DIARY: Spring has Sprung. All change please…

Appropriately enough for a Spring diary entry, this month has witnessed the effects of regeneration afoot, for a city, a learned society and soon for the second best scientific journal on the planet.
Published in Microbiology
DIARY: Spring has Sprung. All change please…

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A furtive glance around the carriage fails to reveal any obvious microbiologists sharing the 10.43 from Euston, although a couple of poster cases – that unmistakeable accoutrement of the travelling researcher – are spotted among the passengers thronging past on the platform. Of course, on the surface those schooled in the dark microbial arts are pretty much indistinguishable from regular folk, unless they’ve met with Puget Sound’s Mark Martin (@markowenmartin, for the twitterati), in which case the pin badges declaring microbial supremacist tendencies are a dead giveaway. No, for the tribe microbiological there is no special handshake, secret knock, nudge or wink. If you want to work out whether a fellow traveller knows their biofilms from their biofuels, there is only one sure-fire way to needle out the microbiologist from the crowd. Loudly drop into conversation your concern about a recent outbreak of the malaria virus, sit back and wait for the twitching to begin. Gripped fists and eye-popping convulsions will soon follow, before the compulsion to correct the taxonomically erroneous utterance erupts forth. Gotcha, my microbe-loving friend! Alas, being Birmingham-bound for the annual meeting of the Microbiology Society (@MicrobioSoc) but in the quiet coach – and having been brought up averse to uncouth behaviour (in public, at least) – prevents me from attempting to out

any fellow attendees, although I have some suspicions.

Formerly known as The SGM (and still referred to as such by many in attendance, much to the chagrin of the branding bods at the Microbiology Society one suspects), this annual get together of the great and good from the microbiology scene both local and afar remains the largest regular microbiology conference in the UK and a great way to get a taste of current trends and progress from across the field. Given the transformation of the society in recent years (including the bold dropping of ‘General’ presumably to leave a cleaner more inclusive moniker), Birmingham is a highly appropriate venue for the annual meeting, given that the city has been on its own transformative journey. Long gone is the concrete carbuncle that was the first 1960s Bull Ring shopping centre that greeted those that ventured east on exiting New Street station, itself the recent recipient of a total transmogrification. Left behind is a higgledy-piggledy patchwork of Edwardian grandeur, mid to late 20th century brutalism and daring contemporary structures, some of which seem to have grown into place, while others (such as the jaw-dropping new station) appear to have just landed from a galaxy far far away. Brum is truly fascinating to walk around, and the revolution is not over in this most industrious of cities, with vast tracts of land now being ripped up and remodelled to the west of New Street, directly in front of the International Convention Centre that played host for this conference, and window of this diarists 14th floor hotel room. Even better, the University of Birmingham is home to a faculty, including the Institute of Microbiology and Infection (@IMIBirmingham), that has grown to become one of leading centres of excellence for microbiology in the world, giving a great reason for those microbially-inclined and with an affection for Asimovian architecture to arrange a visit.

Notable at this year’s conference was the decision to increase the representation of early career researchers among those presenting talks, with 140 more talks selected from delegates than at the 2017 meeting (and consequently fewer invited speakers). Thus while the meeting had the expected stellar line up of keynote talks, and still many excellent invited speakers, there were plenty of new faces (or at least new to this editor)  presenting their work, giving the conference a bottom-up community feel. Of course presenting work is only one of many reasons for going to a conference, some of which were outlined in the editorial furiously drafted while in transit to Birmingham (if in doubt write about what you know). Many attendees will hope to see talks from, and interact with, the leading lights in any given part of the field, and so balance is needed in the ratio of invited to selected speakers. On the whole the 2018 meeting walked this line pretty well, although perhaps a swing of 10-20 talks back in the other direction for the 2019 conference in Belfast wouldn’t hurt. A few minor gripes that I hope the organisers of the next meeting consider; do please try to make sure that all sessions stick to a set schedule so that popping between lecture halls is at least worth considering. And perhaps put all of the posters together rather than hiding a bunch on a secret landing that most attendees miss. Lastly more places to sit or perch when eating please, a failing of most big conferences that leaves attendees juggling bags, laptops, plates of food and drink while trying to talk sensibly with other attendees.

Scattered among the dizzying array of excellent science on display, were a good smattering of studies with which this editor is more than just familiar with, having played a small part in seeing them published during times on Nature and now Nature Microbiology. This pleases greatly, but it is not about ego, as might be assumed. Rather, seeing papers (particularly those in Nature Microbiology) being discussed and referenced at conference in part provides support for the editorial call to publish the work but mainly it demonstrates how quickly our journal has become established in the microbiology publishing landscape. Picking a single talk out for praise from such a diverse and packed schedule is of course unfair to the many fantastic studies on display, but worth noting for its impassioned delivery was the Rowett Institute’s Alan Walker (@_Faecal_Matters) who took a sharpened stick and skewered some of the myths around the microbiome field. Part presentation, part rant, part comic routine, the talk was keenly observed and entertaining throughout. A favourite moment came when Walker questioned the value of calls for increased standardization in the microbiome field, noting dryly that having prepared his presentation it was only upon casting his eye to the titles of the other speakers in the session that he realized how provocative his talk was going to be. The next talk you ask? Well it was on ‘The importance of methods standardization for human microbiota studies’. Ouch, follow that. Refreshingly honest and amusing, conference organizers take note – more Walker-style rocking of the boat please!

