Getting to know your academic ‘family’

Last week, I went to a brilliant science meeting run by the International Society for Psychiatric Genetics. In terms of making you feel like you belong to something bigger than your research group, there’s probably nothing better in academia than an international conference.

Based on my experience so far (N=2), a big benefit of conferences is seeing talks by people whose names you recognise from all those papers you’ve been reading. I occasionally get an idea of where someone works and who with from hearing them mentioned in a meeting, happening to look this up if I really like some of their work or being involved in an email conversation with them. Mostly though, people are names on a paper (or more often on a screen) to me until I see them in real life. Putting a face and personality to a name is really interesting, as is getting a better sense of the networks linking researchers in your field.

Although presumably not critical for getting on with day-to-day PhD life, I find this sort of thing intriguing and I expect it’s worth knowing for the future. If only to help with deciding who to suggest as a reviewer when submitting a paper – something I was struggling with for my first PhD paper recently. It’s also nice to see where you and your group fit in. For instance, my PhD supervisor introduced me to my “academic grandfather” (i.e. her PhD supervisor), which gave me something of a feeling of continuity. Seeing who other members of your group talk to and how people react when you say which group you are part of can also be enlightening.

Another (related) benefit of attending conferences may or may not be specific to this particular one. By all accounts, this (20th) World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics was one of the most exciting years so far, what with significant recent technological and methodological advances spurring on research in this area. Arguably a more important reason for these huge advances is the development of big international collaborations.

The human genome is marvellously complex. We are only slowly beginning to get even a vague idea (via ENCODE and smaller projects) of what the bits of the genome that don’t explicitly get translated into proteins (i.e. the exome) actually do. And yet, so many of the medical diseases and disorders humans suffer from are highly familial and heritable. Surely, pinpointing the potential genetic origin of these problems has the potential to shed at least some light on disease mechanisms and eventually lead to more understanding and better treatment options?

It’s a neat and simple idea but a lot more difficult to deliver trustworthy and meaningful results in practice. This is largely because there are a lot of genetic variants to consider, with variability in how commonly/rarely they occur. In order to have the statistical power to detect anything of genuine interest, apparently you need samples of tens of thousands of individuals – many more than even the most generous research grants are likely to allow a single research group to collect data on in a reasonable amount of time… This is where the international collaborations of research groups pooling and (generously) sharing their samples have resulted in huge progress. Although such analyses are not without their problems (like having to understand and deal with the issue of population genetic differences), seeing the results of this work and being linked into this network (albeit mostly by association) is pretty cool.

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