Three-day META symposium, workshop will blend biology and philosophy

Image shows drawing of zebrafish and a view of its gut

Scientists from all over the world will converge on Eugene for the second annual symposium hosted by the UO’s Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals  Center for Systems Biology, scheduled for Friday, July 31, through Sunday, Aug. 2, at the Hilton hotel downtown.

The theme of the 2015 symposium, “Synthesis and Selection of Host-Microbe Systems,” will explore how host-microbe systems function by learning how they can be built from scratch and how they respond to natural and experimentally imposed selective pressures.

While some scientists are crossing an ocean to get to the three-day event, some participants are locals: UO faculty, postdoctoral students and community members, such as Nancy Van Brasch Hamren — the namesake of Springfield-based Nancy’s Yogurt.

“We’re able to bring together people who don’t normally intersect,” said Karen Guillemin, professor of biology and director of the META Center. “We’re definitely building a reputation as one of the key places in the world that’s studying host-microbe systems.”

Research talks and poster sessions that focus on a multitude of topics relating to host-microbe relationships will be presented. Rather than having a Q&A after each speaker, however, the speakers are grouped by theme and will appear together at the end of the presentations for a panel discussion.

“This is a unique meeting for the microbiome field,” Guillemin said. “There isn’t another meeting happening in this field that has this diversity of speakers with our combination of experimentalists, computational biologists and theoreticians.”

Immediately following the conclusion of the META symposium on Sunday, a half-day interdisciplinary workshop will take place that focuses on the ethics and philosophy of microbiology. Most of the more than 150 symposium attendees will participate in the workshop as well, although it is open to the general public.

The workshop itself is a new addition to the weekend’s events, said Nicolae Morar, an assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies.

“Surrounding all the questions that the META group is trying to highlight during this conference, we felt that philosophy has something interesting to say about human nature, science, individuality, agency and property,” Morar said.

The workshop will feature speakers from philosophy, anthropology and biophysics, who will discuss how our understanding of human-microbe interactions alters how we view ourselves as human beings.

“Part of what we wanted to do with our workshop was focus on a particular host-microbe relationship, like the human body and its microbiome,” Morar said. “We are interested in understanding what it means to study the philosophy of microbiology and continue raising questions like: What does it mean to be a multicellular organism? What does it mean to be an individual?

“Our workshop found tremendous support on our campus,” he said. “Stephen Dueppen and I are really grateful for Karen and Brendan Bohannan’s vision to carve out a space for dialogue between humanities and the natural sciences on such important questions.”

For a full list of workshop panelists and information on the event, click here.

The symposium and workshop are sponsored by Nancy’s Yogurt, the UO Institute of Molecular Biology, Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Institute of Neuroscience, Department of Biology, Environmental Studies Program, Department of Philosophy, Department of Anthropology, Oregon Humanities Center, META Center for Systems Biology, Office of the Vice President for Research & Innovation, and College of Arts and Sciences.

Explore the photo at the top of this page, and see a short video: Imaging gut microbes and their surroundings

— By Nathaniel Brown, Public Affairs Communications intern