stem cells in their environment

Science Foo Camp @ Google

24 August 2016
By Davide Danovi

From the left: the Googleplex courtyard, our session on the sticker board (I wish
I read this earlier!) and my rendition of a cube tessellation origami by Ilan Garibi.

The Sci Foo Camp confirmation email felt for some like a letter from the Hogwarts College of Magic, for others like a door next to the Bilderberg Club, and for many (including myself) like a flattering pat on the shoulder. Indeed, while extremely happy and considering it to be recognition for the hard work of our whole team, I was hesitant to accept for a number of reasons. First, the logistics required a few tweaks, and here my whole family support was great. Second, I feel that at this particular time our projects demand sharp focus in the lab, rather than great opportunities elsewhere. Third, the format was so radically different from anything else around that I really wasn’t sure whether I would manage to get the most out of it. Last, the prospect of flying from London to San Francisco for just four days - while sleeping for what came up as a total of just 15 hours (in 4.5 days that is) - was something that needed to be pondered over carefully.

Now, let me try to give you a sense of the time I had the weekend of the third week of July, and what made me always gladly take the first and last shuttle coach every time. In fact, the effort Google puts in to have its employees virtually living at the campus makes sense when you see the venue. Plus, there are drinks, cookies, ice creams, healthy snacks between wonderful meals, all surrounded by a lovely terrace and very inspiring room designs. One wonders whether the optimistic power of information has escaped the boring suits and ties, so out of place in California, and is (or will be?) rendering the world a better place. It was informal cosiness, flawlessly organised as a military operation.

And from a military expression – "FUBAR" (the acronym is easy to figure out) comes the name of the conference. This was transformed into FOOBAR by informatics nerds as placeholders in coding. Jokes among Linda Stone, Sara Winge and Tim O’Reilly (present at the conference) morphed into the establishment more than a decade ago of an actual bar for Friends Of O’Reilly. The common sense perception that the most useful moments at events tend to be the informal conversations before, after, and between sessions did the rest - merging into an ‘unconference’ together with Google, Digital Science and Nature. Radical differences cluster in the transdisciplinary vocation as attendees come from many different areas of science and the lack of a fixed agenda as the invited scientists, technologists, policy makers (and beyond!) set the conference programme during the conference itself. After everyone introduced themselves by saying on a microphone three things they were interested in, the sessions (more than 100) were sketched on a sticker board.

Putting down mine, the prospect of signing it up with Masayo Takahashi, Todd McDevitt, Doris Taylor was beyond expectations. There, we discussed with several attendees including Katharina Sophia Volz and others from different fields what stem cells are and how they can be used. A very interesting angle for me came from scientists focusing on the actual process of generating data and results and how new tools can help with the overall improvement of reproducibility. This was partly the theme of another interesting session I attended where Charles Fracchia, Adam Marblestone and Max Hodak looked into the needs of researchers to track, trace, store, and analyse data and also that of a ‘science of science’ session where the peer-review process and the current career systems were carefully dissected, and we learnt how big data mining can help with this. It was also really interesting to look into integrating different biological datasets with Raghu Machiraju and his robotic lab assistant and Richard Levenson whose slide-free histology looks truly innovative.

A clear recommendation was to also sample sessions outside of your comfort zone. I therefore found myself in a (truly) fantastic hour on post-capitalism led by Kim Stanley Robinson. I have also learnt a little more, mainly via conversations and lightning (5 minutes each) talks, about perception of prostheses, modelling the brain, circadian rhythms, nullomers, mini-motors for sperm, ants trails, a trillion species of bacteria, driverless cars, music modelling, putative alien megastructures to harvest starlight, exoplanets, artificial photosynthesis, language structure of smell, one third of Africa in distress, inclusion and origami for engineering and art (as in picture).

Everyone from the organisers to the academics, from the technologists to the entrepreneurs were similarly interested in the needs of the community, in the science itself, and in the type of content generated and how to analyse it. I believe the huge challenge of the conference to ask attendees to bring depth and to give them back breadth was entirely met. I found this process of looking for very precious insights from other disciplines intrinsically slippery when it comes to planning and very tiring. In fact, it felt as if your eyes were constantly short or long-sighted in exploring the landscape as your brain got stretched out of its comfort zone for half of the time and you needed to explain your work in very simple terms for the other half. The beauty though was in the amazing people I met and the fact that nobody was afraid of asking any type of questions. The days were precious in understanding who to go to in the future for scientific help, and how one’s daily job and passions fit into the big picture. Oh well, it was definitely worth it!

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