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Wistar Scientists Start New Conference on Foundational RNA Research

April 15, 2024

Back from hosting the first-ever Genome Regulation through RNA Conference in Cancun, Mexico, Wistar faculty members Alessandro Gardini, Ph.D., and Kavitha Sarma, Ph.D., give us the inside scoop on what it was like to host a scientific meeting from scratch.

What made you want to create a new conference?

Alessandro Gardini: Hundreds of biomedical research conferences happen every year. They are hallmark meetings — featuring a great lineup of presenters and topics — but sometimes you want a fresh perspective. Kavitha and I were interested in a distinct conference focus, and thought, “why not create something together?”

With our friend and collaborator Dr. Roberto Bonasio, associate professor at University of Pennsylvania, we developed a new concept. Once we had a pitch, we created a “wish list” of top people in our field whom we’d want to invite, and in which topics we’d want to coalesce talks and panels.

What is a successful conference?

AG: If you want people to attend your conference, you need prestigious scientists. Researchers who’ve made big waves in the field can entice people to attend.

KS: Attending conferences is critical to being a scientist, but you only have a certain amount of travel per year, so you want to attend the most impactful meetings.

AG: We had 90 people – a great turnout for a first-time event.

You named your meeting the “Genome Regulation through RNA Conference.” Can you describe the scientific niche you were aiming to fill?

AG: Plenty of conferences are entirely RNA-focused, but we created this conference at the intersection of RNA and epigenetics – where we do most of our work.

KS: This meeting focused on the most foundational, basic levels of RNA-driven genome regulation: which genomic functions do RNAs perform, how are DNA-RNA hybrid structures implicated in gene expression. We didn’t even delve into the therapeutics side because we were focused on the fundamentals. This gathering of like-minded people presented abstracts centered on the mechanistic aspects of RNA within the human genome.

AG: That RNA focus – for the mere sake of understanding its genomic effects – led to some very interesting discussions. For example, the mitochondria in our cells have their own genomes, which we tend not to think about too much. But by having their own genomes, they naturally have genomic regulatory mechanisms, too, which involve certain mitochondrial RNAs. Those are the ideas and research topics that I love encountering at conferences. My research, on its own, may not have taken me there.

Why are conferences so important to scientists?

AG: In biological terms, it’s the “lymph” of our work—it enhances our research. Conferences are extremely important for fostering collaboration. Yes, there’s a body of literature, and our job is to stay current on published papers in our field. But that’s a small snapshot of knowledge compared to the free flow of information at conferences.

All science, but especially biomedical research, is highly specialized now. We’re a long way from the days of eccentrics conducting experiments in castles. Today, researchers can spend their entire lives analyzing something as minute and specific as the mitochondria.

Conferences give scientists much-needed exposure to other areas of research. We learn how to conduct science better, how to incorporate new ideas. And that keeps scientific passion alive. Seeing all the exciting work that others are doing refreshes my sense of enthusiasm and gives me ideas that I can begin to pursue.

KS: They’re also indispensable for collaboration. I can’t tell you how many times at a conference, a conversation leads to two people publishing on the same paper as co-authors. Without that conference, they may never have met.

You can never know how your work might be applicable in other fields because those areas aren’t your areas of expertise. Conferences open researchers’ eyes to opportunities to improve each other’s work, and everyone wins. By being there, talking and meeting new people, going to networking dinners, that turns into new ideas, new papers, and better science.