Letter from the President – Fall 2017

Dear friends,
Participants in the RNA Society Meeting in Prague returned home with renewed enthusiasm for science. We will not soon forget the long standing ovation from the audience that followed the Science and Society Lecture by Adrian Krainer. He reported the astounding success of an RNA therapeutic treatment for Spinal Muscular Atrophy, based upon the use of chemically modified antisense oligonucleotides that target an intronic splicing silencer in the SMN2 gene. Everyone in the audience had – at the very least – a knot in their throat after watching movies of a child walking and even riding bicycles, who previously could barely move and had a rather poor prognosis without treatment. Such historical medical advances would not have been possible without the support from the patients’ families, from philanthropists, from NIH funding, from wise investors, from outstanding professionals at Ionis Pharmaceuticals and Biogen, and without the flexibility of regulatory authorities that expedited the drug’s approval after impressive results from early clinical trials.

“As a junior RNA scientist, it was extremely empowering to see how impactful RNA can be in hypothesis-driven treatments for disease.”

However, the roots of this success can be traced back to a discovery made 40 years ago in the laboratories of Phil Sharp and Richard Roberts, the split nature of the gene, which might have been considered at the time a curiosity of the genome organization of a (not particularly pathogenic) human virus. Forty years later, the work of several generations of researchers has produced a collective body of knowledge that provided the concepts, technologies and paradigms that allowed Krainer and his group of talented collaborators to achieve this breakthrough.

I encourage all of you to publicize this wonderful success of basic science. Let us do our best to make it known to our science colleagues, our fellow citizens and policy-makers. Let’s make the effort to bring it up in every science and society event, in newspapers, twitter or any other media. Explain to others how the design of a therapy for SMA simply would have been impossible without previous basic understanding of genes, their organization and regulation. The SMA success relied upon the pioneering efforts of many other scientists who laboriously paved the way to the use of nucleic acids as therapeutic agents. We should highlight the reality that initially small results can become the foundation of whole areas of science, the basis of cures or other practical applications, in unpredictable ways. We need to clearly explain that all this takes time, sometimes decades of painstaking effort, long nights and many disappointments. This understanding of how real science is done reveals the unrealistic demands for short-term practical results. Yet, the funding agencies or policy-makers expect translational science and transformative data in a 3 or 5 year period. It’s never been more important to communicate the beauty of Nature’s mechanisms, as well as the fact that understanding the science takes time.

Prague was of course much more than that one presentation and we should thank one last time the Organizing committee. Andrea Barta, Rachel Green, Christopher Lima, Ron Micura, Petr Svoboda and Yukihide Tomari did a phenomenal job selecting a great, comfortable venue, organizing highly informative oral sessions and lively poster evenings. They assembled truly inspiring Keynote lectures by Rob Singer, Erik Sontheimer and Marina Rodnina. They accommodated the diverse styles -and full of human flavor- acceptance speeches by Society Prize winners Lynne Maquat (see p.4), Wendy Gilbert, Karla Neugebauer, Gene Yeo and Nils Walter (see p.8). Sunsets with fireworks over the Charles Bridge rounded up the experience and sealed our memories of Prague 2017.

Fortunately our next meeting in Berkeley (May 29 -June 3, 2018) is less than a year ahead, and I am confident to predict that the intense efforts of Adrian Ferré-D’Amaré, Atlanta Cook, Anne Ephrussi, Don Rio and Mihaela Zavolan will make our 23rd Annual Meeting another memorable event for our field and for science in general.

“I met some wonderful, intelligent people, and the Science and Society lecture was really inspiring – it shows what we’re all working so hard towards.”

I would like next to discuss an initiative of the Board of Directors to carry out an experiment: a pilot test to evaluate the actual needs and feasibility of establishing a Mentoring Program supported by the RNA Society. Education, training and career advice is obviously a key component of our science system and an essential ingredient for its sustainability. Even the great Isaac Newton believed that he was able to see further because he stood on the shoulders of giants. But, do we need to add yet another layer of mentoring to our well-established training of new generations of scientists? Aren’t the official mentor-mentee relationships the best-proven instruments to secure the advance of science, as illustrated by the “who trained who” genealogical trees branching out from the pioneers of our field? Isn’t it actually a distinguishing feature of our Society that it is open and collegial enough so that members can (and do already) approach and get advice from anyone, without any need for formalizing such exchanges?

“…wonderful time in Prague RNA2017. Got great suggestions for my work and career. This conference is a great opportunity for young researchers”

Structured independent mentoring, however, can provide complementary perspectives and valuable additional assets. The simple concept is that an experienced mentor – on a voluntary basis – provides regular feedback to a small number (1-2) of mentees who are not under their direct supervision. The mentee should feel free to pose any problem or question related to his/her current project, career perspectives, interactions with colleagues, networking, etc. Often the views of an external mentor, not influenced by the day-to-day course of events, can provide a fresh perspective for the mentee to reconsider the evolution of a project, the need for a strategic switch, for acquiring particular skills, working out ways to reformulate interactions with a colleague, etc. Examples may span from a young faculty member trying to identify a scientific niche, to a postdoc trying to decide between career paths in academia or in industry, to a PhD student wondering about the best strategy to apply for postdoc positions or change research topics. Mentoring could be particularly helpful for young scientists wishing to return to their home country or considering a move to another country or scientific organization. Periodic meetings (virtual or physical, including the next Meeting of the RNA Society!) can help to establish milestones, outline realistic plans and hopefully help to establish durable links into the future. As mentioned above, external mentoring should be neither redundant nor interfere with standard mentoring, but rather complement it and add value.

“As a graduate student, it was nice to sit back and enjoy the science…. Sometimes I get so caught up and focused on my project, I forget to notice all the beautiful intricacies of RNA.”

How to implement such a program in our Society? A very nice example of an activity already happening every year at our Annual Meetings is the traditional Mentoring Lunch, an initiative heavily subscribed by PhD students and postdocs participants and organized by Nancy Greenbaum. Interest, generosity and useful advice flow in abundance during these gatherings. While this is indeed a highly regarded component of our Annual Meetings, it is often perceived as too short and superficial for long-term benefit.

“The oral presentation gave me an invaluable opportunity to put my work out there, and facilitated in helping me find collaborators and receive very useful feedback.”

To expand these activities in an organized manner, an electronic form is now available for interested potential mentees. It requests information about their expectations and reasons to enroll in the program. Board members and other volunteers will identify viable mentor matches, facilitate a first contact and provide additional information about structured mentoring and its follow up. To evaluate the real needs and put in place an embryo of the necessary logistics, the Mentoring Program will go through a pilot phase with a limited number of mentor-mentees interactions. The Program will be evaluated after 6-9 months and the outcome will determine the scale at which a full Program should be implemented in the future.

Supporting our younger scientists is one of the best services that our Society can provide for the future of RNA Research. The external Mentoring Program may, in due time, become an important instrument to sustain our field and further build our deep sense of community. Do take advantage of this new opportunity offered by our Society!
If you have comments or feedback, please contact me: Juan Valcárcel (juan.valcarcel@nullcrg.eu)

Note : quotes in this piece were member’s responses to the post-meeting survey, submitted on-line