Perspectives on Protein Engineering conferences

Creating and running an international conference series

A lecture is an occasion when we numb one end to benefit the other. John Gould

Last Perspectives conference held at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

Rationale

What's the point of this? You may be on this page because: 1. You came to one of my protein science conferences 2. You have to organise a meeting / workshop / conference for your host institution of company 3. You are thinking of running a conference as an independent supplier. 4. You pressed the wrong link. Either way: welcome.

Birth of an annual international conference

The 7 UK Research Councils administer public funds to support training & fundamental "blue sky" research. They have an inherent duty to report "disseminate" the results of such public-funded effort. As an independent contractor to the Science & Engineering (later the Biology & Biotechnology) Research Councils, I was expected to organise open workshops, seminars and meetings where the beneficiaries of grants and other funds would report on their work. At Oxford & Bath Universities I organised two protein science conferences.

I had attended The Protein Society meetings in the United States on three occasions and had been very impressed. There was no such platform specifically for protein science in the UK

I decided to organise a similar conference in the UK. I found an interested partner in Prof. Roger Epton who had been running a peptide chemistry conference for a few years. Together we organised an international conference at Oxford University which I styled "Perspectives on Protein Engineering" (POPE for short).

Total commitment!

What the delegates see at international meetings like this is the tip of a huge administrative iceberg. I'd say it takes around a year to bring such a beast into fruition. Briefly it entails conference centre bookings, accommodation arrangements, advertising, proactive marketing, hundreds of mailshots, website design, search engine optimisation, brochure design, programme planning, sponsorship searches and vast amounts of correspondence. As I had to pay my living expenses myself during the year's run up to the period when registration fees were coming in, to make that possible, I set up an industry exhibition alongside the scientific sessions and market that as well.

In short, running an international conference is a business in itself and there are many successful examples out there if one of my readers has an idea and wants to take the plunge. Keeping overheads as low as possible is key! So all the planning, brochures, marketing, programming and exhibition set up was my responsibility alone. But the satisfaction for a successful event is very great and I attracted many of the world's top names in protein and genome science to attend and present.

In the end I ran two further POPE conferences: one at the municipal conference centre Le Corum in Montpellier, France and the final offering at the John Innes Research Centre in Norwich. To encourage (or worry) anyone thinking to emulate this, I ran the administration of my POPE conference with just myself and a part time secretary, so costs were initially low before they escalated close to each event, but risks quite high! For example my binding contract with Le Corum amounted to around £100,000!

As I worked on my Norwich conference, the US Protein Society had decided to hold alternate conferences in Europe. Worryingly for me they chose to host one in Cambridge shortly after I had arranged my POPE conference in East Anglia. In the event, I had an excellent turnout to my own conference, but decided that as (a) The Protein Society had decided to move into my own "marketplace" and (b) they were a relatively powerful "non-profit" society, my personal risk running POPE had become too great and I stopped POPE after the Norwich conference.

Post COVID-19 things have changed. Setting up and running any kind of meeting from a seminar to a full conference can be operated almost entirely online. There are many benefits, but also some negatives. When I ran my conferences with a mind to introduce innovations at that time which look a bit old hat now. Wanting to innovate was important to establish a Unique Selling Point for my conferences and, in the era of virtual meetings, the same applies now.

Pros & cons of running actual or virtual conferences
ITEM ACTUAL VIRTUAL
COST High with substantial upfront commitment Modest with low cost option to cancel
TIME Long because of venue & facilities booking Moderate as venue is online
TECHNICAL Well established and there's plenty of time Best contracted out for a large meeting!
DELEGATE BENEFITS High with multiple options and time to meet and discuss with other delegates and exhibitors. Many social options Constrained options to meet and discuss with others (particularly for private discussion) but more opportunities for ad hoc contributions and unscheduled presentations
DISSEMINATION High cost of post-conference physical publications Modest cost of recording and making the conference re-vistable online
OVERALL VALUE The value can be very high: serendipity meetings, Job offers, Catalysis of company start-ups or even new relationships! But overall value declines quickly Lower immediate value than a physical conference, but presentations and links can persist online for a long time afterwards

The conferences were organised as a private initiative

They attracted a large number of delegates. The "spin-off"from these protein science conferences was gauged at the time and afterwards by 'phone and email follow-ups and correspondence received. A selection of the feedback is shown below:

  • No previous conferences specialising in protein science were available so attendance was high and delegates welcomed the opportunity to present and listen to others in their field
  • Informal interviews were held at these meetings for prospective research students
  • Small gatherings of workers got together who were collaborating (and competing) on specific areas
  • Many opportunities were taken to quiz exhibitors about research methods and equipment - there was excellent feedback from companies exhibiting bioinstrumentation
  • There was some materials exchange ( we received a valuable antiserum at one of these meetings
  • High level attendance at the commercial exhibition with excellent feedback

Innovations introduced for POPE conferences

A good turn-out of postgraduate and postdoctoral workers was expected. To attract a high level of attendance by senior and established speakers and delegates I introduced some innovations around the running of the meeting (remember this was in the 1990s!). I did succeed in attracting Nobel laureates: Max Perutz and Robert Huber and later, Craig Venter to my conference. It's important to give presenters adequate time so that the programme was controlled to do that. Except that Craig Venter massively over-ran but the lecture was so information packed nobody objected! Parallel sessions are a way to keep the number of talks high, but irritate delegates who work "across subject boundaries" Instead small break out groups were arranged

The commercial exhibition is critical for physical events like these as the revenue it brings underpins the conference. There were absolute breaks in the programme for delegates to tour the exhibition if they wished: I provided each stand with disposable glasses and told them to bring wine or soft drinks! I took every opportunity to link the technologies and instrumentation on show with the conference presentation: many speakers were using these in their research and it was not onerous for them to refer to the equipment used as being on display with advice in the commercial exhibition. I gave a talk on use of electrospray mass spectrometry in my protein research and the company who brought the equipment was besieged in the break. They supported every conference I ran after this.

Conference programme and book

A printed conference programme is obviously a must. But a lot of planning needs to go into its design. Planned flexibility is essential as there will inevitably be last minute changes. After I took the POPE series private I set up a continuously edited website with as much of the programme including abstracts as possible and names of delegates who had confirmed attendance and given permission for inclusion online. I also included, with equal weight, all the commercial exhibitors information. The online programme was hyperlinked so that pre-meeting contacts could be explored and arranged.

Although I did produce a book after the second Oxford POPE meeting, the overhead for this is enormous, costs high and sales essentially poor. The "shelf life" of conference proceedings is very short. Instead my innovation at that time was to enshrine the whole conference proceedings as a website on CD-ROM. The programme and abstract presentation in html meant that any browser on any computer could search and use it. The enormous benefit of this was that presenters (both oral and poster communications) could include hyperlinks to related and subsequent research work.

I also included links to all the principal sources of online genomic and protein structure data. This WebCD presentation was only the second of its kind. It sounds very demanding to produce (yes!) but it was created in parallel with the developing conference programme over about 6 months. Why wasn't this created as a website online for all? Well, the CD-ROM preparation and production had to be paid for and the modest sales of the covered this. I have given some historical perspective on my pioneering effort below!

This flyer explaining the conference "Web-CD" was included in all delegate programmes
A single webpage from the WebCD showing the layout. The html and browser shown will look a little antiquated now, but was the latest thing in 1990!