Life, Death and Everything in Between
By Rich McManus
Photos: Ernie Branson, Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
It was as if some giant had grabbed the NIH campus by the corner up near the firehouse on Old Georgetown Rd. and tilted it so that everything slid helplessly toward the Natcher Bldg. Oct. 6-9 as the 12th version of Research Festival (originally only a daylong event) drew many hundreds of NIH'ers to a ravishing feast of intramural science. For a 3-day stretch, Natcher and its environs were to science what Bethesda is to restaurants -- a teeming smorgasbord of tasty possibilities.
It became almost comical, after a day or two, to see literally hundreds of pre-, post- and postpostdocs fleeing the crowded morning plenary sessions for one of dozens of workshops held in various nooks and warrens within the sprawling Natcher complex. All adopted postures of predicament as they scanned the glossy 83-page menu of choices, brows knit in concentration. What if, by chance, you were interested in both "Characterization of Biologic Mediators by Spectroscopic Methods" and "Gene Regulatory Proteins," both fighting for your attention from 10:30 a.m. to half past noon on the festival's last day? Attendees sometimes solved the problem by flitting from room to room, finding some darkened by slide projections, others hampered by misbehaving sound systems. By the third and final day of the fest, technicians handling lights and sound were no longer masking their frustration as they bustled to please lengthy rosters of presenters.
The lead topics themselves could produce anxiety. The plenary sessions kicked off Wednesday, Oct. 6 with speculations on cosmology and the origins of life, introduced by NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. The final plenary session Friday was on apoptosis -- programmed cell death -- and included detailed description of molecular "death domains." Concluding a discussion of ALPS -- autoimmune lymphoproliferative syndrome -- NIAID's Dr. Stephen Straus quoted Ecclesiastes: "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die."
But that sentiment, combined with leaden skies for two of the festival's three days, did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of attendees, one of whom, NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus, exited the apoptosis session beaming and waving, invigorated, not bedimmed, by his encounter with the biological enforcers of cells' demise.
Teetering, perhaps unironically, between the opening session on life's cosmic origins and the final, apoptotic (if not apocalyptic) session, was "Insight from the Bedside," which offered hope for the still-living, including insights into AIDS pathogenesis and description of a new vaccine to prevent severe diarrhea in infants and youngsters.
For those addled by the possibilities, there were massive tents outside the Natcher center offering diversions of a sort: on the southeast side were two tents housing the Technical Sales Association's annual exhibit of scientific equipment, and to the northwest sat a picnic tent, including a stage where some intramural performers entertained.
The TSA tents were a swarming bazaar of scientific supplies presented by a slew of manufacturers, each offering such freebies as dishes full of hard candy, pens, coffee, mousepads, drink cups, and raffle chances on items ranging from cell phones to Polartec fleece outerwear. Almost everyone trekking back to their labs on campus after a trip to Research Festival bore a plastic shopping bag stuffed with giveaways.
Organizers called the 12th festival a success and are already critiquing their efforts in preparation for lucky 13, a 3-day swath of fall 1999 wherein the Yellow Sheet gets carried, once again, to the 10th power.
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