Why I Love Vendors

By Steven Wiley Why I Love Vendors Talks and posters are about where biology has been—but the booths with the sales pitches and freebies tell you where science is going. I have found that creating a new, useful tool for scientists can be just as gratifying as discovering a new protein. In December, I attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, as I have done regularly for the last several decades. It is always a good w

By | February 1, 2010

Why I Love Vendors

Talks and posters are about where biology has been—but the booths with the sales pitches and freebies tell you where science is going.

I have found that creating a new, useful tool for scientists can be just as gratifying as discovering a new protein.

In December, I attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, as I have done regularly for the last several decades. It is always a good way to catch up with old friends and look for the latest trends in cell biology. I rarely attend the talks, having found that they more reflect the fashion of the moment (or the past) than the direction of the field. Poster sessions are more to my liking, since they provide a chance to talk to enthusiastic young scientists in the trenches. But my favorite stop has always been the vendor booths.

When I tell my friends that I love visiting vendor booths, most of them seem to think I am kidding. At meetings, many scientists seem to feel that vendors are necessary evils. They provide free candy and cheap pens in exchange for bombarding us with ads and scanning our badges. Like popup ads in Web browsers, we have learned to both ignore and accept them as part of the landscape. It is unfortunate that we have become so inured to their presence. Talks and posters capture exciting research from the last few years or months, but vendor booths capture the future, offering one of the clearest visions of where a field is going.

As a technology junkie, I always love to see the new instruments that are introduced at each meeting. When I got a faculty job, visiting the vendors became serious business, because they offered a fast way to compare features and prices of the stuff I needed. I soon became interested in learning about the odd variety of unfamiliar equipment I invariably saw at meetings. Not because I wanted to purchase it, but because I was interested in what other scientists were doing, and if a vendor had paid for a booth, odds are someone was using what they were selling.

Over the years, I started to see patterns. Microscopes have always been prominent at the cell biology meetings (go figure), but the numerous electron microscopes of 25 years ago have been replaced by increasingly complex confocal microscopes. Electrophoresis and centrifugal separation equipment has been replaced by kit vendors and PCR machines. Cell isolation and molecular biology supplies have been replaced by cell lines and clone libraries. The changing landscape of vendor booths shows, better than any talk or poster, that biology has become a prepackaged kit science. Do-it-yourselfers need not apply.

The most interesting booths are those that show the “Next Big Thing.” This year, ultra-resolution optical microscopes were on prominent display, whereas several years ago, variants of fluorescent proteins, gene-cloning supplies and PCR machines were everywhere. In a couple of years, the publication record will be filled with data from the tools introduced this year. Where else at a scientific meeting but on the vendor floor can you tap into dozens of impromptu presentations about where a field is going, rather than where it has been?

I became much more aware of the roles vendors play in creating new technologies when I agreed to write some software for a company in the early 1990s. They were introducing a new type of quantitative gel imager and I was writing the interface software for Macintosh computers. The project consumed my spare time for over a year, and I was rewriting and debugging code up until 10 minutes before the new software was introduced at the ASCB meeting. However, all the work felt worthwhile when I saw how excited biologists were to see what my software could do. The experience was as fulfilling as giving a talk—I found that creating a new, useful tool for scientists can be just as gratifying as discovering a new protein!

My experience in participating in the “vendor side” of meetings also made me realize that many vendors were trained as scientists, but did not wish to pursue an academic career. Instead, they decided to help drive scientific research by providing new tools and services that make research easier and enable new research directions. I have known some of the vendors at the ASCB meeting for over 20 years and they are as passionate about showing their new instruments as I am about showing my latest data. So the next time you go to a scientific meeting, stop by the vendor booths and ask about the future. And pick up some candy.

