Monday, August 22, 2016

Biological Design in the English North

This past week was the 8th International Workshop on Bio-Design Automation (IWBDA), along with a couple of other associated events—a tutorial day on the Synthetic Biology Open Language (SBOL) beforehand and a workshop on the integration of electronic and biological design automation afterward.. All told, I spent nine days in England (and Scotland!), immersed in synthetic biology for almost the entirety of that time, and though it was all good, it was also quite exhausting.  I’ll come back to the technical content on another day.  For now, I want to talk about Newcastle, where IWBDA another these other events were held this year.

This is my third time in Newcastle, and if I wasn’t cutting down on my travel, I’d be back there again in a month for another meeting on synthetic biology standards (I’ll be dialing in instead). There’s an excellent group of synthetic biologists there, a big node in the larger UK network, and I work frequently with Anil Wipat on SBOL, he being both a long-time contributor and the current chair of that standards effort.  I always enjoy spending time with him and the rest of the Newcastle crew, who, like me, are true believers in the power of characterization and design tools in wrestling with biology.

As a city, I find Newcastle upon Tyne to be a delightful hodge-podge of the old and new.  From its ancient military history, it eventually became a tough old industrial town and port city, one of the anchors of the English North.  Rail lines tangle together at its center, at the top of a steep embankment beside the river, and spider out across bridges in all directions.  One route goes over a remarkably high rail bridge, standing far above more modern road bridges and a beautiful walking swing bridge just a bit further downstream.  An tall old mill has been repurposed into a modern art museum, and on the high side of town the university stretches between two broad lanes of park.
High Level Bridge
Gateshead Millenium Bridge
The Long Stairs
The people I see on the streets of Newcastle are a motley hardy lot, young women walking apparently imperturbable through the freezing rain in their miniskirted clubbing outfits, tough geezers yelling to each other across the streets at four in the morning, loud music in every pub and restaurant.  Joggers rush by the cows in the parkland past the university, and photographers set up on the riverbank talking amiably to one another by the unhappiest looking palm trees I’ve ever seen, their bark and leaves looking shriveled and grey in the cold. I definitely am an outsider there, but so do many of the others seem to be, and I’ve never yet been hassled for it.  It’s feels to me a much less urbane and international sort of crowd than one sees in London, but a rough diversity that I find I do appreciate.

All in all, a good place to wander through with one’s head drifting around and processing all the science of the day.

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