In September 2017, Denise Monack, Raphael Valdivia, and Malcolm Whiteway organized the eleventh meeting of Microbial Pathogenesis and Host Response at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. We met with them to talk about how the meeting has changed and the role that scientific inclusivity plays in its growth.
Raphael: When I was a starting faculty member, my view was that there are categories of microbial pathogenesis that you always have to cover. But over the last few years – and probably since I’ve become a meeting organizer – one of the goals has been to expand into areas where we think the field is moving, or perhaps where the exciting new advances will be happening. Rather than being stuck in a “this is what we need to cover” framework, it’s become more about “where is the future of the field?”
Denise: I agree with that. The first time I attended this meeting was as a graduate student and I remember a lot of the talks were on the pathogen side, with maybe an infection slide here and there. Now it’s both, and the 2017 meeting in particular covered both sides. People are using Collaborative Cross mice and infecting them to get at host genetics. And with CRISPR/Cas9 you can make mutants much more easily, so I think the host side is getting more coverage.
Raphael: Also, since we work with people who are outside of what’s considered the standard microbial pathogenesis field, another goal for the meeting is to bring some of those individuals into this field of study because we’ll learn from them.
Denise: Exactly. That’s why I intentionally invited Isaac Chiu, a neuorimmunologist from Harvard, to give a talk. Since he isn’t a microbiologist, he was really nervous about his lecture. But people in this audience want to hear about neuroimmunology, not take apart his microbiology, so he felt welcome and comfortable.
Malcolm: Those talks where someone says “nerves for pain are connected to the immune system,” they open a lot of eyes.
Raphael: Similarly, we invited Lawrence David from Duke to give a talk in 2017. He doesn’t work on pathogens but on microbial ecology in the gut, so the perspective he gave was very, very different than what most people in the audience are used to thinking. Getting out of your comfort zone and thinking about your research problems from a different view point is always useful.
Malcolm: Two years ago, I invited Hendrik Poinar from McMaster University to give a talk. He looked at the plague from an ancient pathogenesis angle that was really cool and well-received. Those are the kinds of things you go back to and think about.
Raphael: That’s right, because they just stick with you. We only know what we know, and sometimes it's what we don’t know that we find most interesting. The 2017 meeting had a session focused on imaging technologies for this reason. A lot of people had not heard of the techniques presented in that session but now they can ask, “How can I apply this technology in my own research questions?”
Denise: Some of the pathogenesis meetings I go to are almost exclusively on bacteria, so we’ve made this meeting much more multi-organismal. In the future, I’d like to have it be not just for bacterial or fungal pathogens, but maybe invite some specialists in eukaryotic parasites as well. That would make this the go-to meeting for pathogenesis in general.
As the meeting continues to evolve, we wanted to know who they thought would benefit the most from attending:
Malcolm: If I was an advanced graduate student looking for a postdoc, I’d want to go to a meeting like this. Besides seeing a lot of different research perspectives, graduate students will also be introduced to people who are at the top in the field, people they’ll want to do postdocs with.
Raphael: Postdocs looking for faculty positions can also benefit from this meeting because PIs who come here represent departments looking for talent. And for junior faculty, the ability to network and have one-on-one interactions with others in the field is key. That’s one of the reasons why, at the beginning of the meeting, we remind everyone to step out of their comfort zones and make sure they’re not only listening to the science, but also getting into those one-on-one interactions. The science is the hook that allows you to engage a person; if you’re interested in what they’re doing, it is likely that they’re doing a bunch of other things you’ll also find interesting. You never know what opportunities or collaborations will emerge.
We closed our discussion chatting about what made their meeting different from other pathogenesis meetings:
Raphael: Well, the organizing team is top-notch.
Malcolm: And the venue is top-notch too.
Raphael: There is something about the environment here. I remember when I first came to the meeting, I just walked around the halls and saw pictures of heroes in science interacting in this setting. It’s a vibe you don’t feel in many places; it’s hard to replicate.
Malcolm: I completely agree. I’ve been coming to Cold Spring Harbor for decades and I loved it from the very beginning. It just has so much history that’s central to molecular biology. It’s great to be in a place with that historical connection…that vibe.
The Microbial Pathogenesis and Host Response meeting returns to the Laboratory in 2019, where Anita Sil will join Denise Monack and Raphael Valdivia as meeting organizers. If you’re looking for a meeting in the years that Microbial Pathogenesis and Host Response is not at CSHL, the Gene Expression & Signaling in the Immune System meeting is a great alternative.
For more conversations with other meeting organizers, check out the rest of our A Word From series.