Steven Wiley is Lead Biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Comments

Avatar of: timothy jahnigen

timothy jahnigen

Posts: 1

February 2, 2010

Mr Wiley's is a welcome point of view and reflects an attitude that is vital to progress in technology and equipment. I hope that this approach to walking the hall during conferences spreads.\nAs the developer of a unique solution to a big problem in a space that dominated by larger names. We have been met with skepticism and dismissal until just recently.\nWe are now being taken seriously but we felt that we created a significantly better technology and were proud to demonstrate it and share this breakthrough, offering a new direction.\nIt really is worth going in with fresh eyes and seeing where things are going. Obviously, some changes are cosmetic year to year but some are truly innovative. A lot of time and effort goes into R & D and design and development.\nAgain, I hope more scientists and doctors read this article and get a new perspective.
Avatar of: M Williams

M Williams

Posts: 15

February 11, 2010

I normally enjoy Dr Wiley's articles. They are usually insightful, thought-provoking and normaly reflect a consensus opinion.\n\nHowever, this article is certainly provocative and I can not subscribe to Dr Wiley's personal opinion. It is an odd one. Let me tell you why, from my perspective.\n\nVendor booths at most conferences certainly inform us where instrumentation and equipment or consumables reagents are heading, but they serve a purpose. That purpose is to assist the hypothesis-driven science being presented by a young or new investigator who is sharing his/her latest ground-breaking science with a gloabal audience. Flavors of the day Dr Wiley, provide scientific menus of the future. How can you dismiss them as "flavors of the moment". Likewise, more senior investigators provide a general overview on focus topics of major importance.\n\nHaving served (and continue to serve) on abstract review and/or conferenc eprogram committees, I can assure you that significant time and effort is dedicated to promoting the presentation of the best and most newsworthy science to oral and poster presentations. This is there the science is, this is where the hypothesis-driven academic knowledge base is, this is where you will network and share collaborative ideas, in the conference auditoria and poster sessions floors.\n\nWhile I agree that vendors have their value at conferences, they can stylize anything they want in a nice way to make their products appear ground-breaking and earth-shattering, that is the power of sound marketing and advertising strategy in corporate circles. \n\nI am blown away that you are suggetsing this is where one will find the scientific advances of tomorrow. Not true. You will find them in the conference auditoria presented equally well by young minds, senior investigatord and Nobel Laureates sharing with all their ideas, data and conclusions.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

February 11, 2010

The complicated interaction between science (qua new knowledge and ways of thinking) and technology (implementation of what is known) produces overlap in our thinking about that traditional divide. \n\nWhile it's true that technology (vendor's products) will back-fill and expand our knowledge along established lines of thinking - however recent, it is equally true that the misnamed "leading edge" of science is not always, or even usually, a matter of pushing out a continuous frontier of knowledge along an anticipated or planned route with known tools. More often, science advances with islands of insight, that pop up well beyond the established frontier, and it is to those "breakthrough" loci that others rush, with new technologies to opportunistically exploit, elaborate and, eventually, join the frontier to those islands of insight and incorporate them into a new frontier.(Idea plagiarized and paraphrased from J.D. Searle with apologies for any misrepresentation, but with which I agree)\n\nSo, while vendors certainly provide the wherewithal for expanding science along currently predictable lines - and may even provide the elevated platform from which new insights are made, big advances in science will also come from insights made, more or less, independently of the currently available tools. That is, the generality that currently available technology points the way of future science is wrong - at least, insofar as it is an incomplete statement about the possible direction and reach of future science.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 15

February 11, 2010

To the anonymous poster from 12.15pm, sorry, but eh? you what? In plain English I might have an idea of what you are saying but, dude, it confused the heck out of me and I'm reasonably intelligent. If you could please take out the lovely floweryness of your language, I may know where you are coming from. Are you Danny La Rue?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

February 11, 2010

Vendors predict the future of past scientific discoveries, not present or future discoveries or their future. Simple enough? Got it?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 69