Another feature of Birmingham, beyond the endless civic regeneration, is the local food, in particular the fantastic Balti cuisine on offer. Of course, knowing which restaurants are top and which serve slop, can be problematic when in an unfamiliar city. Bravo then Professor Nick Loman (@pathogenomenick) who in the spirit of open science, shared his thorough research and analysis on the local culinary ecosystem with all following #microbio18. ‘Nicks Picks’ offered valuable guidance for visitors to Brum, after all if you want to avoid food poisoning in an unfamiliar city, who better to look for advice from than a researcher specialised in pathogen genomics and outbreak tracing. Even better, on entering Asha’s Restaurant (genuinely delicious – do visit if you can) with a guest on the second evening of the conference, who should we meet at the bar waiting for a table but @pathogenomenick himself, together with one of his lab members, Josh Quick (@Scalene). Happening upon the advice-offering individual raising a glass at the venue in question is either the very definition of a quality recommendation, or sign of a potential conflict of interest. One can only speculate on whether, having filled entire restaurants with travelling microbiologists each evening of a dismal, grey and wet week in the midlands, Professor Loman received a discount on his dinner; indeed given the volume of trade directed into a select list of Birmingham eateries, he could well be feasting gratis across the city for months to come. This editor is off to Beijing next, any dining tips Nick?

In conversation with an attendee, who shall remain anonymous (for what will become obvious reasons), the topic of professional rivalry arises and your diarist is somewhat surprised at the apparent enmity held by this attendee towards a fellow researcher. Digging deeper reveals that rather than being visceral hatred, or indeed direct competition for funding or findings, the strength of disregard in which the researcher is framed is mainly used as a motivational tool to will themselves to compete to be ever better. Said with a huge grin; ‘they do such fantastic work, they’re my deadly rival’.  The attendee in question has appointed another researcher in the field stalking horse status, in place of their own drive and ambition, in order to strive for excellence (and it is clearly working). As bizarre as this seems at first, the longer I dwell on the idea the more logical appeal it has and I find myself considering looking for someone to confect as my own bête noire. I’ve always got on well with editors of a rival journals, but maybe it’s time to rethink that. What do you think Lakshmi, want a nemesis?

From imagined enemies to good friends, as an evening is taken away from the meeting to visit with an old school chum in the nearby town of Sutton Coldfield. Despite seeing each other all too infrequently in the years since leaving school, the old ties remain and familiarity is picked straight up; I am ‘Jerm’ once again as if it is still 1997 and cool Britannia is in full swing. It’s probably unsurprising how much symmetry there is in the pattern of our lives, despite the separate paths trodden since our A-level Physics classes. We both attended redbrick universities to study science, both remain in STEM-related jobs, got married within a couple of years of each other to women who now have their own businesses, we both have two boys, with Jermy’s minor and minimus being less than 6 months older than their midland counterparts. It could all be coincidence of course, but one wonders how much of the blueprints for life are drafted in the choices made during those formative school years. One point of separation, after more than 20 years living around Birmingham, and having married a local, my friend has picked up a significant amount of Brum in his accent and his eldest child is native, whereas I retain more of our original east-Herts twang and Jermy minor is developing a full on Essex oi oi. A move may be on the cards.

Finally, this week saw the announcement that Dr Magdalena Skipper will this summer replace Sir Philip Campbell as the Editor in Chief at Nature. Magdalena was the Chief Editor on Nature Reviews Genetics when I joined Nature Reviews Microbiology back in 2008, and was then my team leader when I moved to Nature in 2013, and as such had an important role in my development as an editor. Widely reported with this announcement has been the fact that Magdalena will be the first woman to hold the position of EiC at Nature in its 149 year history, as well as the first life scientist. These are of course important points that should rightly be noted and promoted, but it should hopefully be equally clear that my colleague and friend got the post because she is one of the most deeply experienced editors on the planet and immensely qualified for the role. In line with thoughts noted by other colleagues, including Brendan Maher (@bmaher) in response to some snark about Nature finally catching up with the times, Magdalena’s appointment as Editor in Chief does not feel to me like a glass ceiling in the company being shattered, but rather a visible public sign of a company in which a glass ceiling has not existed for at least a couple of decades. I do acknowledge and fully agree with Mrs Jermy, who pointed out that I am not best placed to judge the presence or absence of a glass ceiling. That said, for the majority of the time since joining Nature Publishing Group back in 2007, the entire management line under which I have served has consisted of super smart, dynamic, dedicated and powerful women, to the very top of the company. So while congratulating Magdalena on her new role as EiC, it is absolutely right to also acknowledge that the company I recognize has had inspirational women at every level, among the editorial ranks and in its leadership team, for a very long time and there is no doubt that this has been a key factor not only in Nature’s success but in making it a great place to work.

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Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Microbiology