NSF Ideas Lab on Advancing and Visualizing the Tree of Life

I finally made it to Lake Placid.  Yes, after a 6 hour drive drinking iced coffee and belting out some Gaga, I’m super excited to be here.

This week, I am one of 35 scientists selected to attend a National Science Foundation “Ideas Lab” focused on Advancing and Visualizing the Tree of Life (AVAToL).

 The purpose of the AVAToL Ideas Lab is to bring together participants from the scientific community, mentors, and NSF staff to form novel scientific ideas into potentially workable research proposals. NSF’s Assembling, Visualizing, and Analyzing the Tree of Life (AVAToL) activity supports novel and transformative approaches to the development of an integrated and robust tree of all life, as well as visualization and analysis on a dynamic tree of life.

This workshop is rocking the boat – in a good way.  Normally we scientists pull our hair our writing grants, send off our preciously tweaked tome (with an anticlimactic click of a button) and wait six months to see if peer-reviewers shared our enthusiasm enough to fund it.  This time, instead of proposing a project, we proposed ourselves and our skills.  I’m truly thrilled and honored that NSF selected me to attend after reading my proposal to participate.  So this week, I’ll be contributing to a dynamic review process as we define problems, throw around ideas, and try to find innovative (yet practical) paths towards filling in the gaps in the Tree of Life.

Its interesting to see that NSF is also getting clued up on the social media.  We have a kickass private meeting website, and its been great to see who is attending and what backgrounds they come from (I admit to my fellow participants now, yes I’ve been stalking you all on Google).  There’s also a communal blog for posting resources and links.  Someone has even been cheeky and made a phylogenetic tree of all the participants based on their expertise.  Only a scientist!

So I’m not sure what to expect, but I think it will be kind of like a big brainstorming session. Except that I’ll be sitting amongst ornithologists and graphic artists – people I’d never usually cross paths with.  But the same type of thoughts keep us all awake at night – the practical frustrations as we struggle to understand how life evolved.  Too many ideas and too few resources for actually analyzing and visualizing the data.  I’d love to put a 454 dataset (containing ~1 million sequences) on a phylogenetic tree, but I just can’t do it yet.

In any case, yours truly will be blogging live all week from the AVAToL Ideas Lab (hopefully posting an update every day)–stay tuned!


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