Thursday, June 11, 2009

HFSP fellows meeting (Tokyo 2009)

I spent last week in Japan attending the fellows meeting of the Human Frontier Science Program. I was fortunate enough to get a postdoc fellowship from HFSP to support my current interest in the evolution of signalling systems. The meeting took place in Tokyo and brought together people from all sorts of different fields and at different stages of their careers. This program funds postdocs but also provides funding to young investigators setting up their labs and for teams of PIs working on interdisciplinary projects.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the program that also coincides with a period of change in leadership. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, current Secretary General of the European Research Council, will take over the role of Secretary General of the HFSP organization from Torsten Wiesel. Also, Akito Arima will replace Masao Ito as the president of HFSPO (press release). Probably because of this the meeting had plenty of political moments and speeches. Thankfully most of the people involved in this organization appear to be very lighthearted so these moments were not a burden.

The curse of specialization ? 

A core focus of HFSP is to fund interdisciplinary projects that involve people from different areas or that help researchers change significantly their field of research. There was some time for discussions about the future of the organization as well as the future of "systems biology". For me personally, these debates helped to crystallized many of my own doubts. I am a biochemist but spent 90% of my PhD doing computational work. At this point I feel very much like a jack of all trades and master of none. In my previous work I have mostly hit walls due to lack of data so I plan to spend the next few years leaning a lot more about experimental work. Still, it is hard to be sure of what is best for the future. How much should I sacrifice in productivity to learn new skills ? Is it best to work as a specialist in interdisciplinary teams or be trained as an interdisciplinary person (Eddy SR, PloS Comp Bio 2005) ?

The broad scope of HFSP was well reflected in the topics presented in the meeting (PDF of program). There were many interesting talks, like the keynote by Takao Hensch about "How experience shapes the brain", in particular during the very early stages of life. He showed amazing work about "windows of opportunity" in learning and how these can be manipulated genetically or pharmacologically. Still, when I was looking around in the poster session I could not help but feel a bit of lack of interest since most of the topics were outside my previous work experience. This brings me back to the topic of specialization. Isn't it upsetting that we have to specialize so ? I don't think I can read and enjoy more than a third of a typical issue of Nature. This is for me the curse of specialization, it focuses not only your skills but your interests and curiosity.


Aside from the science, this was my first trip to Japan. I really liked it and hope to come back one day with more time to explore. I loved the temples, gardens, food, colors and all the differences.