An introvert tweets at a conference.

This last week, I was at Plant BIology 2013, the annual conference of the American Society of Plant Biologists. I have been to the conference many times before, but this was the first time that Ian2.9 went to a conference. I also had Twitter at my side. This was an experiment for me; would I connect with more people this year? Would I be able to feel successful at the conference? Inspired? Would I get exhausted and need to take a break?


I tweeted a lot at this conference; nearly every single session I attended, I probably had at least two tweets. This made me feel like I had a function. I was being useful. Well, not really useful to anyone else but me.

I found that switching between tweeting and taking notes was challenging, but found that tweeting really did keep me engaged with the various talks. I’m not sure if I prefer one over the other, but tweeting has the advantage that it’s typed and therefore a lot more legible.

What did I get out of tweeting? I interacted with other people tweeting. Because of it, I ended up getting a much needed CV review, I met some people in real life that I interacted with on Twitter first; even went out for dinner drinks with new people because of twitter before we all realized just how small the world is in terms of degrees of separation (note to self: This fact should tell you that approaching people shouldn’t be intimidating- there is very likely something you can find to connect to them with). People stopped by my poster because I tweeted about it in part (though not that many), but I did have a few pretty long conversations with people. I still don’t like poster sessions but am not sure what could replace them at conferences. It’s too many people, too much noise.

Tweeting was a lot of fun- my thumbs were actually sore from it! You can see a collection of my tweets as well as others’ (probably more insightful) tweets on this storify link.


As for the content of the meeting, I did get a lot out of seeing old friends. Seeing familiar faces and talking to them about what they’re up to now is always fun.  The other part of the conference was hearing about work of people that I wasn’t even aware of (but perhaps should have been). We get so caught up in our own narrow field/work that things that should cross our radar, don’t. I do follow far afield science (physics, chemistry, neuro-science/psychology), but don’t follow things that are nearby, but not directly relevant. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps we all need breaks from our own field, so anything plants doesn’t inspire reading.

The big trend to me was the emphasis on climate change and how plants would react to the largely warmer, higher carbon dioxide future. And it turns out to be a very complicated story. Some aspects will be good in terms of plant growth, others not so much; diseases, pests, heat stress, drought, not to mention other resource limitations. Of course, the story will be different depending on what specific plant you’re talking about. The upshot in terms of agriculture (just one aspect of plants we humans are completely reliant on- air, clean water, a healthy environment, medicines, energy, being some others) is that we’ll need to tap into the genetic diversity of plants- even going back to wild progenitor species (the wild versions of plants we’ve domesticated, but still exists in the wild) for desirable traits. There is also the GMO route, though a combination of the two is likely best of all- use the right technology for the given situation.


I think you’d hear this message at most scientific conferences, but there was definitely the presence of calling for more funding of basic research; basic research, even applied research takes decades to enter into the system and provide a tangible benefit (Phil Pardey, an economist who studies the agriculture sector, made this point very forcefully). Even in our modern age where computers get faster and faster, the cycle is the same length. To make discoveries that are well supported requires sustained funding, passionate people and time (That from Joanne Chory). There are many dead ends when you are trying to create new knowledge. Things that weren’t known before take time to figure out and understand- and there are always more details/closer looks that can be taken at any topic; and building up whole organisms/systems level understanding takes a lot more work after the reductive work has been done. Apparently that’s required for applied research as well. Having a brief lunch session with someone from Monsanto, he said they really need to understand the mechanisms behind their engineered traits for regulatory purposes.

Message: innovation takes time and money and publicly funded research compliments private research and vice-versa. Sadly, the United States seems to have lost track of this fact. Our high tech economy needs public and private support! Another theme is that ‘useful’ plants should be worked on, not Arabidopsis (the model plant of many plant biologists). If that’s the case, research will take even longer; crop plants have much longer life cycles and take longer to make transgenic (even if that’s just for research purposes). While things discovered in Arabidopsis may not translate directly in most cases, it’s still a valuable tool in the study of how plants work/figure out the basic function of a lot of genes- and it’s not as if it’s a plant we know everything about. There are still connections in hormone pathways that are complete black boxes.

The last session, the ‘president’s symposia’ was probably my favorite. Cary Fowler talked about seed banks, or preserving the genetic diversity of crop plants for all time (and we will need that variety if we’re to combat future challenges to our current accessions of crop plants). Tapping genetic diversity was another theme at this conference; figuring out how genotype and phenotype are related; and linking the two together to get to plants that have the right traits for the right place and time where we want to grow them.

John Lynch, of Penn State, had a great story about combining specific traits to make healthier plants rather than focusing on the big trait of yield (healthy plants tend to have higher yields, so finding plants that can efficiently use water and nutrients will help increase yields). He really integrated his basic research on plants, particularly their roots to make better crops as well as making them useful to the people- and actually studying the social structure of who would be growing these plants and how they’d end up being used (for nutrition or simple profit? Neither is bad inherently, but a balance of the two is key). He had some very gorgeous models of plant root architecture that varied and made a huge difference for how plants used resources.

The basic challenges for plant biology are this: yield will have to increase by 60% by 2050 to feed the world’s population. that has to be done on the present available land as there’s not much more arable land left. This has to be accomplished in the face of climate change and diseases that we think have been conquered, but in some cases are making a come back (Wheat rust, e.g.).

I was really impressed at the creativity and intelligence of everyone I spoke with. Not only are plant scientists working on figuring out key traits important for improving plant growth/fitness, but the basic research is really impressive too. Jose Dinenney had a great story about using plant roots growing across the surface of media as a differential moisture gradient to study plants responses to higher/lower hydration.


To end, I thought I’d write about how I felt I did. I write here about what it feels like to be a postdoc trying to get over anxiety, depression and of course, the impostor syndrome (my hope is to help other scientists realize that they’re not alone, and perhaps offer some ideas that might work for them to get past these things our brains do to us. All three things, anxiety, depression and impostorism were much less prevalent this time around. I pretty shamelessly talked to people, tried to make eye contact, and just be who I am (of course, without showing too much emotion/feeling…still sort Spock-like in that regard). I tried to actually have fun and I did. I exhausted myself and definitely needed alone time to recover, but overall I’m happy with how I reacted and feel like I have actually shown dramatic improvement in how I deal with social situations like these (so it is possible!). Sure, I feel like I don’t know enough of anything, but feel like I could learn if given enough time and curiosity about a topic (genomics, population/genetic diversity are high on my list of things I want to look into a lot more- as well as doing experiments on more applied traits like nutrients/water use).  But I didn’t let the fact that I felt like a complete idiot stop me from asking questions and tweeting what I heard; or thought I understood- probably got things wrong, but I guess that’s part of learning. I don’t have all the answers and still face an issue of not knowing exactly where my career is going (but asking things and taking more risks…probably a large part of it).

Conferences are about spreading ideas to one another, communicating them in bites; Miniature, meaningful and memorable as the AAAS public engagement team would say. And I think I accomplished at least that and had fun in Providence, RI- even got to try one amazing restaurant, where I ate mostly plants and one fresh oyster.

The End (of 2012).



Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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