Jun 7, 2010

Highlights from a scientific conference, observed via Twitter - #asmgm

Lots of conferences and meetings on science-related topics are held every year, all over the world. Many of them cover wide topics with potential to excite the curiosity of a great number of scientists and --more importantly-- common people. Sometimes, a few highlights of a conference are reported by the mass media, and that's good...

...but wouldn't it be even better if anybody could catch a glimpse of a particular conference, in real time? What about getting comments made by some of the attendees about a talk that is happening right now? And, what if the speaker could answer, in real time, a question asked by anybody from anywhere in the world?

Well, this is already happening, thanks to the internet!

In this blog post and an upcoming one, I'll describe some examples on how social media and other internet tools were used during a recent meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

If you keep reading, you might learn a couple of interesting things about microbes. I also hope that these blog posts may give us all some food for thought about possible, better uses of the internet (and, in particular, social media) for the communication of science.

I'll be waiting for your comments, so don't be shy, I'm learning here!

American Society for Microbiology logoThe American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is the largest life science membership organization in the world, with over 43,000 members (and more than one third of them, like myself, are located outside the United States). General meetings, held once a year, are huge events with over 10,000 attendees, and cover new research related to the biology of microbes.

The latest general meeting took place in San Diego (May 23-27), and I tried to follow the event as closely as possible through the internet. Good for me: many attendees shared their thoughts, in real time, using social media. Also, and I think this is praiseworthy, the ASM actively used a battery of social media channels, and broadcasted on the internet several live interviews with selected scientists. And all this internet activity was freely available to anyone.

During those days, I followed the messages that the ASM and the attendees posted on Twitter, the popular microblogging service. To do this, I didn't need to know who was attending the meeting -- I just searched for Twitter messages (a.k.a. tweets) containing the following tag (or hashtag) that was chosen beforehand by the organizers: #asmgm (abbreviation for "ASM general meeting"). In the simplest way, this can be done using the "search" function of Twitter, as you can see if you click here (but note that tweets older than a few days are not retrieved).

So, when somebody wanted to post a tweet related to the ASM meeting, they just added the #asmgm hashtag, as in this example:

Charlie Bamford: Never drink beer with a mustache. The lipids in the hair will ruin the chemistry of the yeast.
The tweet was written by science writer Carl Zimmer, and was one of the most retweeted messages during the meeting. It referred to a talk entitled "The biochemistry of beer" being given at that precise moment by Charlie Bamforth, a professor from the University of California, Davis.

Other Twitter messages posted by meeting attendees were also retweeted many times. I wonder how far the #asmgm tweets reached, having in mind that some of the twitterers at the ASM meeting had many hundreds of Twitter followers (e.g. Carl Zimmer has over 18,000)... Is there a practical way to calculate the total audience that a single tweet has had during a certain period? I don't know -- but I'm pretty sure that the room where Charlie Bamforth gave his "beer talk" wasn't big enough to hold all the people who read his "mustache quote" on Twitter.

Another memorable quote from the ASM meeting was:

Genomes are verbs, not nouns
The quote was pronounced by Edward DeLong, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during his talk "Evolution and ecology in microbial ecosystems: unity in diversity." On a later tweet, Zimmer wrote: "Clarification of previous tweet/koan: genomes are not fixed. They are ever-changing, swapping genes, shuffling segments, mutating,etc."

Finally, another tweet by Carl Zimmer summarised a general idea that is common knowledge among microbiologists (or so I like to think) but might sound like news to many other people:

Only 7 of the 100 bacterial phyla include microbes that make us sick.
I'm not sure where the quote came from, as there were many talks going on at the same time (the meeting program has 350 pages, and that's without abstracts!). But it's clear that most types of bacteria on Earth are harmless to us. I would even say that most microbes don't even know that we humans exist... It's only because of our hard-to-eradicate anthropocentrism that we feel that microbes exist only to make us sick (and to provide us with beer, of course!).

But this blog post is getting very long, so I'm interrupting it here. The story about the ASM meeting and social media continues in my next post.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
blog comments powered by Disqus

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, blog posts by Cesar Sanchez in Twisted Bacteria are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Please let me know if any quotes or images on this blog are improperly credited. E-mail: TwistedBacteria AT gmail DOT com . Social media icons by Oliver Twardowski and AddThis.