Sunday, February 05, 2023

What's AGBT Like?

AGBT begins in less than 24 hours, and the signs are everywhere here at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood Florida.  I arrived Friday with family, and the count of old friends I've chatted with is steadily climbing.  If you somehow forgot about the meeting, the insides of the elevator doors will remind you. This is the fifth time I've attended in person, plus heavy monitoring of about twice as many via Twitter.  It's one of the premier events of the genomics conference schedule, and if you haven't been it's certainly fair to ask why?  Or whether you would want to go to a future edition?  So I'll try to capture what makes AGBT so irresistible to many but also why it just might not be your cup of tea


An obvious aspect of AGBT is a strong vendor component.  Some scientific meetings have virtually no commercial presence, whereas others have a lot.  AGBT is particularly striking by not having long rows of vendor tables as in so many conferences, but instead most vendors have some form of suites.  At the Marco Island venue these suites even had kitchens; here it appears they will be glorified conference rooms.  During some of the evening events, each suite will take on a different character and have different giveaways., snacks and beverages. 

Some relish the swag.  I've used many of the backpacks as general backpacks; this year's edition is touted as constructed entirely from recycled material, but seems more in line with a good beach snack-and-drink sack than an everyday computer and stuff carrier.  Besides the bags there is one piece of swag that I dearly miss, having lost it on some trip.  It was a brimmed nylon hat from Agilent that was perfect for travel since it was very compact, but also perfect for wearing in the pool.  And all you marketeers: if you want your logo to get wide visibility, hats are hard to beat!  Backpacks are good too - while hiking in the Cinque Terra trails in Italy last year a happy 10X Genomics customer mistook me for a rep due to my AGBT bag.

The big sponsors also get a big block of talks to tout their newest technology.  It seems all the cats have been let out of the bags prior to the meeting, but hopefully these sessions will fill us in on matters Element's new CloudBreak chemistry and maybe Illumina will tip its hand as to how Infinity reads actually work (but I'm not optimistic!).

So if you don't like commercial science, AGBT might not be as attractive.  

The Party Atmosphere

As hinted above, there is a strong party component to AGBT. There's big buffets on the first and last nights, and the other two nights have competing vendor parties.  After all the official parties, there's often vendor hospitality suites with more food and open bars. 

The Diplomat also has a sensible policy of the pools and hot tubs open until 11 -- at least that's what the semi-permanent signs say.  Fliers in the rooms talk of a dusk closing, but tonight there were people in the hot tub when I passed it around 9.  

Of course, one must remember to allot some time to sleep unless you retain the stamina of a college student.  And with so much alcohol freely available, there are risks for some - and I have seen levels of visible intoxication ranging from slightly wobbly to quite scary.  

Genomic Science

The bulk of the plenary talks are from academics and the science is often very cutting edge.  Human genomics and human single cell studies have taken over much of the meeting, but this year there is a session on conservation genomics. Microbiology doesn't get much shrift except for a few microbiome posters and a handful of talks.  Plant genomics seems to have migrated nearly completely to the AGBT Agriculture meeting.

AGBT used to have a stronger aspect of bleeding edge technology development, leading to the T in the name.  Many of us miss the big splashy announcements saved for the last AGBT timeslot or the entire sub-session devoted to emerging technology.  But there's still some edgy stuff in the poster sessions, so we aren't yet to the point that the meeting should become AGB.

Multitasking & Scheduling

In theory AGBT is mostly a one-thing-at-a-time meeting.   Some evenings have two parallel tracks (in the past there were often three tracks), but the days and the first evening are single tracks.  But, the vendors throw a monkey wrench into it, with lots of little sessions competing.  Breakfast time is popular one for multiple vendors to have interesting things going on and resulting angst / FOMO on the part of we attendees on choosing which one to go to.  One vendor has five different times for the same talk, and I think every one now conflicts with something else I want to do a bit more.

AGBT is also somewhat unusual for the long days; many scientific conferences eschew evening talks or have built-in break days to enjoy the surroundings.  AGBT starts at 5 tomorrow (with competing pre-conference events in the afternoon before) and that's the short day; on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday there is something officially going on from 8 am to midnight, with the noted after-parties going later.  And I've even foolishly tried to schedule meetings earlier than 8, with the other parties being far wiser in refusing that.


I'd classify AGBT as a medium-large meeting.  I think it's in the 600-800 official attendees plus the vendor employees who just work the suites.  It's not on the small city scale of something like ASCO, but far larger than the sort of intimate meetings that are hosted at Cold Spring Harbor or the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.   

One aspect that is unusual about AGBT for a scientific meeting is it attracts a significant number of financial analysts and venture capitalists.  Some of these folks don't actually register for the meeting, but book a hotel room and either have private meetings there or just hang out in the hotel lobby bar and chat up people.  This strategy makes a certain sense: AGBT is an amazing concentration of genomics talent in one location.  That's also why my schedule has gotten so conflicted and I will probably attend at best half the plenary talks - it's a great place to set up meetings with movers-and-shakers as part of my technology scouting in my day job as well for working up ideas for this space.


I hope this has given those who have not attended a better idea of what AGBT is like.  It's very commercial yet the academic science is strong.  It's a party but also a lot of science.  There's business and financials types lurking about.  And you can come home with some fun freebies.


Dale Yuzuki said...

Hi Keith, a great 'you are there' post and does capture what it's like to attend.

Funny to think that you 'only' attended 5 of these, back in the day I think I attended at least five in a row; I'm counting 9 give or take 1 as memory is fuzzy, and those backpacks have been collected / used and aren't a good measure!

From a vendor's standpoint I'll take the hat suggestion under advisement. I have a few Agilent athletic shirts that get regular use, so many of the other T-shirts have not held up very well.

Will be sure to reach out to you the next time I'm in the Boston area!

Paul T Morrison said...

Thanks Keith, I am such an old fogy I had to look up FOMO. After missing the last two AGBTs then this one since I retired I no longer have a fear of missing out.

Let's see, I went to the first ten GSACs then the meeting jumped the shark as attendance was a comfortable 400 then zoomed past 1,200 and became a monster. It gave birth to AGBT and the first three were back to 250-350. After that I stopped going until 13 to 22 or so and collected too many nice backpacks. The last time I got on the plane to go home and met two people, "Wait, you were at the meeting?" That's when the meeting is too big. FOMO is inevitable even if you never sleep.

But AGBT won't jump the shark if they keep the same format. The plenaries get you pumped up but it is chatting outside the vendor suites digging for the information one gets in no other way. Or the hot tub ...

One last meeting and then I quit for good. I have to go to ABRF in Boston so I can go to the party in Fenway Park.


Founding Director, retired, Molecular Biology Core Facilities at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute