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Circle of Life at NCBS: Annual Talks 2020

The NCBS Annual Talks 2020 were held from 14th January to 17th January, 2020. Annual talks mark an important event in the campus calendar when everyone comes together, perhaps for the only time in the year, to hear fellow researchers talk about their science. The idea of looking back at the achievements, and the glimpses of the future has been consistent. However, the history of this event has been quite dynamic. The current form of the annual talks has evolved over the years.

Prof MK Mathew, who has been with NCBS since its infancy, recounts the early history of the Annual Talks:

“After NCBS was set up at the IISc campus, the Annual Talks would happen jointly with DBS, TIFR at Bombay for the first few years. It used to be a one to one-and-a-half day affair, ending with everyone going out for a dinner! As we grew, we deliberated over hosting the annual talks here in Bangalore, around the time we were planning to relocate to UAS-GKVK campus. We then moved back and forth between Bombay and Bangalore for a couple of years. It was finally decided to host the NCBS annual talks in Bangalore every year.”

The preparations for the annual talks begin months in advance. This starts with the formation of an organizing committee. This year’s organizers were Dr Anjana Badrinayanan, Dr Axel Brockmann, Dr Deepa Agashe and Prof R Sowdhamini, who held their first meeting in July, 2019. The workload is distributed between organizers, each of them handling a group of related tasks.

One such task was selecting a theme for this year’s annual talks. 2012 was the year when the annual talks had a theme for the first time, and upon favourable reception, this was continued. The concept of a theme gives us a nudge to think about our research in a different light than we are used to, forming new, unexpected revelations and connections.

Mathew, who attended his last Annual Talks before officially retiring from NCBS, says that the flavour of the event has changed over time. In earlier years, when the labs were new, the talks focused more on the kinds of approaches being taken to answer research questions, with the intent of receiving feedback. Now, complete research stories are presented, and the Annual Talks have become a space to reflect on the recent research of each lab. The increasing size of the campus, and the inevitable dilution poses an important question- how do we integrate everyone and maintain the relevance of the annual talks? Sowdhamini points out some measures that have been implemented, “I like many of the recent changes such as having a theme, and the inclusion of facility talks, external poster judges, and talks from students and post-doctoral fellows.”

This year’s theme, ‘Circle of Life’ emerged as a clear winner amongst other contenders. The sessions were designed to fit under the overarching theme, such as opening circles, closing circles, timing and so on. The organizers had tried a few groupings before eventually hitting upon this theme. There was a total of seven sessions, with plenary talks at the end of the day. The schedule of the Annual Talks can be found here. The afternoons, as always, were reserved for poster sessions, ensuring the Colonnade was bustling with scientific chatter over popcorn and soda.

In the past few years, NCBS has been making concerted efforts in the areas of outreach and public engagement. Since 2019, the first day of the Annual Talks is dedicated to understanding some of these efforts. “Annual Talks tend to be a time of introspection (in terms of our science). So I like that these kinds of talks and discussions allow us to also look a little further afield. Our connections with broader society need to be strengthened, and showcasing these efforts – which are easy to overlook as we scurry about with our work each day – is critical”, says Deepa.

The opening session this year was titled 'Inscribing the past, present and future'. Dr Lena Robra was one among several alumni who were visiting this year to take on a different role from that of a graduate student. She has been working with the Bangalore Sustainability Forum (BSF), an inter-institutional collaborative initiative, and gave a talk in this session. Lena elaborates, “BSF offers a space for open dialogue on topics around sustainability. We cross the bridge between the ‘ivory towers’ and the ‘broader public’ to make people realize that many skills and professions are needed. We welcome innovative approaches and solutions to move Bengaluru towards a more sustainable future with everyone on board.”

The first day closed with a performance by the students’ cultural club.  Sowdhamini, a musician herself, coordinated the cultural show. She says, "I feel this is as important as showcasing good science, since there cannot be good science without a good and healthy environment. We are a self-contained campus and it is important to show that our campus academic community is happy.”

The Annual Talks culminated with the final session titled: 'Expanding horizons: Opening the circle'. This was a reflection of sustained efforts the community has made in capacity building and innovation.  In  the closing session, Prof Satyajit Mayor took us on an immersive journey- looking at the accomplishments of the Bangalore Life Science Cluster, and envisioning the direction we are heading toward in the future.


Image credits: Ravi Kumar Boyapati