Editorial | Published:

The Ringberg Colloquia: fostering the multidisciplinary

Nature Cell Biology volume 9, page 129 (2007) | Download Citation


The Ringberg Colloquia were launched last month with a meeting entitled “Self-organization and Morphogenesis in Biological Systems”. The series promises to provide a discussion-oriented forum for interdisciplinary research.

The Ring of the Cell Biologists: discussing self-organization in Schloss Ringberg. Valkyrie (based on Arthur Rackham, 1912; copyright expired).

Scientific conferences are expanding and diversifying alongside the steady growth of scientific research. Today's cell biologists are faced with the increasingly difficult task of picking the meetings they will attend from a long list of potential candidates. The choices range from large general meetings to various specialist meetings, in addition to those that emphasize application-oriented research. Nevertheless, key meetings in cell biology continue to occupy distinct niches. For example, society conferences like the American Society for Cell Biology and European Life Scientists Organization are popular with graduate students and postdocs who may be interested in a broad exposure to cell biology. Talks at this type of conference often tend to review and present published information. On the other hand, the smaller Gordon Research Conferences and FASEB Summer Research Conferences are annual pilgrimages in specific fields — attendance is a must for the junior principal investigators, as well as the elders of the field. Other conferences, such the Keystone Symposia and EMBO Workshops, focus more on emerging and rapidly evolving areas, representing opportunities to get up-to-speed on the latest research.

Paradoxically, despite this diversity in aim and scope, meetings have become increasingly characterized by a uniformity of experience. More often than not — and this depends more on the field than the conference — talks focus on published work rather than 'work in progress' and often one is allowed only a glimpse of the latest research in a laboratory. This is an understandable response to the increased competitiveness of research today, but dampens the overall 'excitement factor' of a meeting. As meeting attendance has grown, schedules have become crowded leaving less time for discussion during sessions. This is, of course, an inevitable consequence of having to accommodate the needs of growing fields and to ensure that as many researchers as possible have the opportunity to participate. As fields mature, meetings have also had to become more specialized, even though, ironically, multidisciplinary approaches are becoming commonplace as different disciplines draw closer together to develop new avenues (such as systems biology and nuclear cell biology). But as research output grows, so does controversy and dissension — so much so that it can adversely affect progress in a field. Large audiences are not conducive to open discussion, especially on competitive or controversial topics.

This is an exciting time for research in cell biology. The unprecedented availability of innovative technologies have blurred boundaries between fields and the increasing emphasis on translational research means that cell biologists must be aware of the clinical implications of their work. There is an urgent need for researchers to think broadly and to be familiar with diverse approaches. Although conferences currently reflect the growth and competitiveness of cell biology, they tend to be more specialized and less forward-looking.

With this in mind, Germany's Max Planck Society and Nature Publishing Group have launched a new meeting series, The Ringberg Colloquia. This series is devoted to multidisciplinary topics drawn from areas covered within the scope of the Nature Research Journals and the Max Planck Institutes. The series will be held at Schloss Ringberg, a twentieth century castle situated on a hill overlooking the picturesque Tegernsee near Munich, Germany. We aim to create a series with a non-traditional format that will be intensively discussion-oriented. In addition to talks emphasizing emerging concepts over published data, and ample discussion time, the meetings will include moderated forums to discuss a host of issues — including open questions, current controversies, future directions and new technologies. To help promote an atmosphere that will be more conducive to such a format, the size of the meetings will remain small, with a majority of invited attendees complemented by selected applicants.

First in the series was a colloquium co-organized by this journal entitled Self-organization and Morphogenesis in Biological Systems. Cloistered in the castle for three days, a small but diverse group of cell biologists, developmental biologists and physicists discussed self-organization — a process by which order arises from local interactions between components of a dynamic system — as it pertains to biological form and function at scales ranging from the molecular to the multicellular. The colloquium encompassed 22 talks, ranging from self-organization of cytoskeletal systems, particularly microtubules, to that of organelles such as the Golgi and the subnuclear space, and finally, emergent properties of cellular assemblies during complex developmental transitions. Discussion among the 31 attendees was facilitated by designating a significant fraction of the presentation to questions, and through two moderated roundtable discussions. The outcome is summarized on page 130 by Ben Glick.

We hope that The Ringberg Colloquia will be a stimulating addition to the conference circuit and will fill the void left by the closure of the similarly small but intense Fundación Juan March meetings and the Nature Publishing Group-organized Horizon Symposia. Given the wide spectrum of research areas covered by the Max Planck Institutes and the Nature journals, we look forward to a varied and long-term series.

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