Biochem Blogs

Biochemistry blog, science writing

The traveling biochemist: Cell death in Barga, Italy

Sarah MacKenzie

Sarah MacKenzie

A few weeks ago I attended my first Gordon Conference on Cell Death in Barga, Italy with my PI, Clay Clark. The conference was located in a beautiful resort nestled in the Tuscan hills off the beaten path between Florence and Pisa. It was a spectacular venue for 170 cell death aficionados to present their most current data and discuss new topics in an informal setting. We arrived in Rome the morning that the conference began, rented a car (we were in line behind Morgan Spurlock) and traversed Italy dodging Italian drivers who have no regard for lanes or speed limits. It is actually a pretty fun experience to drive in Italia! The conference began that evening with two excellent keynote addresses presented by Martin Raff and Richard Youle.

Dr. Raff (University College London) is a pioneer in the field of apoptosis. In his career he was able to parse out some of the mechanistic details of apoptosis and coined the term “cell suicide” as a means to describe what happens to the cell in the absence of a survival signal. Dr. Youle (NINDS) gave an exciting keynote address about the Bcl-2 family of proteins. His interests involve understanding mitochondrial fission and fusion as a means to explore neurodegenerative disorders. The evening session ended with a cocktail hour where I met a few new people and reconnected with a few people that I’d met at previous conferences.

The night ended quickly as the jet lag and a long day of driving had taken its toll. The following days of the conference had similar formats: a morning session followed by the afternoon off to either explore the surrounding cities or chat about research ideas with other attendees followed by a poster session and an evening session. Many interesting topics were discussed throughout the conference including:

  • Bcl2 proteins and the mitochondriome
  • Death pathways and networks
  • Necroptosis and the role of RIP1
  • Death effectors and protein engineering
  • The connection between cell death and cancer
  • Noncanonical death pathways
  • How all of these processes translate to the clinic in the form of therapeutics

For me, the conference was wonderful. The topics were exciting, new and interesting. I think the best part was that many of the big contributors to the apoptosis field were there and I got to hear many of them give talks as well as chat with them over a beer. As we were talking I would think, I have been reading this persons papers for years and now they are sitting here asking me what I am doing with my research. It was pretty neat.

Sarah - Leaning Tower

Sarah holding up The Leaning Tower

To top it all off, we got to see a great deal of Tuscany throughout the week on our breaks. We took a quick jaunt to Pisa the first day to get a picture of us holding up the leaning tower and see the square.




Sarah and Guy Salvesen

Sarah and Guy Salvesen in Barga, Italy

The second day, we went to the local town of Barga and had a cappucino and gelato and walked to the church situated on the top of the highest part of the town.





Florence Market

Sarah in the Florence market

Our last excursion was a trip to Florence. We parked a bit out of the bustle of the main part of the city and walked over the river to the sights on the other side. We saw several cathedrals, statues of Roman gods and went to the biggest street market in Europe where we bought Italian leather purses, silk scarves and linens. For lunch we ate delicious Caprese pizzas.

The conference served typical primi and secondi courses at every meal so we were pretty burned out on pasta and meats and welcomed the change as the brick oven pizza was served. We finished the day looking at old squares and taking in the local culture. The conference ended on Friday morning after a spectacular four course dinner and party on Thursday night. We had such a great time chatting with all of the people we met, drinking copious amounts of wine as the DJ sang karaoke style to all of the tunes he played. We ended our trip with an extra day in Rome. Our hotel was right next to the Spanish Steps, so we were pretty central to all of the sites. Since we only had one day to see as much as we could, we hit the ground running early on Saturday morning. We walked all over the city throughout the day.

Sarah and Clay at The Vatican

Sarah and Clay at The Vatican

Sarah at Roman Colosseum

Sarah at the Roman Colosseum







Some of the highlights were the Colisseum, the Forum, the Vatican, the castle, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Novona and street artists. Though we only had one day, I think we got a pretty good idea about the Roman culture and the layout of the city. All in all, the Cell Death conference was an unbelievable experience for me. I learned so much about the current state of the apoptosis field, met so many inspiring people and got to hang out in Italy for a week with Clay. I would highly recommend going to a Gordon conference if you haven’t already been to one. The fact that most people present unpublished data really gives you an understanding of where the field is going. It is also a place where you can discuss your ideas with senior scientists in the field so that they can help you develop them into well rounded hypotheses.

Here is a slideshow of the trip:

We saw this street artist while in Rome: