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S&T Conference Stories Highlight Breakthroughs


A conference presentation about how the venom of the gila monster affects insulin production led to the development of a drug now used by millions of people with type 2 diabetes. | Flickr/Jason/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Clinical studies to combat viral infections, a new diabetes medication, and insights to cholera are among the many breakthroughs that got their start at scientific and technical conferences, AAAS has reported.

Collaborations launched at meetings have also set the stage for quieter aircraft as well as improved models of human disease, researchers said in answering a call for conference outcomes. Some 160 researchers have so far answered the call — initiated by AAAS in partnership with other scientific societies — for stories to help illustrate the importance of scholarly conferences.


Anne Hart (above) and Christopher Nelson | Photos courtesy of Anne Hart and Christopher Nelson

For example, as a post-doctoral fellow in 1994, Anne Hart, now a biology professor at Brown University, attended a conference where she talked at length with two female faculty members from other institutions. Later, when Hart embarked on an ambitious project to study human neurological disease in the nematode C. elegans, she encountered some resistance to her ideas. Fortunately, Hart told AAAS: "The two young faculty members I had met years earlier were unwavering in their support of me…They have been my mentors and friends for the last two decades. If I hadn't met them at that conference, I wouldn't have found the mentoring support and advice I needed at a critical junction in my career, which ended up launching an entire field of researchers using C. elegans to explicitly model human disease."

In a letter published 10 July 2015 in Science, four society leaders cited the work of Golden Goose Award winner John Eng, and called for additional examples of conference-related progress.

"The path from Gila monster venom to the diabetes medication Exenatide runs through an American Diabetes Association meeting," wrote James F. Albaugh, Joseph R. Haywood, James A. Jefferies, and Toyohiko Yatagai — presidents of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, IEEE-USA, and SPIE, respectively. Eng's 1996 conference presentation on a compound in Gila monster venom that affects insulin production caught the attention of biotechnology company Amylin Pharmaceuticals. That compound, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005, led to the drug Exenatide. Now used by millions of people with Type 2 diabetes, the drug helps to protect patients from diabetes-related complications, including blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage.

Other examples of conference-related progress, submitted online to AAAS, revealed how convening with colleagues can help researchers advance science as well as their careers.

Christopher C. Nelson, chief scientist at Innovative Technology Applications Company, LLC, reported that networking at scientific and technical conferences has been vital to both his work and career. In 2014, Nelson said, he attended an Office of Naval Research meeting focused on hearing-loss research. After presenting his efforts to simulate jet noise, an experimental researcher from Virginia Tech approached Nelson to compare data. "By combining our work, we were able to gain deeper understanding of jet noise than either of us could do separately," Nelson said. Their goal is to create significantly quieter aircraft engines. "We would never have connected at all if we hadn't been at the same meeting."


Above: Richard Finkelstein with his late wife and collaborator of more than 30 years, Dr. Mary Boesman Finkelstein; Below: John Drach | Photos courtesy of Richard Finkelstein and John Drach

Another researcher, Richard A. Finkelstein, said that participation in American Society of Microbiology (ASM) meetings supported his efforts to isolate and sequence toxins that cause cholera, a deadly intestinal disease. "Attending conferences is essential for fostering the relationships and knowledge that drive scientific innovation and growth," said Finkelstein, retired chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Yet another scientist, John C. Drach of the University of Michigan, explained how participation in a 1972 New York Academy of Sciences meeting led to research collaboration with Leroy B. Townsend, professor emeritus, University of Michigan. That collaboration ultimately resulted in clinical trials to assess two compounds for treating cytomegalovirus (CMV) infections, which weaken the immune system. In babies, CMV can cause jaundice, rashes, pneumonia, low birth weight, enlargement of the liver and spleen, and seizures. A new drug is now in Phase III clinical studies "and has been shown to be safe and effective in treating CMV infections," said Drach, a professor of biological and materials sciences.

AAAS launched the call for conference stories in response to stringent new rules governing federal scientists' travel to meetings, explained Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations. "In the scientific community, we all know that scholarly conferences are important," she said, "but we needed to demonstrate that through clear-cut examples of how conference attendance has advanced someone's career, promoted international collaboration, or resulted in amazing discoveries to benefit society."

Earlier this year, AAAS and 125 other scientific organizations had expressed "deep concerns" about recent travel restrictions, set forth by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congress, which have sharply reduced the number of government researchers at scholarly meetings. A report by the Government Accountability Office found that the OMB guidelines have resulted in excessive administrative burdens, too. In an April 2015 letter to policymakers, AAAS and partnering societies wrote that "current policies are reducing government scientists' and engineers' participation in scientific and technical conferences while the administrative cost of overseeing these activities has increased significantly."

Tiffany Lohwater, director of meetings and public engagement at AAAS, noted that scholarly conferences such as the AAAS Annual Meeting are essential working as well as training opportunities for scientists and engineers. "Scientific conferences are where researchers share results with their peers, sparking new ideas and collaboration," she said. "These meetings are where students give poster presentations as a necessary part of their training, and federal grant program officers discuss the latest findings with researchers in their disciplines."

"Scientific conferences are where researchers share results with their peers, sparking new ideas and collaboration."

Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS director of meetings and public engagement

As the world prepares to feed 9 billion by mid-century, and we face problems such as the historic drought in California and the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, "it's more important than ever for scientists to collaborate on finding solutions," Lohwater added.

An inter-society group, which includes AAAS, has been monitoring various legislative efforts to further strengthen or permanently "codify" the OMB travel rules, Carney said. Various proposed bills would add additional administrative burden on employees, or require federal employees to document exactly how they adhere to the guidelines, for instance.  

[Credit for associated teaser image: Atlantic Photography Boston]


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs

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