BPS 2014: The good, the bad, and more

The BPS abstract book, in dead-tree form

The BPS abstract book, in dead-tree form


I spent most of last week in San Francisco for the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, and I'd like to take a moment to recap the event.

The Good


I particularly enjoyed talks by Jochen Feldman, Caroline Ajo-Franklin, Hiroshi Sugiyama, Don Lamb, Jane Richardson, Francesco Cardarelli, Yasmine Meroz, Johan Elf, and Raghuveer Parthasarathy.

Duckhoe Kim's slides really impressed me for their clarity. I found his accent hard to understand, but the slides were so well-designed that I could still follow his story.

Vahid Sandoghdar's talk on iSCAT was pretty neat, though I'm skeptical of its near-term applications.

Alexander Peterson's flight was delayed, so he missed his talk while stuck in a taxi en route. One of the session chairs filled in, calling it "presentation karaoke." As you might imagine, it was not the greatest talk, but I found it an interesting exercise. What if we designed talks with the intention of having them delivered by someone else? It might make a good teaching/learning exercise: if you can explain something well enough that someone else can understand it and explain it to someone else, you've really succeeded.

Women in science

Crystallography is sort of my "first love" of science, so I went to the crystallography session ("Celebrating 100 Years of Crystallography: X-Rays are Photons Too"). Looking through my notes I see this remark in the margins:

I like that there are grey-haired women at the crystallography symposium. Women are not new to this field.

There were plenty of balding and grey-haired men at BPS, but most of the women were on the young side, so it was weirdly comforting to see mature1 women in attendance. It was an unspoken message of belonging: there are people here who look like me (or, I suppose, my future-self).


During his talk on XFELS, John Spence noted that droplets of ice formed in some of the apparatus, and so, being a crystallographer, he had to figure out which phase of ice it was. Anyone else would say it was just ice buildup, but a crystallographer would care that it was vitreous ice.

Conversations at the posters

I had some great conversations with the folks presenting Biophysics Education posters.2 Gundula Bosch and I talked for quite a while about the place of crystallography in biophysical graduate studies, and she shared some great ideas for active learning in the sciences. (Most examples I have been able to find for active learning techniques were designed for the humanities and aren't necessarily applicable to classes in science.)

Peter Nelson presented four or five biophysical methods labs that he uses when teaching a biochemistry/biophysics course for undergrads, and we talked about the benefits and challenges of doing research with undergrads.

I think the highlight of the poster sessions for me was the poster on a low-cost home-built microscope that could be assembled by undergraduates in an afternoon. Despite all the other cool science, this was the poster that got me really excited. Nice work, ladies (Victoria Nguyen and Jacquelyn Zehner, I believe).

Networking cards

One of the vendors sponsored "networking cards" that included your name, email, and poster info (abstract & title). I really liked the idea, but nobody seemed quite sure what to do with them besides pin the envelope to the poster boards. Personally, I'd have liked a QR code that integrated with the BPS app so you could scan the code and immediately pull up a digital version of the abstract, bookmark the poster or presenter in your agenda and maybe leave some comments. Our name tags already had QR-type codes on them that linked to an email address or some other kind of contact info,3 so it's not a crazy proposal.

The Bad

The app

The BPS app was supposed to help you plan your itinerary and let you interact with other participants. A combination planner, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare kind of thing. On first impression, it was better than I expected. In practice, it was pretty terrible. My labmates and I ran into all kinds of problems: unresponsive screens,4 freezing and crashing, weird time zone issues,5 and a poorly designed interface.6 It was tedious at best, actively unhelpful at worst. Everyone I knew who tried it gave up early in the conference.7 Some switched to the online itinerary. I used the dead-tree abstract book and Numbers on my iPad to plan and track my itinerary.8


As with any conference, there were crappy talks and posters, too, but that's something I expect. I left one session much earlier than planned because two of the speakers were abusing the microphone. Word to the wise, folks: if you have a working microphone, there is no need to shout. I don't understand why somebody didn't turn their volume down a notch, but they didn't, and my head couldn't take the noise. It's a shame because they seemed to have interesting science, and I'd like to have heard about it – using indoor voices.


I have some more thoughts on BPS, but they are lengthy enough for another post and will take a little more thought before sharing. Stay tuned.

1: They weren't elderly, but they were beyond middle-aged. Calling them "old" just seems rude.

2: It's not that there weren't interesting posters in the other categories. There were, but even in my own section (Optical Microscopy and Super Resolution) I found a fair number of scientifically interesting yet unapproachable posters. We needed some lessons from Dr. Zen. The education posters, as a group, had better design, and the presenters were ready to talk.

(I also missed a number of posters I wanted to see – the late entries were practically hidden at the end of the room, and I didn't go far enough to find them.)

3: I know this because a vendor scanned mine with his phone.

4: You could see and search for attendees and then "follow" them. Most of the time, I'd search for a name, get my results and then have the app stop responding. Nice.

5: One labmate added events to her itinerary before leaving Michigan. When we got to San Francisco, it shifted all the time zones. This might seem to make sense until you realize that the events didn't have a specified time zone. So if she added an 8:15 am talk to the schedule when in Michigan, it showed up as a 4:15 am talk in San Francisco! I didn't use the app until I got to the hotel the night before. Two days later, all of my events were inexplicably in some other time zone. It was frustrating at the very least.

6: You could see a list of abstracts sorted (semi) alphabetically, but as far as I could tell, there wasn't a way to search this list or even to jump to letters farther down. You'd just scroll on and on forever. (Consider that there were 865 posters on a single day. If the consecutive numbering in my abstract book is right, there were well over 4000 abstracts. That's a lot of abstracts to scroll through.)

To add a session (symposium, platform or workshop) to your agenda, starting from the Daily Program page, you had to tap the session in the list, which took you to another screen. Then you'd tap "Add to my agenda" and wait for it to process. Then you'd have to go back to the previous screen to add the next event. If you wanted to add a specific talk, you had to tap on the session, then scroll down to the title, tap on the link, tap "Add to my agenda" and then go back up a level or two to go on to the next item. This should have been a checkbox, or better yet a swipe gesture: swipe to the right to add it to the agenda, swipe left to remove it from the agenda, swipe right a second time to "check in."

7: Here's another measure of just how poor the app was: you got points for using the app to check in, leave comments, etc., and as little as I used the app, I was #42 on the leaderboard by the end of the conference.

8: And that actually turned out to work quite well because I could customize the Numbers sheet to include things like star ratings and checkboxes to track which talks I went to, and which I ended up missing. The major disadvantage was that I had to enter the titles and presenters in by hand.