A Word From: Fiona Watt, Marius Wernig & Ken Zaret

L to R: Ken Zaret, Fiona Watt, Marius Wernig; Photo by Constance Brukin

L to R: Ken Zaret, Fiona Watt, Marius Wernig; Photo by Constance Brukin

The fifth biennial meeting on Stem Cell Biology was held at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory September 25-29, 2017. We spoke with the meeting’s organizers Fiona Watt, Marius Wernig, and Kenneth Zaret, about changes the field and meeting have experienced over the past decade.

Fiona: At huge stem cell meetings, all constituencies are represented and there’s usually a focus on the translational aspect: getting cells into therapies and patients. That’s really important, but here we’re mainly focused on mechanism.
Kenneth: I’ve heard from a lot of people this year that they really enjoyed the program because the emphasis is on understanding mechanism and how things work. There was a period when the stem cell field and meetings were often characterized by more descriptive stuff: “Let me show you what I can differentiate my stem cells into and how well that works.” But there's been a sort of resurgence of the basic science underlying those processes, and that has made this meeting more interesting. 
Marius: Yeah, now there’s much more understanding. The protocols have improved, and the cells have actually gotten useful for various purposes. In addition, there is a lot of new technology, particularly single cell approaches. I think we had some spectacular talks at this meeting on the new directions taken. 
Fiona: The other thing I like is that, in the past, you would be interested only in your own stem cell, your own experimental model. As mechanism has come to the fore, there’s so much you can pick up regardless of what the experimental system is. 
Kenneth: More general principles.
Fiona: Exactly. 
Marius: Stem cell biology is a great glue that can bring together people from completely different disciplines. For example, I would never normally talk to someone who studies livers. But with stem cells as a common denominator, the liver person and I may use similar experimental approaches, and so we can learn from each other technically and conceptually.
Kenneth: And that’s all enabled by talking about the underlying mechanisms and processes rather than descriptive phenomena surrounding them. 

With these changes in the field, we were curious to learn of the developments they personally found most exciting: 

Marius: At this point, the single cell technology is only descriptive but it’s still exciting. People are now realizing that they have to partner it with functional assays.
Kenneth: In addition to single cell analysis, we heard exciting new ways to do lineage labeling, and to map fields of cells based on their polarity in 3D, which I thought was a neat technological advance. 
Fiona: People are also getting more rigorous with their terminology. Christopher Lengner gave a really interesting talk about quiescent stem cells in the gut that started off by defining exactly what it means. It’s that rigor and good experimentation which I’ve really enjoyed. 
Kenneth: Another dimension is that the new technologies require sophisticated math and statistical analysis that a lot of biologists don’t have. It’s resulted in an influx of people from physics, statistics, and math to the field, which has been great. 

Our chat concluded with who they thought would benefit most from attending the meeting, and what makes the CSHL Stem Cell Biology meeting unique:

Kenneth: People studying disease could benefit from the sophistication now in our field, to model human disease using stem cells -- genetic disease, susceptibility or response to drugs, things like that. As Marius said, we’ve gotten so much better at making different types of cells, organoids, and higher-order structured tissues, and using them in assays. Those who might have thought that anything other than an animal study would be difficult, are now enabled by technology in the stem cell field.  
Fiona: There’s something for everybody but I think it’s important to give postdocs and PhD students exposure to the best stuff going on in the field, because that inspires them. We also made a big effort in 2017 to ensure a lot of early-career, independent researchers presented their work. 
Marius: Folks who just started their own lab or are about to start one could benefit from attending this meeting. They not only stay current with new content, but they also meet people in the field. Networking is really important.
Fiona: I brought three PhD students to the meeting this year, and two gave posters in the same session. They were shocked that anybody would want to look at their posters, and were exhausted by the level of questions. There were a lot of good questions in all the sessions, very good-natured and constructive questions.
Kenneth: I got feedback that the small size of this meeting and its intimacy allowed people to talk directly to one another. It was easier for younger participants to talk to the more established people. 
Marius: I also heard from participants that the setting here is just so supportive of interactions and discussions.
Kenneth: You’re sequestered , if you will, on a single site, and you’re cloistered in a way that makes it very, very concentrated. The geography encourages you to be with people, talk science, and make it as meaningful as possible. That’s what distinguishes a Cold Spring Harbor meeting from many other venues. Also there’s so much history here: You walk around and see pictures where scientists are made to be heroes. Where else can you go where scientists are heroes? For young people, it’s very inspiring. I came to my first CSHL meeting in the late 1970’s, I gave my first talk here - ever - in 1980, and I couldn’t have been more scared or thrilled. 

The Stem Cell Biology meeting returns to the Laboratory in 2019. Visit our website for a list of the meetings and courses taking place in 2018.

For more conversation with other meeting organizers, check out the rest of our A Word From series.