On October 16th around 6 AM the plane taking me to Baltimore, Maryland took off from the Hobby airport in Houston. I generally do not mind very early morning flights, and since I still retain the magical (and much envied) ability to sleep on the planes the commute was fine. I arrive in BWI around 10 AM and after picking up my luggage headed directly for the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel. The hotel did not have an early check-in option available, so I dropped off my bags and went for a walk. I found a neat coffee shop and spent a bit of time catching up on some reading.
After the coffee break, I met up with Evan Mata and we caught up on school life, travel stories, and I finally got my oyster fix. Two key takeaways from our lunch were as follows: (1) we both wish we took more math courses in college (and in fact this appears to be a common trend for many of my college friends), and (2) Maryland oysters are still delicious, albeit not as cheap as I remembered.
After the lunch I made it back to the hotel where I finally could check in and catch my breath before the opening keynotes for the ASM NGS 2022. Besides the keynotes, and a brief chat over dinner the first day was not jam packed with activities, so I was able to crash early and catch up on some of the sleep that I missed due to the early flight.
Next day I attended a series of the talks in the morning, after which I headed for the University of Maryland, College Park. UMD campus is quite expansive, and in some strange way it reminded me of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The computer science building at UMD is quite impressive both in size and design, and many offices tend to have nice floor to ceiling windows, which is an awesome touch. I did not have too much time to explore the campus, as the visit was relatively tightly packed with meetings, and as soon as those were wrapped up I headed back to Baltimore.
Although, I unfortunately missed most of the afternoon talks on the first day, I still managed to catch the poster session. In general, I am a big fan of poster sessions. The main benefit of a poster (as opposed to a talk) is the ability to ask a multitude of questions about the nitty-gritty details of the work without feeling guilty of encroaching on other people’s time. I found a good number of quite interesting posters relating to SARS-CoV-2, bacteria and horizontal gene transfer, and even a poster on a speed up for neighbor-joining algorithm. After the poster session I briefly caught up with Mike Nute over dinner which importantly included a crab cake (another checklist food item for me on this trip).
The crab cake ended up being quite good, although I have a feeling that with a bit of effort I can probably make a comparable if not a better one at home. However, crab meat is not cheap to come by, so I am not likely to test that hypothesis any time in the near future.
Tuesday was a full conference day for me. I attended all of the talks that day, and tried to keep a list of close notes for most of them. Unfortunately the tables at the conference did not have any outlets or power strips connecting to them or running along the floor. Thus, my note taking was cut short towards the second half of the afternoon, as my laptop ran out of its battery.
The last talk session of they day was a wastewater focused mini-symposium. The talks in this session were quite interesting, and indeed reflected a lot of my experiences and concerns when dealign with wastewater data. Namely, issues of the data quality, metadata annotation, and general complexity of the wastewater samples, which in certain cases ends up being overlooked. I was very happy that I was able to give a talk in this session as well. I was presenting the joint work between Treangen and Stadler labs at Rice University in conjunction with the Houston Health Department. My talk focused on QuaID: a software package we developed for sensitive detection of recently emerged SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater sequencing data (preprinted at medRxiv).
Overall the talk went very well, and I enjoyed the experience. Of course, as any public performance giving the talk came with a fair deal of stage fright and nervousness. However, extensive practice runs with my labmates, adviser, and collaborators helped a lot in mitigating anxiety, and polishing the presentation content. As per usual, I do think that several moments could have been executed better on my part, but I’ll hope to use that as the knowledge for preparing my next presentations.
The evening continued on into another poster session with a fair number of exciting wastewater and clinical SARS-CoV-2 work, as well as some benchmarking studies of interest. I felt that the second poster session was a tad bit more lively than the first one, but it also could have been an artifact of my post-talk state. After the poster session, I joined a large-ish group of attendees for dinner and chats. Scallops were not on my Baltimore food checklist, but among the seafood options offered at the Watershed they stood out as an interesting choice. Overall I enjoyed them, although next time I will probably go for the crab cakes.
The last day of the conference was relatively short with only a morning session of the talks. There was a plenty of interesting talks this day, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to hear several talks involving deep learning in a principled and well motivated way. The only drawback of this session was the amount of lightning talks given back to back. It was at times hard to properly note down all the details, and due to the format and the fact that this was the last day it was harder to follow up with the presenters to discuss some of the finer details of their work. However, I still managed to take a good amount of notes, and expand my “papers to read” list by a dozen or so manuscripts.
After the conference, I checked out of the hotel and headed to our last stop before the airport: Johns Hopkins University. First we stopped by the medical campus and grabbed a lunch, which consisted of an absolutely wonderful lamb stew with rice. Then we moved to the Homewood campus pictures of which are attached below.
Being on JHU Homewood campus reminded me of one of the greatest pleasures in the fall season: observing the colorful trees in a light cool breeze. However, similarly to the UMD visit, I did not have much time to wander around and observe the trees, as we mainly focused on the scheduled meetings.
At the end of the trip I was absolutely exhausted, but overall happy with the experience. I managed to tick off several of the key food checklist items on this visit. Of course more importantly, I really enjoyed attending the ASM NGS conference, and finally being able to experience an in-person conference. Giving a talk was a huge added benefit, and all the meetings, lunches, and dinners with multiple new and old acquaintances and collaborators (some of whom I finally got to see in person) made this a very memorable trip.
Getting back to Houston late at night I was reminded that this is a spooky season 🎃!