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Even More at Home with SLAS...

By Sabeth Verpoorte, Ph.D.

I really enjoyed the 2018 SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition held last month in Brussels, Belgium. It was a resounding success in my eyes – both from my perspective as Society president and as a participant seeking educational value. SLAS CEO Vicki Loise provided some organizational detail in her blog post, “It’s a Wrap! First SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition is a Success,” so I’ll focus on its value to me as a participant.

What’s most important to me is the scientific program, and this conference truly resonated with attendees. I was able to attend the keynote sessions of both Mathias Uhlén, Ph.D., KTH Biotechnology AlbaNova University Center, Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden) and Peter Hinssen, nexxworks (Ghent, Belgium).

Uhlén has been instrumental in providing life science researchers with the Human Protein Atlas, a project he started with his team and a number of collaborators in Sweden back in the early 2000s. This database, developed over 12 years, contains analytical data for hundreds of secreted and membrane proteins acquired in human tissue. He and his project team have since gone on to expand this database to include the recently published subcellular map of the human proteome and a pathology atlas of the human cancer transcriptome. The scope of this work has been huge, and it takes a special kind of scientist like Uhlén, who feels at home in both the biology and technology required for these types of megaprojects, to coordinate this kind of effort. His ability to make the work accessible for a broad audience also is impressive – an inimitably suited opening plenary for our diverse SLAS community!

Hinssen challenged us to think about developing strategies for how to develop our science and technology not just for tomorrow, but for the longer-term “day after tomorrow.” How can we anticipate what the exceedingly fast changes in technology will mean for life sciences and healthcare, and more importantly, how can we adapt what we do to exploit their advantages? A complex topic, presented with knowledge and humor – food for thought as we all headed home!  

Congratulations to Conference Co-Chairs Emilio Diez-Monedero of Atlas Molecular Pharma (Madrid, Spain); Annika Jenmalm Jensen of Karolinska Institutet (Stockholm, Sweden); and Ian Shuttler of Tecan (Zurich, Switzerland). They were able to identify and secure these outstanding keynote speakers and a host of outstanding session presenters to dig into emerging and hot topics in biology, technology and discovery, instrumentation, assays and diagnostics. Well done!

The other metrics that define a great conference for me are whether I meet new people, engage with known colleagues and learn something new. SLAS Europe provided me with a unique opportunity for becoming better acquainted with European companies and institutes working in emerging life science areas like organ-on-a-chip, an area in which my group works. Given the emphasis on public-private partnerships when it comes to applying for funding in the European Union, forging new links with potential future project partners is an enormous added value of this conference for me. I also had the chance to see old friends and partners in Europe on our "home turf" as it were, to nurture those long-standing professional relationships as well.

For the first time since I became part of the SLAS community way back in 1999, I was able to bring three of my team members – two Ph.D. students and a postdoc – to an SLAS conference. It was great to have it in our backyard for a change, as it made attendance for my team members affordable. They all came home with great things to say about the conference, by the way. Our postdoc, a young scientist who recently started up his own company with another ex-Ph.D. student of mine, immediately recognized the benefits of SLAS membership for helping him on his way to a successful future. He volunteered right away to contribute to a committee. One of my Ph.D. students is proud of her Tony B. Academic Travel Award, and the other Ph.D. student appreciated being able to meet people from all over the world who are active with new technologies to serve and promote life science research. The photo shows my team. From left to right: Maciej Grajewski, Pim de Haan (back), Kelci Schilly (front), Sabeth Verpoorte, Ruby Karsten, Luke Shelton.

To further help my team members, we went out to dinner with Peter Grandsard of Amgen (Thousand Oaks, CA, USA). He talked with the students about what it’s like to work at Amgen and answered their questions about how careers in industry work. This was a great add-on to the conference’s Careers Business & Technology: Explore the Opportunities track, and specifically, Ian Shuttler’s “A Day in the Life Of…” session.

With the conference held right in the center of the city and the perfect weather, the networking was enjoyable and interesting. You could spend time with colleagues old and new at the little cafés or pubs in the market square. When you are in Europe, it always feels a bit different; you have a bit more history around you. We were there the night that Belgium beat England in World Cup soccer – certainly some extremely great local color, especially for the North Americans who have never experienced such enthusiasm!

The exhibition was quite lively, and companies appreciated the opportunity to talk with their European customer base a little bit closer to home. Dispendix (Stuttgart, Germany) and Yamaha-Motor (Iwata Shizouka, Japan) won SLAS New Product Awards for I-DOT Calibri and Yamaha Cell Handler, respectively. Kudos to these worthy winners and to Severine Tamas-Lhoustau of Novoptim (Montigny Bretonneux France) and the New Product Award Judging Panel – Colin Cox, Genentech (San Francisco, CA, USA), Mary Jo Wildey, Merck (Kenilworth, NJ, USA), and Kamran Honarnejad, Fraunhofer ITEM (Hanover, Germany) – for their hard work.

Additional highlights (and I could go on and on) included:

  • Meeting and visiting with Kelci Schilly, recipient of the 2018 SLAS Visiting Graduate Researcher Program Grant. Schilly, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS, USA), begins work in my lab at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) shortly. It was a great opportunity to do some extra brainstorming about the project she will work on in my lab, and also a great chance for her to get to know some of my team members!
  • The SLAS Author Workshop, where attendees heard from journal editors about how to design and write scientific research papers clearly and effectively. Thanks to SLAS Discovery Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Campbell, Ph.D., of Eli Lilly & Co. (Indianapolis, IN, USA) and SLAS Technology Editor-in-Chief Edward Kai-Hua Chow, Ph.D., of National University of Singapore for their leadership.

I encourage all to save the date for the 2019 SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition to be held June 26-28, in Barcelona, Spain. Watch the website for your opportunity to submit an abstract and/or register for the event later this year. Thank you to all who responded to the online conference evaluation. We take all constructive feedback to heart and appreciate your input. If you want to play a larger role in next year’s conference or SLAS European educational programming as a whole, consider volunteering to serve on the Europe Scientific Program Committee. Just fill out the volunteer form on the SLAS website.

July 30, 2018