Meeting Report: PSB'2001

The Sixth Annual Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing (PSB'2001) took place January 3-7, 2001 at the Sheraton Orchid at Mauna Lani on the Big Island of Hawaii. After an initial day of tutorials, 38 talks spread over 9 topic-tracks were given over the next four days, as well as one keynote address and a well-attended poster session with more than 100 displays. The symposium proceedings were published by World Scientific Press and are also available on-line (see below). There were roughly 365 attendees. Two approximate breakdowns of these attendees are 250 North American, 45 Asian and 70 other (by geography) and 140 university, 140 industrial, and 85 government laboratory (by institution). There has been a noticeable increase both in the number of attendees and in the proportion of industrial attendees in particular as compared with previous PSB meetings. This is is symptomatic of computational biology meetings in general and will be discussed further below.

The meeting started with a day devoted to three-hour tutorials on data analysis tools for DNA microarray data, computational methods for predicting RNA secondary and tertiary structure with applications, genetic network analysis, bioinformatics programming in Python, high performance technical computing, and information extraction from scientific texts. Each tutorial had an associated booklet of introductory material and references that was provided to tutorial attendees, and additional copies were available for purchase at a nominal fee by other attendees. One of the highlights of the second day of the meeting was an invigorating keynote lecture by Dr. David Haussler (UC Santa Cruz) on the completion status and current and upcoming applications of the human genome sequence draft. All other activities at the meeting were organized around the following nine tracks:

Each track except Bioethics consisted of a lead session (a brief introduction to the topic by the track organizers followed by two to five talks) and a rump session whose organization varied from additional talks to oral presentations of relevant posters to panel discussions. In contrast to previous years, no sessions were run in parallel; this gave all attendees the opportunity to participate in all sessions, which made for much larger session attendance. Position papers written by the organizers of each track and papers associated with all scheduled talks as well as selected posters were published in an archival proceedings, which is also available on-line along with proceedings for all previous PSB at the PSB website.

So, how did this year's PSB stack up with my experience at last year's PSB [War00]? This year was more expensive by virtue of being in a somewhat isolated resort; however, the PSB organizers did a stellar job of negotiating amazingly low room rates as well as a number of provided meals and inter-session snacks. I was once again delighted by the technical content of the meeting. PSB's solicited-track approach resulted in an exciting set of track topics many of which are on the cutting edge of computational biology research and have not previously appeared at PSB. My standout favorites this year were the two sessions on phylogeny and the session on pathway bioinformatics, but I found unexpected fascinations in every session I attended. I was particularly intrigued with the sessions on bioethics and applications of human genome variation to clinical practice (both of which inspired vigorous and insightful debates within and outside the sessions proper); both areas are becoming increasingly important with the completion of the draft of the human genome, and this is the first time I have seen these topics represented at a computational biology conference. This highlights the unique role of PSB among existing computational biology conferences as a forum in which diverse research communities within computational biology and affiliated disciplines can meet and be exposed to each other's research approaches, questions, and results. Such chance meetings can have consequences far beyond individual PSB. One example of this is the genetic pathways analysis track, which has sparked enough interest over the last several PSB to spawn the International Conference on Systems Biology (see here for detail). I expect to see other such conferences arising from ongoing PSB tracks in future.

As I noted above, two of the more noticeable trends in this year's PSB were larger overall attendance and larger proportional attendance by industry-based scientists. This is characteristic of many computational biology meetings; indeed, almost all meetings I have heard of or attended over the last few years have had to institute registration cutoffs so attendees do not overburden conference facilities. The exemplar of this trend is ISMB, whose attendance has soared into the high hundreds and will probably crack one thousand this year, a first for a computational biology conference. While it is heartening to see this level of interest as it is a sign of a dynamic and growing discipline, it is also disconcerting -- there is the danger that meetings will become so large and industrially focused that attendees will find meetings impersonal and be intimidated by the sheer bulk of tangentially related and sketchily described technical content. Such evolution in the focus and makeup of meetings is perhaps inevitable and indeed necessary, as it creates a spectrum of conferences to suit the different needs of the various research communities within computational biology. However, where possible, such evolution should be conscientiously guided rather than left to chance. These issues are very much on the minds of PSB organizers, as evidenced by a circulated questionnaire asking attendee opinions on whether PSB should expand and how such expansion should be done. I hope that these choices are made carefully so that PSB does not lose its twin charms of cozy collegiality and eclectic and innovative technical content that make it such a pleasure to attend.

In summary, I found PSB'2001 to be a great meeting both technically and personally and would recommend it to anyone wanting a capsule summary of emerging research areas in computational biology. It is in my opinion a meeting in transition, on the verge of graduating to a more prominent role among annual computational biology conferences; given their excellent performance in the past, I trust the PSB organizers to steer a course that will continue to make PSB both enjoyable and informative in future. Preparations are already underway for PSB'2002, which will be held at the Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Club on January 3--7, 2002; please consult the PSB home page for details.


[War00] Wareham H.T. (2000) "Conference Report: PSB'2000." SIGBIO Newsletter, 20(1), 27-28

Todd Wareham
Department of Computer Science
Memorial University of Newfoundland