A dispatch from the IUPS conference in Birmingham.
I have to admit to some trepidation when it comes to big international mega-conferences like the IUPS (International Union of Physiological Sciences). They have never entirely agreed with me. The first conference I ever attended, the IUPAB (B for biophysics) in Bristol in 1983, was one of the mega-jobs, and almost my first act as a conferee was to fall asleep in the opening plenary lecture.
By mega-conferences, BTW, I mean anything with an opening ceremony, dignitaries, 1000s of delegates (or at least 1000+) and twelve scientific sessions running in parallel – all the above also meaning the conference almost certainly has to take place in a large purpose-builit conference centre. Like a lot of other people, I guess, my natural preference has always been for the max-250 participants only-one-single-theatre and posters-plus-free-beer format, as in the Gordon Conferences and various other smaller meetings. As the years have rolled by I’ve tended to go to more of the small events and less of the big ones. Indeed, my last IUPS was Christchurch in New Zealand in 2001.
However, it’s not that often that the big circus rolls into a city just 90 min train ride away from home base. The prospect of meeting up with a few old friends – not to mention getting to sleep in an air-conditioned hotel room for a few days in the middle of a Summer heat-wave – was too good. So here I am.
One thing that sets mega-meetings apart, as already mentioned, is opening ceremonies. The last IUPS I attended had a formal Maori welcome, with dancing and singing, and the IUPS Council, all decked out in full academic robes like at a graduation ceremony, responding in Maori. (No, really. If you don’t believe me there are pictures). Top that. Sensibly the local crew didn’t try, but settled for a welcome from an eminent scientific guest, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Prizewinner Sir Paul Nurse.
Now, Paul Nurse commands pretty much universal respect from scientists, but I did slightly wonder what sort of reception he would get. This is because, as a notable molecular cell biologist, he could be said to be an examplar of the kind of ‘molecular sciences’ that physiologists in the UK often feel they are being squeezed out by. Typically of Nurse, he chose to tackle this head on, arguing that physiology remained central but needed other sciences – including the molecular ones – to provide the tools to get the job done. I’m not sure he really convinced the audience – many of whom probably have bruising experiences of being in departments or faculties run by cellular and molecular biologists who are not convinced physiologists are good for much in research terms – but it was a good try.
Denis Noble then gave his IUPS President’s Lecture. Denis seems to have been ‘our man at the IUPS’ for as long as I can remember – he is in the photographs from Christchurch 2001, sitting on the platform in his robes – and it thus seemed appropriate for him to be doing the Big Beginning.
I only found it slightly odd to be hearing Denis do a speech that was only in English.
To explain that last, thinking back over the times I have seen Denis N presiding and/or speaking at conferences, I can remember speeches in Italian, Japanese. Korean, Maori (at Christchurch in 2001) and Medieval Occitan French. There may have been other languages I’ve forgotten. There is an interesting piece by Denis in the last Physiology News where he talks about the languages used at conferences over the years. It wasn’t always just English for the papers at the IUPS, as you will find out if you read his article.
I’d seen a version of Denis’ lecture before, but I think this one was better – though sadly lacking the gag about Denis being one of Richard Dawkins’ PhD examiners. It did a nice job of introducing the congress by explaining that many of the central dogmas of genetics and evolutionary biology, at least as perceived by dim people like me, are over-simplified (and even downright wrong). This, Denis argued, meant that physiology – the study of function in systems and organisms – was still central, and still essential. It was an excellent rallying cry, though again I had the feeling that, while we wanted to believe him, we were still a bit dubious as to whether a new dawn of plenty for physiology was around the corner.
The future of teaching – High tech from top to bottom
Apart from feeling ‘squeezed out’ by other trendier and more molecular disciplines, the other central challenge facing many working University physiologists might well be ‘teaching overload’. Physiology remains popular with life science undergraduates, and also still needs to be taught to seemingly ever-expandingnumbers of students in healthcare professional degrees. But as student numbers rise, and staff numbers fall, the problems of less people doing more work are obvious.
One of the things Deans and other senior types tend to tell you when you mutter about this is that ‘technology will provide the solution’. With this in mind I trotted along to a session this morning on New Technologies in Physiology Teaching, which was interesting, but also rather terrifying. I learned, inter alia, that you can wire yourself up and post your physiological variables to your Facebook page (don’t expect me to be doing this any time soon). I also learned that the ‘Pillcam’ cameras that you can swallow to provide a photo readout over many hours as the pill ‘proceeds’ through your GI tract top-to-bottom are now only a few hundred dollars (or other currency). The speaker, my old mate Prof Phil Poronnik from Sydney, opined this would make for a great GI physiology practical. Though you probably wouldn’t want to be the second person to be the experimental subject.
One questioner pointed out another snag, namely, what if the pictures showed something untoward-looking?
Which reminded me of the only time in my three decades in the trade that something slightly analogous to this happened in a class I was running. This was a 1st year medical student pulse and blood pressure practical some time in the early to mid 90s.
As I was wandering round officiating, or more accurately trying not to catch anyone’s eye, a puzzled-looking student called me over. ‘He’s got a double pulse’, he said, pointing to his slightly nervous-looking lab mate. And he had – feeling the second student’s pulse at the wrist, there was a double pulse wave, then a gap, then another double wave.
I didn’t have a clue what that could mean.
The student asked the obvious question:
“Am I alright? Is there something wrong?”
To which all I could think of to say was:
“Well, you look pretty healthy to me”
But I could see I would have to do better than that. I had a brainwave.
“I don’t know what that pulse pattern means, but I know a man who might. The Prof. He’s medically qualified”
With which I dashed off to find the Professor of Renal Physiology, the only man in our physiology department possessing a medical degree.
The Prof, when I’d found him, came and felt the student’s pulse.
“Do you drink a lot of coffee?” he asked.
“No. I don’t like coffee.” said the student, who was now looking distinctly worried.“Does that mean something? Am I alright?”
“Well” said the Prof, looking the student up and down with the eye of an experienced clinician “you look pretty healthy to me”.
Sometimes, as they say, it is less the words, than who the person is that is saying them.