I would like to trap some of my good feelings after the Villars Symposium 2014. After spending two weeks with outstanding statisticians, learning a lot about making nice plots in R, quantitative genetics and mixed models, my scientific experience culminated with a conference on evolutionary genomics. Bruce Walsh deep in my heart helped me understand most of the results Josephine Pemberton was talking about. While drinking wine with Richard Ffrench-Constantin I got reminded again of my own dream of staying in academia, the absolute peak of my personal excitement was Arkhat Abzhanov. Spending two hours alone with him and three other PhD students discussing his most recent papers felt like eating motivation with a spoon out of a jar.
While most students at this conference were in their first or second year, I was extremely rare with only ten days before my private exam. What is a private exam? Why do I need all of this distraction? It is simply a rendez-vous with five experienced senior scientists talking only about my own research. Nobody will brag about their research. Everybody will focus for two hours of my life on my own projects. I am not sure if I can handle to be spoiled like this. I guess I do not have to impress them but I will try to entertain and learn as much as I can. In Villars, I could feel if a student was early or late in his PhD. Early PhD students seem to understand everything. They look like little hyperactive bags of motivation, ready to explode every second. Reaching out to speakers and keen on impressing everybody in the academic crowd. Late PhD students behave conspicuously calm. Aware of the fact, that we do not understand biology, at maximum a wrong model explaining a desolate small proportion of what is going on out there in nature, we at least understand what the speakers are talking about. We also feel a deep understanding for their need of drinking a lot of wine in the evening in this surreal world. Hesitating about most actions due to deep existential thoughts with a little flame inside that is burning compulsively.
While the heritability of quantitative traits is definitely not lost, I am not sure if I see chromosome partitioning as a useful solution. I definitely like the idea of using the variation in IBD (identity by descent) to better estimate heritability. In a perfect world I would have access to a wild population of animals, including their phenotypes and pedigrees as well as tissue samples to play around and answer some super cool questions.
Three days holidays in an alpine village, sharing a room with Oksana and given the choice of sometimes working on my private defense talk, sometimes just taking a nap in the clean white sheets of my hotel room, and sometimes sitting into talks of exceedingly interesting evolutionary biologists and excellent talkers was most probably exactly the distraction I needed. I am consuming this boost of motivation. I hope it continues on, at least until tomorrow when I spent my precious time calculating variance components in bacterial community composition…