As part of its mission to encourage engagement within the genetics community, PLOS Genetics is sponsoring a number of conferences and meetings this year. In order to raise awareness about these conferences and the researchers who attend them, we are featuring a number of these conferences on Biologue, with posts written by the organizers, or the PLOS Genetics editors who are involved. Charalambos Kyriacou is the Chair of the Gordon Research Conference on Chronobiology.
On the 2nd October 2017, around 10 am, I received an unexpected phone call from a science writer at Nature, asking me to comment on the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology that had just been announced from Stockholm. Working in the Genetics Department at the University of Leicester since 1984, that could only mean one thing. My friend and colleague, Sir Alec Jeffreys had finally won the Nobel Prize for discovering genetic fingerprinting!
“How wonderful for Alec” I said, only to be met by a stony silence at the other end of the phone. “Actually your pals and former collaborators Michael Rosbash and Jeff Hall have won it along with Michael Young” was the next thing I heard. Not often that I’m speechless! Sometimes you wish for something but you really don’t expect it to happen. Like Leicester City winning the football Premiership during that glorious 2015-6 season. Anyway I blurted out something incoherent which probably found itself in print and then took it all in.
Jeff and Michael were both at Brandeis University near Boston, and Mike was at Rockefeller in New York in the early 1980s when, unknown to either group, they simultaneously set out to clone the clock gene period in Drosophila that had been initially identified by Ron Konopka and Seymour Benzer in 1971.
Over the next 30 years or so the Brandeis and Rockefeller groups, often in competition in the early days and sometimes in collaboration during the later years, worked out how the fly circadian 24 hour clock ticks. It turned out that the mammalian clock used the same molecules as the fly (more or less) to do the same job, although different molecules in Neurospora, plants and Cyanobacteria, but working in similar ways generated the corresponding molecular feedback loops that generate circadian rhythmicities.
I worked closely with Jeff and Michael during those early years – I was initially a postdoc with Jeff (1978- 1981), and continued my collaboration with them for many years after I had left Brandeis and returned to the UK. So the first thing I did on hearing this remarkable news was to phone them to congratulate all three, then opportunistically immediately invited the two Michaels (Jeff retired ~10 years ago) to present a talk at the Chronobiology Meeting of the Gordon Research Conference (GRC) series that was to be held in June (23-28th) at Castelldefels near Barcelona in 2019 which I was chairing and organising. Fortunately they agreed before their diaries inevitably filled to bursting point, thereby endowing me with some brownie points and enhanced street credibility with my clock colleagues around the world.
So while the Nobel fanfare has died down somewhat since the ceremony in Stockholm in the following December (that whole weekend of celebration was enormous fun by the way), Gordon Chronobiology will be the first of these meetings (held every two years, alternating between the USA and Europe) since those heady days of late 2017. One does not volunteer to run this meeting – one is volunteered (despite my reluctance), at the business meeting during the corresponding Gordon Chrono meeting of 2015. Nevertheless one just gets on with it, hoping not to screw up too badly. I acted as Vice-Chair in 2017, learning the ropes from the chair, Amita Sehgal, who has been enormously helpful in helping me organise the current meeting, which is now planned and ready to go.
Amita helped me raise money from NIH and other various sponsors and I also raised some cash for the associated GRS (Gordon Research Seminars), run by two postdocs Annika Barber and Sarah Geiger. This is a one day meeting held immediately before the GRC at the same location where ~60 graduate students/postdocs/young assistant professors are invited to what is basically a day of mentoring. Michael Rosbash will be the plenary speaker, as will be representatives from industry and US funding agencies. After that we begin the GRC on Sunday night (23rd June). After initial remarks by the Gordon administrator and a few jokes by myself, we kick off with the first session on non-circadian clocks (seasonal and ultradian) including talks on plant photoperiodism and modelling, seasonal oscillators in mammals and flies and fast timers in early mammalian development.
Speakers were chosen by me and several senior and not-so-senior colleagues that I consulted, with a mix of organisms and approaches although much of the work presented will be cellular/molecular. Unusually, I have devoted a whole session to plants and cyanobacteria given that the perennial (excuse pun) complaint at these meetings is that not enough is presented on photosynthetic clocks. Also there is a big session on sleep which is all the rage these days, even in flies.
Other sessions include those on the core clock molecules, a bit of structural biology, neuronal and molecular (i.e. omic) clock networks, metabolism, clocks and medicine. There are a few senior people talking and chairing, but the majority of invited speakers are ‘up-and-coming’ and represent the younger generation of researchers. There is also an eco-environmental session and ~ 10 shorter talks selected from the abstracts – most of these are from postdocs plus one brave graduate student. The four afternoon poster sessions are a key part of the Gordon model where much of the informal business of the meeting will be done.
Gordon is unlike other meetings in that there is a maximum attendance limited to 200, where the focus is to generate relaxed and permissive conditions where younger researchers can talk freely to the big-shots in the field. The talk:discussion ratio is ~2:1 and the chairs of each session allow the initial questions after each talk to be posed by younger workers. The speakers then have lunch or dinner after their sessions in tables set up so that younger researchers can talk to them. No cliques allowed.
Also, and I did not notice this till after the programme had crystallised, the ratio of male-to-female speakers is 1:1, perhaps representing the breakthrough in our field of more women researchers into the more established ranks. No complacency however, as there will be a Gordon-inspired ‘Power Hour’ on Monday afternoon run by Carla Green and myself, where we will discuss the ‘glass ceiling’ facing women in academia and research as well as more general diversity and inclusiveness issues.
While both the GRC and GRS are full, those interested in the structure of the meetings and the speakers can check them out at
As both meetings have strict limits in the numbers attending, the worst part of my job was to disappoint many people, including friends, who tried unsuccessfully to register late. However, there is another great clock meeting to be held later in Lyon in August (25-29th), run by the EBRS (European Biological Rhythms Society) and I would encourage anyone who can’t make it to Gordon to consider going there. Details below.
Featured image credit: Marco Verch, Flickr