Thursday, December 18, 2014
Is cell biology about to go commercial?
The recent American Society for Cell Biology annual meeting in Philadelphia, lived up to its billing as a mecca for the latest and greatest scientific minds to "talk shop" (as it has for many decades). Cell biology is a field that takes a lot of pride in its academic heritage, and has generally been associated with more of an "ivory tower" vibe as compared to the related fields of biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. At this year's meeting, two interesting, and promising trends stuck in my mind that may signal a sea change for the field.
Trend 1: Science and technology are becoming one
While the concepts of quantitative biology, bioengineering, and computational biology have been around for many years, this year seemed to mark a turning point in the way these ways of thinking are being applied and presented in cell biology. Whereas it used to feel like these disciplines occupied separate enclaves in the same hall, this year there was a serious (and largely successful) effort to showcase how co-mingling of these elements can lead to exceptional science.
This trend was given an extra boost with the timely granting of the Nobel Prize for inventors of "super resolution" microscopy technologies-- largely applied for cellular imaging. The prevalence of high-technology as a cornerstone of good science has progressed to a state where current investigators are expected to showcase novel methodologies to be considered relevant.
Trend 2: Science and industry are coming together
Having attended ASCB for many years as both an academic and also a commercial exhibitor, the prevailing undertone was that the exhibit hall was a necessary evil (to pay for the event). As recent as 2013, many industry sponsored sessions were assigned rooms down dark hallways scheduled at inconvenient times. This year marked a significant change in both the physical atmosphere (a much cozier layout enabled less awkward mingling), and a real effort from both sides to "meet in the middle." For academics, this meant trying to engage exhibitors as enablers of their research (as opposed to sinkholes for grant funding); and for the exhibitors it meant connecting on scientific values (as opposed to market and sales pitches).
I view these trends optimistically as a sign that the infrastructure of cell biology is getting ready for a market boom. Once collaboration between academics and industry reaches a critical threshold, the positive feedback loop leads to a rapid acceleration of growth, funding, and broad impact.