Field of Science

Gordon Conference impressions

What goes on at the Gordon Conference stays at the Gordon Conference, goes the saying. In keeping with this tradition I am not going to divulge the details of the science at my very first medicinal chemistry Gordon Conference. But that should not stop me from offering general comments and holding forth on some of the non-scientific aspects of the meeting.

The conference is always held in some scenic place; if you can convince your boss you could possibly make it to Lucerne, Switzerland or Milan, Italy, otherwise you might have to be content with traveling to one of the many small resort and college towns in New Hampshire. But have no fear; all these towns offer their own very scenic views and crystal clear weather.

The one big truth about the GRC is that it's all about interacting with people. The medicinal chemistry conference was in New London, NH which is the home of Colby-Sawyer College; this has been the venue since 1944. We were lucky to enjoy spectacular weather during the entire week. The conference is deliberately located in a small location away from the bright lights of a big city so that there will be minimal distractions and participants can spend most of their time together. The interactions are amplified by having all participants stay together in one of the suites in the college dorms (with separate bedrooms and common bathroom space); take advantage of this fact and do get to know your roommates.

What really makes a Gordon Conference unique is the schedule. Mornings and evenings are filled with talks and poster sessions but afternoons are free. It feels a little strange at the beginning to attend talks from 7:30 PM to 9:30 PM followed by poster sessions until 11:30 PM but you get used to it. The poster sessions are where the most stimulating interactions usually happen, so you should definitely not miss these. The posters are also where the most interesting new information is divulged, so unlike the talks, you won't find copies of these reprinted in the folder which you get on the first day. In general you will find people sometimes saying things off the record, with the honest expectation that you won't divulge these details to the outside world.

One thing that becomes clear at a GRC is that there are people in their 60s and 70s who have been attending GRCs for decades. Naturally they are good friends and tend to hang out together. If you are a first timer you might be slightly overwhelmed by what seem to be cliques, but one thing you would find out is that even the old timers are quite welcoming. Go ahead and introduce yourself to them and you will very likely end up having interesting and lively conversations. This is especially true during meals where you may often end up at tables with strangers, many of whom will hopefully be friends and colleagues by the end of the meeting. The one thing you should not do at a GRC is to keep to yourself since it sort of defeats the whole purpose of the conference. Plus, how are you ever going to get to know people if you never start?

There is some kind of physical activity - hiking, kayaking, horse-back riding, cruises, soccer games - scheduled for every single afternoon. You can either join in or relax in your room, but joining in is strongly encouraged. I went on a hike and a walk and had a very productive conversation with a medicinal chemist from the UK. Even if you are more of the indoor types like me, don't miss these activities and the resulting conversations. It's your best chance to network and make connections.

Interestingly, a corollary of all this is that in one sense, the formal talks are the least interesting aspect of the meeting. Don't get me wrong; some of the talks were really great and all of the talks covered a very diverse smattering of topics, but the overall scope and content of the talks mirrored that at other good meetings. Most scientists know that the most valuable conversations are the ones that occur outside formal talks, at the bar and during lunch and dinner, and the Gordon Conferences underscore this fact more than any other.

Which brings me to the food. You should avoid the Gordon Conference like a plague if you are trying to diet and lose weight. The GRC knows that scientists - who are still harboring traumatic memories of their time as graduate students - are suckers for good food. With this in mind the organizers put out a spread every day like no other I have seen at a scientific conference. There's an omelette station at breakfast and stir fry station at lunch. There's a different dessert for every meal and six different flavors of ice cream. Soda and chocolate milk flow like water. The poster sessions offer endless rounds of pizza and drinks. And you are surrounded by all this pretty much 24/7. You get to eat so much roast beef and lobster and mushroom ravioli that by the end of the week you are actually hungering for simple fare like oatmeal. Oh wait, they have four different kinds of that too...

The end result of this gastronomical and scientific cornucopia is a bunch of extremely well-fed and intellectually stimulated scientists. In this case, the talks themselves mirrored the astonishing diversity of medicinal chemistry (the topics are publicly listed so there's no harm in talking about them). It's interesting that even today, when you meet someone who calls themselves a "medicinal chemist" he or she is most likely to be a synthetic organic chemist. But I am a modeler, and yet I consider myself first and foremost a medicinal chemist. As the scope of the med chem GRC reveals, a conference on medicinal chemistry today includes all kinds of people; synthetic chemists, biochemists and molecular biologists, pharmacologists, chemical engineers, molecular modelers, physical organic chemists and even doctors. The list of topics ranging from pain to high-throughput screening and from drug delivery to antibody-drug conjugates makes it clear that at this point in time, "medicinal chemistry" essentially includes almost every discipline that could have an impact on drug discovery and development. Another thing that's evident from the list of speakers is the focus on biology; a lot of the talks are about biological assays and gene knockouts and target validation and synthetic biology. In keeping with scientific trends, it's clear that medicinal chemistry conferences henceforth are going to include a healthy amount of biology.

Overall the conference was very satisfying and stimulating. I think it's safe to say that in the end we all went away with a renewed appreciation of our discipline and of the good cheer and spirit that exists in our ranks in spite of today's troubled times. Most importantly, I think all of us were inspired to go back to our labs and computers and get on with the science and business of designing drugs, an endeavor that has real impact on real people's lives every single day. If you haven't been to the med chem or any other GRC I would strongly recommend it.


  1. Good to see you take the challenge and I'm confident that your blog post is GRC-compliant. The GRC confidentiality is not just a tradition because it's written into the rules. Most of the CADD GRC talks are now online:

  2. It's nice to have the talks online. I also find it a bit odd that while they say that the details of talks should not be divulged, they give everyone a big fat folder that has all the slides in it. I suppose the rule really applies to off-the-record, informal conversations.

  3. It was my 2nd time there, and I enjoyed it a lot. I'm not sure if we talked, Ash, but I hope to see you there next time.


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