Frontiers of the microbiome—a conference report

Thomas Jeffries
Postdoc, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University
t.jeffries@westernsydney.edu.au
@Thomas_Jeffries
#AusFoS16

Tom Jeffries speaking at the symposium
Tom Jeffries speaking at the symposium

The sunny city of Adelaide played host to the annual Theo Murphy Australian Frontiers of Science Symposium which focused on the smallest inhabitants of our bodies and of every habitat on the planet: microbes.  

Across 8 sessions, encompassing 30 talks and 40 posters, we discussed the role of the microbiome in determining human health and disease, and in driving the ecology of habitats ranging from the ocean to the soils of Antarctica, from animal guts to coral reefs.  There was a strong focus on the emerging next-gen DNA sequencing and computational tools which underlie the success of this research, and on harnessing these tools to benefit human health and ecological sustainability. There was also much discussion of the career issues facing early- and mid-career researchers spanning outreach, funding, job security, gender balance and mentoring. Two of the highlights were inspiring keynote presentations from Professor Luis Vitetta (Medlab Clinical Ltd) and Professor Jillian Banfield (University of California, Berkley) on the medical and ecological applications of microbiome research respectively. 

Overall the symposium highlighted the diversity of research in this field, but also the strong overlaps and common ground that microbiome EMCRs can leverage to drive innovative, multi-disciplinary research. 

The science was supported by a strong social program that included a lively welcome and poster function and a dinner at the fantastic National Wine Centre of Australia (complete with wine tasting…). This dinner involved an outreach-focused presentation from Dr Kristin Alford, the director of the Science Creativity Education Studio at UniSA that encouraged us to be brave and think outside the box. Social events also continued on in less formal surroundings facilitated by the location of the conference in the centre of the city.

The symposium saw a strong presence on social media with Twitter in particular providing a forum to disseminate the talks and forge connections between participants that are ongoing. The structure of the sessions, which involved roundtable discussion after each set of talks, also proved to be highly successful (video summaries are available on twitter #AusFoS16) as was the focus on forging new collaborations. Just from my personal experience at the meeting this has led to three new solid collaborations and this wasn’t an unusual number, highlighting the strong new collaborative network that will emerge from this targeted conference. Indeed the critical-mass of participants has led to an ongoing conversation about continuing future events and an online shared discussion forum to maintain a dialogue on the issues discussed. 

poster function
Socialising at the poster session

It was hands-down one of the best symposia I have been to, a view echoed by many other participants. Thanks go to the organising committee, the oversight committee and the Academy secretariat for putting together an excellent program, and to the Academy and Royal Society for their support of the event. I look forward to seeing the future work of early- and mid-career researchers that will stem from this symposium, and that will help to understand the huge complexity and promise of the microbiome. 

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