A Window to Being a Scientist
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

A Window to Being a Scientist

Some believe science meetings need to go virtual. Here’s why that would be an unfortunate idea

One could debate the benefits of a torn rotator cuff, but one of the silver linings for me following shoulder surgery was the forced downtime for endless projects, including this blog about the benefits of attending scientific meetings.

I work in the Methods Development and Validation Department at Charles River Laboratories in Malvern, PA. We support pharmaceutical industry companies developing biological products and we are consumed with Good Manufacturing Practice compliance and all that entails: from data crunching and report reviews to safety trainings and SOP writing. (We also engage in fun events like chili cook-offs, BBQs and Global Challenge walking teams to walk off those great BBQs) We are a family. We often work more hours here than we are at home. Attending scientific meetings allows me to remember how vital it is to quench my thirst for knowledge and share what I know. Attending the ISBioTech 4th Fall Meeting (sponsored by the International Society for BioProcess Technology) last year, was certainly a gift. It allowed me to explain the need for our clients to identify their cell lines with tried and true methods and new powerful techniques. This event was also a great venue to discuss our collaboration in a new mouse identification consortium based on the powerful technique of Short Tandem Repeat markers (STR DNA Fingerprinting). Like sticky fingers leaving marks, sets of sticky PCR primers can amplify a characterizing pattern that becomes unique to an individual strain.

A day after coming home from the fall meeting, I was pondering my brain’s recent science-feast while cleaning up a huge sticky spill in the family room… ugh… kids… oh those kids!!! As I mundanely soaked up the massive spill with towels, my brain re-focused on those great tidbits of science that got served up at ISBioTech, such as a talk about the chemical fingerprinting of FBS, an essential component used in many cell culture methods for production of biopharmaceuticals.

FBS is a precious material and manufacturing programs require traceability for the most important reduction of the risk of viral contamination and prevent issues from component misidentification and misrepresentation. One of our attendees pointed out that, unfortunately, the crucial verification of materials is similar to the olive oil, cheese and wine industries where copies have fueled an “explosion of food crime in Italy” (CBS News).

Sadly, all supply chains are susceptible to misrepresentation of goods for financial gain as well as from simple mishandling. Science can help solve these issues. Even wood from our local Martin Guitar factory has been using “botanical DNA markers” to protect itself from the counterfeit industry. As I soaked up the spill, my brain was spilling out processing thoughts of using elemental analysis which would yield information about the growth conditions plus soil types and therefore indicate the geographic origins of the FBS material. I was remembering conversations crucial not only to the science, but how to convince the manufacturers to adopt yet another level of scrutiny. A meeting of the minds had to soak up the science and spill out the level of standardization.

Later on, while doing the kids laundry my brain skipped over to the thoughts of phage contamination, a known danger to cell culture. (Don't you think about bacteriophage while doing laundry?) In this session, a scientist saw what he believed was a military submarine surface off the beautiful Virginia coast. Then we saw a beachcomber collect something from the sand and everyone joked about him searching for bacteriophage. We were privileged to have a leading bacteriophage scientist in addition to many worldwide scientists at this presentation (and on an earlier nature hike) for easy flowing conversations—and brainstorming sessions. We were privileged to be looking out the window to absorb tidbits. Scientists go big picture by assembling tiny details... allowing the thoughts to re-surface like submarines in quiet times. Having another scientist next to you when this happens is priceless.

At the nature hike, and at dinner in the VA Beach aquarium, our leisure conversations abounded—nitty gritty science chats about next generation sequencing and removing viruses from SF9 insect cell lines, chats about CRISPR techniques and legal implications with patent work, discussions of writing USP residual DNA analysis guidances, and the benefit of STR analysis and DNA Barcode sequencing for wide ranging needs in cell line identification as well as to investigate invasive species and food fraud.

With a view of natural wonders, I was very fortunate by chance to eat dinner with a scientist I had met earlier when I mentioned how very sentimental I was about baculovirus-infected insect cells (because they were the vehicles to allow me to wrap up my PhD projects) and he turned out to have been a colleague with one of my tremendous mentors from graduate school. Plus, he worked not only with many of the folks in the room but also one of my current colleagues.

The small world got even smaller in that instant. And all because of a chance encounter. We talked and talked.

My point is that science families are fostered at scientific meetings. Connections are cultivated. The field of science is forwarded.

Although it is debated whether Einstein is the author of this quote, it still rings completely true: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction.”

 We should never do science in a vacuum, or let emails drive us away from thinking time. We need to talk it out, argue it out, research it out, and test it out. I am ever grateful for the chance to remember that I am a scientist and learn from my fellow scientists. I am grateful to look out the window because that is when I see and hear my own brain working.