It's that time of year again. The Super Bowl? Long past. The World Cup? Not this year. Time for you to get a haircut? That's always true. No, it's time for another ELSI workshop. Didn't get the memo? Couldn't attend? Well that's why you're reading this blog post. This time, the workshop took place in gloomy, snowy Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why did this take place in a city thousands of miles away from Tokyo? It's because this was jointly sponsored by both ELSI as well as the Harvard University Origins of Life Initiative with the help of Dr. Albert Fahrenbach, who spends part of the year in Dr. Jack Szostak's lab at Harvard and part of the year at ELSI in Tokyo. The goal of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative is to reveal whether life is abundant in the universe by understanding how conditions on earth or other planets could have given rise to life and its subsequent evolution; sounds eerily similar to the research goals of ELSI, so this makes for a perfect collaboration. The workshop itself allowed for experts in origins research to gather and discuss past, current, and future work towards understanding the origin of life. The title of the workshop--RNA, peptides, vesicles, and exoplanets--promised a great diversity of talks, and the composition of the participants--researchers from ELSI, Harvard, University of Tokyo, the Scripps Research Institute, Northwestern University, and University College London--definitely delivered on that promise.
The content of the workshop was incredibly interesting and the research discussed was extremely diverse. Unfortunately, we did have some last minute cancellations, which is always a shame; those of us at Harvard are always really excited to hear about the work done by ELSI researchers and vice-versa as we only have a couple chances per year to gather together and discuss our research with each other. Of the remaining attendees, we had talks encompassing topics from organic chemistry to membrane biophysics, planetary science to ribozyme evolution, and non-enzymatic RNA replication to peptide amphiphile self-assembly. Such a diverse collection of research! Even for myself, who is not an expert in many of these fields, the work presented was extremely interesting and accessible, and many of the ideas discussed were applicable to many different fields. That's the very definition of interdisciplinary.
Now, if you've never been to the Boston area, there are two major things you should know: it's a lot colder than Tokyo and it snows a lot more than Tokyo. A lot more. The timing of the workshop came at a time where almost three meters of snow had fallen in the past month and we even have giant snow "mountains" for adventurers to climb. For those who came from out of town, Boston might have seemed like a winter wonderland, but for those of us who live in Boston, it was more like winter torture. The subway was still not running properly. Cars were still completely buried. Many sidewalks were impassable, and one wrong step into one of the many patches of black ice resulted in an automatic entry into America's Funniest Home Videos, not to mention that it was still bitterly cold. If you want to experience real Boston, definitely come during winter, which lasts from November to April. We also had a laugh when some Harvard undergraduate students, dressed up in the likeness of Mario and Luigi, came and took all of our breakfast pastries one day. It was funny until we realized we didn't have any food left... All in all, I would say that our visitors who flew in from out of town definitely got both an accurate "Boston" and a "Harvard" experience.
So overall, the workshop was a resounding success. Everyone presented great research and we had interesting and thought provoking discussions on both the direction of our own research as well as the direction of the entire field at large. We were able to connect with researchers from other institutes and other countries in the same line of work, even though some of our specific research interests may have been different. All of us are a part of the same, interdisciplinary field of origin of life research, yet we all come from different cultural backgrounds, upbringings, and ideologies. I think it's amazing that by having one common goal, such a diverse set of people are able to come together and just connect with each other, not only on a professional level but also on a personal level. By having this joint international workshop, I believe that we are each able to understand each other a little better, as well as think about what it means to be both a researcher, and a human being.
photo credit: Christian Hentrich