January 2012

Giving junior lipid scientists a turn at the podium

The Southeastern Regional Lipid Conference


High Hampton Inn.  Photo courtesy of Larry Daniel, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

Great ideas stand the test of time, and so it is with a meeting conceived over 45 years ago in Tennessee. The concept was to create a high-quality, focused and accessible conference that emphasized participation of students and postdocs and in doing so encouraged entire labs to attend, mingle and form long-lasting relationships. The enduring success of this meeting, the Southeastern Regional Lipid Conference (SERLC), is a testament to this model, and we would do well to emulate this format in other disciplines.

In 1966, Fred Snyder of Oak Ridge Associated Universities Medical Division and John Coniglio of Vanderbilt University, pioneers in the fields of ether-linked lipids and fatty-acid metabolism, respectively, realized that within driving distance of eastern Tennessee were a number of labs with strong lipid-research programs. They devised a small, informal meeting with the expressed purpose of giving junior lab members a place to present their work and hobnob with leaders in the field. For 45 years, through epic changes in the science, this meeting has flourished and yet retained its original intimate character. The original meeting had about 40 participants. Over time, the meeting has expanded moderately. Recent meetings have had about 120 participants.

This meeting may be small, but its quality, convenience and informal format draws keynote speakers from the upper echelons of lipid biochemistry. In its early years, speakers included such pillars of the field as P. Roy Vagelos, Konrad Bloch, Bob Bell, Bill Lennarz, Dan Lane, Konrad Sandhoff, Bill Lands and Ralph Snyderman, to name just a few. More recent speakers (pillars-in-waiting) have included Judy Storch, John Exton, Dennis Vance, Wim van Blitterswijk, Bob Dickson, Mike Frohman, Bill Smith, Claudia Kent, Ed Dennis, Fred Maxfield, Jim Hurley, Bob Michell, Tim Hla, Alex Brown, Gordon Mills and Charles Serhan.

A majority of the attendees have been participating for years, some since the earliest stages of their careers. With the exception of two keynote speakers, the talks at the meetings are exclusively from graduate students and postdocs. Session chairs are drawn from the ranks of postdocs and junior faculty. Candidates for the conference chair are chosen from participating junior faculty by a more senior steering committee. In this way, the meeting provides the opportunity not just to give talks and present posters but also to train young researchers in the vagaries of meeting organization. True to its name, this is a regional meeting that includes laboratories from Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. As the lipid cognoscenti know, this region encompasses some of the lipid powerhouses in the country, including those at Medical University of South Carolina, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, among many others. Avanti Lipid Award recipients Yusuf Hannun and Sarah Spiegel are longtime participants, as are lipid mass spectroscopists at Georgia Tech Al Merrill and Cameron Sullards, who have pioneered and perfected analytical technologies that have reinvigorated the field. Members of other key labs, too numerous to mention, also are regular attendees. The strength of the meeting has pulled in participants from as far away as Washington state and California, and interlopers from Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states are not uncommon.





Photo courtesy of David Kusel, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

For the first 14 years, the meeting bounced around sites in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. In 1980, it finally settled at the ideal site. The High Hampton Inn is a rustic 80-year-old resort in Cashiers, N.C., near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The lodge is a prototypical example of the timbered mountain retreat of its era and has been beautifully maintained. The setting is breathtaking, close beside a lake and the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is a wonderful destination, with amenities for hikes, golf, fishing and just plain hanging out in front of one of the roaring fireplaces during breaks in the meeting. The meeting is usually scheduled for early November, when the mountain air is crisp.


A key to the success of this meeting is that it is short and inexpensive. The cost of the meeting to participants is minimal, supported by generous contributions of suppliers well known to the lipid research community. And because the meeting site is within driving distance of most of the participating labs, transportation costs are low. Recognizing participants’ time constraints, especially amid the proliferation of meetings, the conference is relatively compact, scheduled from Wednesday evening to Friday morning. Mealtimes are fueled by an extravagant Southern-tinged buffet served by the historied High Hampton staff. The evening poster sessions, lubricated by a well-stocked bar, are historic in their own way, especially after the postdocs and students have put their mentors to bed. Tradition dictates that the final evening is dominated by a local clogging group, enticing meeting participants to stomp their way to salvation accompanied by the tight harmonies of an exceptional local bluegrass quartet.

The atmosphere at this meeting harks back to an earlier time in science, when personal relationships — usually collaborative, occasionally combative — fueled advances in the field. It is no accident that the idea to form a Lipid Research Division within ASBMB came from conversations at the bar during this meeting. This meeting fosters the tradition of developing young scientists as an integral part of the scientific mission.The success of this junior scientist-centric format is mirrored in other similar meetings, such as the biennial International Charleston Ceramide Conference and recently established Gordon Research Seminar. Not coincidentally, the cross-fertilization that follows from the focus on junior scientists benefits the principal investigators and enriches the field as a whole.

lipid_binks_wattenbergBinks Wattenberg (b0watt01@louisville.edu) is an associate professor in the departments of medicine, biochemistry and molecular biology and pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

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