Since its inauguration in 2008, the annual A*STAR Scientific Conference has aimed to provide a forum for talks and discussions that could stimulate interactions among biomedical scientists and engineers. One of the focuses of this year’s conference was young researchers, who were encouraged to initiate bold new cross-disciplinary projects at their own discretion.
The format of the 2010 conference, held on 9–10 November at the Biopolis in Singapore, was designed to promote greater interaction than in past events. The conference itself was divided into four grand themes covering topics that will be critical for the future of science and society: Measuring and Funding Science, Medicine Futures, Human Vulnerability, and Energy and Environment. The four conference sessions were well-attended, ending in broad-ranging panel discussions inspired by the presentations of world-renowned invited speakers and stimulated by an active audience.
Many talks touched on philosophical subjects that contribute to developing a broader view of research in young scientists. “Rather than just formal presentations, many speakers spoke about their personal experiences as a researcher, it was extremely engaging and helpful,” says David Lane, chief scientist at A*STAR and the conference’s program committee chair. Stephen Quake, for example, co-chair of the Bioengineering Department at Stanford University in the USA, spoke about sequencing his own genome, explaining to the audience that mental stress affects the results of sequencing because genes could be deleted or mutated. Andrew Simpson, scientific director at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in the USA, also talked about his engagement in large-scale genomics projects in Brazil and gave his thoughts on how to fund science and how to get the best support from institutional management.
Other speakers shared with the audience the latest in their own innovative projects. Peter Bentley, honorary reader and fellow of the Department of Computer Science at the University College London in the UK, introduced a story that had been taken up by news media over the past few months: using the iPhone as a stethoscope. His ‘iStethoscope’ application is expected to help primary-care physicians diagnose patients suffering from valvular heart disease by reducing the dependence on echocardiogaphy, which is costly and time-consuming. Meanwhile, Jay D. Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, and one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, talked about the significance of metabolic engineering of microorganisms to produce biofuels as an alternative energy source. He also noted in a panel discussion that scientists need to educate the public to have them understand precisely the safety and efficiency of such technology.
As A*STAR is currently discussing its next five-year funding program starting in 2011, the Measuring and Funding Science session provided some useful insights, says Lane. He says the discussions reaffirmed the importance of constructing a more goal-oriented approach. “We are doing well, but not absolutely brilliantly. Perhaps we need a little more ambition.”
Such ambition could well be ignited given the right incentives. The highlight of this year’s conference, organizers say, was the competitive poster awards, which were held to encourage young researchers to come up with team-work projects outside the formalities of A*STAR’s two research councils — the Biomedical Research Council and the Science and Engineering Research Council. Twenty-eight posters were nominated, and conference speakers voted to select the two best posters that promote innovative collaboration. One of the prizes was awarded to a study on exosomes as alternative delivery vectors for cell reprogramming, and the other was given to a proposal to develop an active ultrasound energy-harvesting system for implanted medical devices. Each of the winners was awarded a research grant of S$40,000.
Prompted by the success of the 2010 conference and the enthusiasm of participants, A*STAR’s Joint Council Office intends to further expand its support for the next generation of researchers. “The poster awards will be developed further, in a more formal and larger way, by allowing younger scientists to secure grants across councils. This is a very exciting step,” says Lane.
For more details, visit the conference website