February 12, 2010

To the guy at 18.10, all that the earlier dude was saying was simply this: what is between the hands (I refer to the equipment for scientific purposes) may help, but what is between your ears (them brains)may really help! \n\nW's writeup, by any stretch of imagination, is not about a panacea for future research or directions and simply that ideas need backing up by some feasible action. Instruments help. I always found checking specs on equipement, new and old, always intersting and even useful.\n\nYes, sometimes the opposite happens. I was seeking collaboration for microarrays for plant yield etc and failed. We got home and went for modeling based on physiology and got the answers faster. Sad is usually the fate of those who depend on equipment than ideas, even as good ideas go stale by not being experimented upon.
Avatar of: STEVEN PELECH

STEVEN PELECH

Posts: 3

February 12, 2010

Dr. Wiley's observations with respect to very large scientific conferences are very insightful, and while it is dangerous to over generalize, I concur. Many leaders in the field are reluctant to disclose their latest findings in oral presentations prior to publication in view of fierce competition. I find the poster venues much more productive in getting a sense of what is going on, especially since there is the opportunity to engage the researcher one on one and also in the presence of other truly interested parties. Vendor booths may not be the places to learn about the latest scientific breakthroughs, but they are definitely the places to go to find out about the latest technologies and tools that will permit these advances.\n\nAt Kinexus Bioinformatics Corporation, we have a genuine interest in conducting original research and disseminating this information to the broad scientific community with the creation of free public on-line databases such as www.kinet.ca and www.phosphonet.ca. We have likewise observed other vendors that have produced and promoted several very useful resources to facilitate biomedical research. It should be realized that many vendors have well trained scientists with real interest in advancing the field and they are often present at the major scientific conferences. We never offer candy at the Kinexus booth, but we are very happy to provide free useful educational materials and free advice.\n\n\n
Avatar of: Martin Linke

Martin Linke

Posts: 3

February 26, 2010

Why is this article featured again?
Avatar of: Alison McCook

Alison McCook

Posts: 68

February 26, 2010

Hi-\n\nWe feature articles from the current month's issue in the daily email and homepage during the month, and sometimes recycle those stories that have received the most interest. This happens more often at the end of the month, once we've highlighted everything from the issue at least once.\n\nThanks!\nAlison McCook, Deputy Editor
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 1, 2010

I am a vendor, for quite a while now. Finding you all siding one way or the other is a real chuckle because it proves one thing: you are all dolts. Thought alone doesn't prove anything in this scientific arena nor to the world. We surely needs thinkers, but we also need do-ers or as a whole we don't get anywhere. Or did you just forget about the whole and think about yourself...yet again. To achieve real success in the eyes of this scientific community and the world you need RESULTS. BOTH the theoretical science and the latest technology combine to get there; they MUST BOTH be present to advance, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other. You so called thinkers out there ought to get out from behind your desk, go out there and open your eyes again....or sit in your chair, think all you want (don't touch your blackberry or PC - it's hardware and software you know) and go nowhere. Better yet turn out the lights too...you are in the dark anyway. The "smart", most succesful and revered scientists work with vendors REGULARLY. Where do you think products you use come from? They don't come from a bunch of engineers like me sitting around in a room asking themselves what to build next. In some cases we are building what scientists come up with to prove a hypothesis of theirs true, but in others we are exposing scientists to hypothetical or new technology that can take them down a new road that was unimaginable. This is what keeps the wheel turning round. SO BE HUMBLE. YOU NOR I CAN DO IT BY OURSELVES. Ever hear of symbiosis? This is how the doors to the future really open. Go to work each day, and try and contribute a PIECE of something that WE can use to help US ALL get closer to solving the worlds most complex problems of disease and such. Or did you forget about that too? Those scientists that we work with simply get it....we are part of the same team. The rest of you are for sure the feckless wonders of the world.
Avatar of: Martin Linke

Martin Linke

Posts: 3

March 3, 2010

Hi Alison,\n\nthank you very much for the kind explanation.\n\nAll the best,\n\nMartin :-)

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