Saturday, October 3, 2009

Viva Riva!

Our trip away, while we left The Mermaid's Tale in Holly Dunsworth's very capable hands, began in the fantastic resort town of Riva del Garda. Riva is at the northern tip of long montane Lake Garda, in the Dolomites in Northern Italy. The town is nestled in among sheer rocky peaks, and the lake is long, deep and ideal for various kinds of fresh-water sailing because of the winds channeled by the surrounding mountains.

The meeting was of the Italian Federation of Life Sciences (FISV). FISV is a federation of some 15 or so Italian specialty associations (medical science, agricultural sciences, cancer research, etc.). This includes genetics associations but is not restricted to genetics. We had a chance to meet some old friends, including human geneticists Guido Barbujani and Alberto Torroni, and the President of FISV Lucio Luzzato, a hematologist with a distinguished career in genetic problems such as anemias associated with malaria.

The format, an excellent one that other associations should follow, was of a series of plenary presentations followed by poster sessions. The poster-presenters were scheduled for brief (3-min) descriptions of their work, but there was ample time (and ample refreshments!) for viewing the posters and asking questions of their presenters.

This was an excellent meeting. There were some distinguished talks, one by my long-time friend, the legendary human geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, and another by Nobel laureate Harald zur Hausen (who received the Nobel Prize for showing that cervical cancer was caused by papilloma virus).

There were other excellent plenary presentations, and we learned much from them. We'll have posts to describe some of the stimulating ideas, that included the nature of the first life in the 'RNA world' (an excellent talk by Alan Weimer), the nature and philosophical standing of evolutionary theory since Darwin, and the mechanisms responsible for hybrid sterility (related to speciation), in another excellent talk, by Allen Orr.

The idea of plenary papers followed by posters is excellent, both for students and regular faculty. The plenary papers allow you to get caught up in areas that are not your own, and for students to see and sample the breadth of their future professional field. The posters allow focused, technical science papers presenting new results to be given, with attendees having enough time to digest them, take notes, meet the researcher (often students and hence prospective employees), and learn of new cutting-edge findings in the broadest array of the life sciences.

As I had just been to a comparable meeting in Brazil (though much bigger in attendance yet only restricted to genetics), a reflection seems worth making. In Brazil, foreigners like me spoke in English, but almost all the rest of the oral presentations (of which there were many) and of the posters (which there were even many more) were in Portuguese. Few if any in Spanish, though that is the language of surrounding countries, and very few posters in English.

This is understandable, and as Americans we cannot claim to be noteworthy in our ability to use others' languages; indeed, we're often boorish about others' lack of English rather than our national unwillingness even to acknowledge and teach Spanish. However, the blunt reality these days is that English is the international language of science. If Brazilian students wish to study or work abroad, they will have to learn to speak, read, hear, and write good English.

In European labs, and in the entire FISV meeting, the discussion and presentations were entirely in English. This provides great training and experience for the European students and scientists, and allows their work to be prominent on the international stage. Much very good work was presented in Brazil....but they need to do it in English if they want it to be seen outside the country.

Again, there were too many ideas presented at the Riva del Garda meeting to discuss in one post so we'll deal with those in subsequent postings.

In this context we can again thank Holly for holding down the fort while we were gone!


1 comment:

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thank you Anne and Ken for the opportunity to hold down your fort! So happy to hear about your wonderful trip.