311: Virology in Cambridge and a coffee withdrawal moment

Anna, Rachel and I went on a field trip to Cambridge to attend a virus symposium at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This quaint little campus is such a gem. The academy was established in 1780 just after the declaration of independence by prominent Bostonians who were also active participants in the revolution. One can feel the walls of the academy breathe the history of Arts and the various Sciences not only in the United States, but also in the world. The Academy elects its members who are leaders in a variety of fields, not only in the Sciences. They had a wall were acceptance letters from various personalities throughout history were displayed. The hand-written letters of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein were on display, among others. Robert Frost, Alan Alda, JFK and Bill Clinton, to name a few non-scientists, were also elected to the Academy. One of the UMass professors, Victor Ambros, was elected to the academy this year for his work on microRNAs. It was quite a unique setting for a half-day symposium. We would have explored the campus further if not for the rain that greeted us afterwards.

The talks were quite different from what I’ve been accustomed to listening in the past five years or so, which are mostly Immunology-centric. I missed the hard core Virology that inspired me to do graduate studies in the first place. The talks also covered a lot of influenza virology, which is something near and dear to my heart (or my thesis, I should say). This was the other side of the coin, the story from the virus’ perspective. It was refreshing to see things through its viewpoint. The speakers were all brilliant and they covered several ways of stopping viruses in their tracks by taking advantage of what we know about their life cycle and their interaction with the host. The only criticism that I have – the organizers forgot to serve coffee during the breaks. The three of us were “religious” coffee drinkers and we were disappointed that they did not have coffee during the break. By the last speaker’s presentation, my consciousness was drifting through the nether lands of my brain and I think I half-slept through most of his talk. They were talking about serving drinks after the symposium, and we were expecting to finally see the coffee served. Sadly, they did not. All three of us were just dying to get our caffeine fix that we desperately searched the streets of Cambridge for a Starbucks. My brain at this point was now all mushy from caffeine withdrawal and my navigating skills were impaired. We ended up in a Starbucks that was not the closest one, but nonetheless fulfilled our afternoon fix. All was well in the world again.

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