Monday, January 18, 2016

A week on the computer science / synthetic biology interface

Back in August, I spent a week in Seattle playing several different roles at the interface between computer science and synthetic biology.  It was all built around a conference that I've been involved with and participating in for a number of years now, the International Workshop on Bio-Design Automation (IWBDA) (amusingly, given my now geographic location, it has only recently displaced the Iowa Wholesale Beer Distributors Association as the top Google hit for that acronym).

This past year, I was the Publication Chair for IWBDA, which meant I ran herd on the paper submission and peer review process, making sure that we actually get clear judgement, as unbiased as possible, of which submissions are strong scientific contributions worthy of putting on stage as talks. In the end, I think we had a quite strong program, with some very exciting results from a lot of good groups (I gave a talk of my own as well, on circuit design using signal to noise ratio, which I will leave to others to judge), and I'm hoping the associated special journal issue will come out strongly as well.

In addition to IWBDA, two other events attached meetings, taking advantage of their overlap in interests with the IWBDA community.  Just before IWBDA (and, in fact, part of its "pre-conference" schedule) was the SBOL community meeting, aiming to disseminate information and support adoption of our data exchange standards for biological designs, as well as to get more input from more different groups into its development.  In that meeting, in my role as an editor of SBOL---one of the community's elected leadership---I presented some material and helped to facilitate discussion and organize plans for the community.  

Before that was a two-day meeting of the SemiSynBio Roadmap project, an effort sponsored by the semiconductor industry, which has gotten keenly interested in synthetic biology as a possible direction of expansion as Moore's law winds down, and is trying to identify the key directions of research that can set up a similar exponential expansion of capabilities and markets in its relationship with the biological world.  It's fascinating, unclear whether it will turn out meaningful or merely hopeful, and I sit on the Executive Committee of this project, trying to help ensure that we end up with a clear and productive vision out of the several working groups studying different aspects of that interface, an invited position that doesn't fit cleanly into any of my well-defined job responsibilities and yet is clearly a good use of my time and effort as a scientist.

In between, in the corners of my time, I pursued yet other pieces of my scientific life on the interface, including standards development with NIST, the 2015 iGEM interlab study, and various relationships and collaborations with other interesting characters who I enjoy and who live in similarly strange niches to myself.

Interesting things happen at interfaces, both in physics and in society, and scientific communities are no different.  It's an uncomfortable and delicate place to stand, when you're not really at the heart of any of the communities that you're trying to participate in and affect, but it also feels like home to me.
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