Conference blogging (possibly) – Physiology 2010 (Updated)

In a moment of absent (weak?) mindedness, I have agreed to blog from a conference – the Physiological Society’s Summer bash, Physiology 2010, starting just about now.

This will be a first for me – though I have done conference reports (of which more later) I have never done any via the blogs.

The other slightly unusual feature for me is that this is happening on my doorstep, as Physiology 2010 is taking place in glorious sunny Manchester. Well, it was sunny until last night. The torrential downpour then, and the sporadic drizzle today, has arrived, according to one local physiologist, especially to make conference visitors feel they are getting the true North West of England experience. Actually, the forecast suggests the weather will be clearing up (I had my fingers crossed as I typed that last phrase one-handed!). And our garden was glad of the rain.

Conference season seems to be starting very early this year. Normally, once the students have left, we have a couple of weeks’ quiet at the University before conference season kicks in. However, this year the interlude has only been a weekend – just long enough to see England depart from the World Cup (but let’s not talk about that).

I must admit to being slightly unsure as to precisely HOW one “blogs a conference”. Most of my previous reports from conferences have been from the “impressionistic retrospective” school of meeting reports. The ones I can remember, all in Physiology News are listed below: the Tenerife one is probably my favourite.

34th International Congress of Physiological Sciences: from molecule to malady – Christchurch, New Zealand, August 26 – 31, 2001

Physiology News 45 p 8-13

Nachrichten aus Tuebingen: Joint scientific meeting of the German, British and Scandinavian Physiological Societies, Tübingen, Germany, March 15th-19th 2002.

PN 47 p 8-11

Tenerife Uncut – Phys Soc / Spanish Physiological Society Tenerife Joint Meeting Spring 2003.

PN 51 p 7-11

Bristol Revisited – Physiology 2005 Summer Meeting.

PN 61 2005 p 8-9

The point of listing these – apart from the shameless pimping of one’s own work which is a central feature of blogging! – was that they were all written a while after the actual events, with the benefit of hindsight. I’ve never done one “live” before, and just how live and as it happens this is going to be is open to some question. I think I shall aim for some impressions each evening.

The meeting site, by the way, now offers a “personalized meeting itinerary planner”. I’m not sure I’m organised enough to be able to use a personailsed planner – probably not – but I have picked my two personal top plenary lectures for the meeting. One is the annual Review Prize Lecture on Thursday by the amazing Roger Tsien, a long-time hero to me and many other physiologists who have measured things with fluorescent dyes. The other is the Physiological Society Public Lecture, given this year by Manchester’s own Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell FRS – who was recently announced as our next University President.

And with that, I shall sign off for now, as I have to go and chair a Physiology News editorial meeting. I will try and add to this post tonight with some stats on the meeting, and perhaps a word about the Phys Soc’s meetings through the years, from the mid 1870s, to when I started attending in the mid 1980s, to today.

Phys Soc Meetings – then and now

When I started in physiology as a PhD student in the 1980s, there were half a dozen or more Phys Soc meetings a year, varying in size from the large (usually the meetings in the Summer or in the couple of weeks before Christmas) to the small. Some years back the Phys Soc decided to concentrate on having a single main annual Summer meeting – of which Physiology 2010 is the latest – to cover all subject areas within the discipline, with all other smaller meetings throughout the year being specialist themed meetings.

Whilst I was picking up my conference badge this afternoon at the venue, I bumped into Nick Boross-Toby, the Phys Soc’s chief meetings person, who told me registrations for the meeting are just thirty of so shy of a thousand. With on-site registrations the figure is likely to top a thousand comfortably, which would make this the biggest standalone meeting the Phys Soc has ever run. The Bristol Meeting in 2005 (which I reported briefly in an article linked above) topped a thousand, but was a joint meeting with the Federation of European Physiological Societies (joint meetings always tend to increase delegate numbers).

Now, there are fans and non-fans of big meetings. But whichever category you fall into, a thousand registrants strikes me as impressive for a scientific discipline that, while long-established and central to organismal (including human) biology, tends to lose out in the modern “glamour value” competition to the molecular biosciences and cell biology. Last year my friend Patricia de Winter wrote in Physiology News about the way that the term “physiology” has remained amazingly popular with scientists describing what they do, even while departments of physiology have been rebadged, amalgamated or even closed. Anyway, a thousand people at a national society meeting suggests to me that the discipline itself is still very much alive and kicking. I hope it stays that way as the cuts in the UK science and University budget start to bite.

The Physiological Society must also be one of the oldest scientific societies still running meetings in the UK, excluding, of course, the venerable Royal Society. The Phys Soc has existed since 1876 (some history in a post of mine on Charles Darwin here, and more on the Phys Soc website) and has been running meetings ever since its earliest days.

Initially meetings consisted of only a few – sometimes only one or two – talks, or practical “demonstrations”, followed by a grand dinner. Meetings covered any subject within physiology and were held fairly frequently throughout the year – note that this tradition was still alive when I started, see above, and indeed went on until the start of the present century – which presumably helped to keep them small. For instance, at the meeting in January 1910 where AV Hill first described the Hill Equation (subject of a post here), there were only three talks, even though the meeting was in London and also hosted the Phys Soc’s Annual General (business) Meeting. The number present in Hill’s audience is not recorded to my knowledge, but seems unlikely to have exceeded a few dozen (at the time the society had precisely 253 ordinary members in total).

I would predict Hill would draw a bigger audience giving the same talk today. Though of course, given its theoretical nature (fitting curves to the results of other peoples’ experiments) and noticeable mathematical content, perhaps I am not so sure…!

Perhaps in a later blog I will address the subject of what scientific topics at Phys Soc meetings tend to draw the largest crowds…—————————————————————————————————————————————————-

PS The total number of presentations at the meeting comes to 529, by my count:

6 Plenary Lectures
85 symposium presentations
144 oral communications
294 poster communications – definitely a contrast to the three at the meeting in January 1910…!

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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