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NCBS Annual Talks 2016 – Coming of age: Transitions in biological systems

The Annual Talks at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) are yearly events that are eagerly awaited by the faculty members, students and post-doctoral scholars across campus. Every Annual Talk has a broad theme which encompasses the research that is presented and discussed that year. This year's theme is titled 'Coming of age: Transitions in Biological systems' to highlight in many ways NCBS's 'coming of age' as the institute turns 25. The Annual Talks are a time to pay renewed attention to what is happening outside the research world of individual groups and laboratories - to mingle with other teams, exchange knowledge, expect influxes of new ideas and introspect.

The event is an important one for the entire scientific community within this campus. Students are hard at work preparing posters, while faculty members are busy crafting presentations that can convey to a wide audience, the excitement and achievements of their teams over the last year, as well as the ideas planned for future work.

What to look forward to: preparing for a festive science experience

What do people look forward to at the Annual Talks? Firstly of course, there are the presentations by faculty members from the campus, which will be interspersed with seminars by various scientists from across India and abroad. This will set the stage for the research community here to bask in an atmosphere of scientific enquiry. One of the most important reasons for inviting experts in different fields of science from across the country and the world during the Annual Talks is to promote thought about the broader perspectives of each research group's work; to put their science in context with what is happening globally in their fields of study. Secondly, the Annual Talks provide scientists here the chance to strengthen old ties, and perhaps forge new ones in interdisciplinary collaborations. Finally, many students and post-doctoral fellows welcome the opportunity presented by the poster sessions to get fresh perspectives on their own work from the visitors and from others on campus who work on different topics.

On being questioned about what they look forward to most during the Annual Talks, students and post-doctoral fellows had a variety of responses. While many said that they looked forward to the stimulating scientific talks and lively discussions; one student summed up her expectations of the event as a 'carnival of science'; another was looking to enjoy a scientific 'mela', while yet another was expecting 'science and interaction in a festive mood'. On being asked what this year's theme - Coming of age: Transitions in biological systems - conveyed to them, there were a list of responses. A common answer to the question was that 'transitions in biological systems' conveyed the feeling of a move towards interdisciplinary research with more collaborations between the life sciences and the physical, mathematical and chemical sciences. One reply put across the interesting view that the 'transition' was similar to an 'evolution of thought' in biological research towards a combinatorial approach to solving problems. Another responder stated that the theme suggested a transition in thinking about different life forms not as individuals - for example, a host and a its microbial colonisers - but more as holo-organisms. Other replies communicated the feeling that the term 'transition' was thought of as a change of state or a change across scales. Altogether, the theme of this year's Annual Talks seems to mean many things to different people, with the underlying feeling of an imminent change in thought processes seems to be a common thread.

An interview with Sumantra Chattarji, an NCBS faculty member reveals that the Annual Talks are an eagerly awaited yearly event for him. "It is that time of the year when you get to hear about a diverse range of topics in a high-intensity, densely packed form, and can catch up on things you might have missed through the past year", he said. His comments on what this year's theme conveyed to him were very similar to students' interpretations, "For someone with a physics background, like me, who shifted to biology (I sometimes still think I am an outsider), I believe biology itself as a science has undergone major changes, and to address the most daunting questions in this field now requires a natural integration of multiple disciplines. There have been transitions in the questions asked, in the way they are answered and the people who work on those questions. I see a lot of input from theory, computation and engineering as tools in biology; for me, that is the greatest transition." Shashi Thutupalli, the newest faculty member to join NCBS smiles when questioned about his expectations for 'the carnival of science at the annual talks'. "Well, it is a celebration of science, is it not? I am looking forward to these talks so I can learn about other groups and get a larger view of the science here", he says.

NCBS turns 25, a 'coming of age' for the institution

The theme for this year's Annual Talks refers not only to the coming of age and transitions in the field of biological sciences; it is also a gentle reminder to all that NCBS turns 25 this year. MK Mathew, who has been with NCBS since its infancy, has a tongue-in-cheek comment about this milestone, "While NCBS may now be Too Big To Fail, there was a time, perhaps most pronouncedly before NCBS came into formal existence, when some folks were a trifle sceptical of the Centre actually materialising. 25 years may well have been considered a Bridge Too Far".

Jayant Udgankar, another stalwart of NCBS ends his piece on 'The early NCBS manifesto' in the Annual Talks brochure with the words, "The most meaningful way for NCBS to celebrate it 25th year would be to produce its scientifically most exciting publications so far". Sumantra Chattarji, who describes his entry into the ranks of NCBS investigators as part of a 'second wave', recounts the transitions he has seen here from the time he joined till the present, "One, there has been a good influx of people from engineering, physics and computational backgrounds who have brought in valuable tools to biological research; two, we now have an Master's program in wildlife, and more recently, the chemical ecology group which fill the much needed niche for ecological sciences; three, we have brought mathematicians and theorists into biology through the Simons Centre; and four, we are now working to bridge the gap between basic research and clinical medicine on a large scale". Gaiti Hasan, another faculty member at NCBS who has seen the institute through its 25 years, sums up its growth in an apt sentence, "NCBS over its quarter century of existence, reminds me a bit of a kitten morphing into a tiger."

The NCBS Annual talks for 2016 will be held from 11th to13th January. A full schedule for the presentations this year can be found here.