “Just be enthusiastic”

One of the most renowned invited speaker was Chemistry Nobel Prize Winner Aaron Ciechanover. “When we began our research that led to our Nobel award, we did not want to describe the ubiquitin system,” he said. “We were only pursuing a biological question: how are proteins degraded? By asking this question, this whole thing popped up in front of our eyes.” In other words, it’s only by asking the right questions that you get interesting results. As usual with him, his lecture was very energetic. “Don’t forget that I’m smart in retrospect”, he states humbly.

Relentless passion and good mentorship are the keys for scientific successPlay

When asked about the recipe for scientific success, he shows no hesitation, “Relentless passion. Even at 64, when I talk to people, I am enthusiastic about what I do. Passion helps you to combat frustrations and failures. The second critical element is mentorship.” And Ciechanover always picked his mentors very carefully. “I never chose them because they had a free spot in their labs. My supervisor Avram Hershko told me, ‘I don’t know where we are heading, let’s find out together’. And I thought: wow, this is an adventure. Let’s do it. Of course, you also need luck. But luck is not always blind – you don’t win a lottery if you never buy a ticket!”

The message he conveyed to young researchers is straightforward: “You need to have an important and experimentally approachable problem, then you need to look around and see what is there and build on that. Once you are on the road, it will take you.” Regarding the proteins that make up our body, he likes to use the hardware vs. software metaphor. “The software – our thoughts – is embedded in the hardware,” he explains, “but we change all the hardware without changing the software. Which means there is a way to memorise the software, I am not sure how, maybe by transmitting the information from protein to protein, who knows. It’s like a torch you are giving one another in a run: the torch of the high functions of the brain.”

The software is embedded in the hardwarePlay

“Each one of us is a only a thin layer. You only live for a while, your productive life is even shorter. We have to be humble, we are just part of a continuum. We don’t start anything from scratch, there were people before us, and there will be people after us. We are part of a line.”

We are only a thin layerPlay

Why does the degrading system take about almost 10% of the total genome?
It is a complex system, and it’s not linear as the protein synthesis.Play

A chat with two of the invited speakers

Both London Research Institute-based Erik Sahai, a specialist in tumour biology, and Mónica Bettencourt-Dias, from Portugal’s Gulbenkian Institute, one of the major experts on centrosomes and ciliate flagella, have a broad background that involves non-biological studies. Erik studied geology as an undergraduate and Mónica has a diploma in science communication.

Introducing centrosomes Play

Cancer is a very disorganized disease, says Erik Sahai Play

A chat with them at lunch reveals two curious and stimulating scientists. “Metastasis is a complex process – it can take many years to come about and it is statistically unlikely,” says Sahai. “When thinking about the process of cancer appearing and developing, one has to accept that cancer is a disorganized disease and anything that is possible will happen at some frequency.  Also, not all metastases look the same: with our approach using the novel technique of intravital imaging, we can see the cancer cells in transit in a living organism. Quite strikingly, these cells are distinctive from the primary tumours and the metastases. They have different characteristics: if we understand which ones they are, we might be able to develop a new strategy to stop them.”

“Different metastasis look different, cells in transit have distinctive characteristics” Play

One of the most fun things I do is to take science to people that are not expecting it. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have a high narrative potential in science that we should take advantage of,” says Bettencourt-Dias.

What do you think of this event?
Listen to Mónica Bettencourt-Dias’ enthusiastic answer. Play

Science and communication.
Listen to Mónica Bettencourt-Dias’ experience. Play

Why do you feel it is important for scientists to use facebook?
Listen to Mónica Bettencourt-Dias' opinion on social media. Play

Take home message for students by Erik Sahai Play

Erik Sahai and Mónica Bettencourt-Dias (Photo: Luca Tancredi Barone)

Erik Sahai and Mónica Bettencourt-Dias (Foto: Luca Tancredi Barone)

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