2020 BBS Biennial Meeting Report


2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the first meeting of the British Biophysical Society which took place on 4th February 1960. This new society was founded as a forum for the discussion of the application of physical and chemical concepts to biological systems. Founding members included Maurice Wilkins, Andrew Huxley, Tony North, and John Kendrew was Secretary when he received his Nobel Prize in 1963. Current Honorary Members include Nobel Prize winners Richard Henderson, John Walker, Venki Ramakrishnan and Greg Winter.

For this special anniversary, the society had planned a 3-day meeting to be hosted by the University of Nottingham in early July. By February, a group of top-quality speakers had agreed to take part and registrations were pouring in. We had arranged the menu, the venue, the seating and then…I think you know what happened next.

Even though our in-person meeting had to be cancelled, we could not allow this special anniversary to pass unmarked. So, David Scott (University of Nottingham) went to work and called in the help of the Science and Technology Facilities Council to organise our anniversary meeting online via Zoom, with the licence costs very generously donated by collaborative computer projects (CCPs). Our original line-up of speakers agreed to take part in this new format, even though for some it meant staying up until the early hours of the morning, and we even invited some additional speakers and included a new Covid-19 session. BBS committee member Syma Khalid constructed a tumblr page on which all submitted posters were displayed and hosted a satellite meeting on Bacterial cell envelopes: structure, dynamics, function. There was also a satellite workshop on New Developments in computational modelling of X-ray and neutron scattering curves organised by Steve Perkins (UCL) and satellite webinars on mass photometry hosted by Refeyn.

So, from 14th-17th Sept 2020, on its 60th anniversary, the British Biophysical Society held its first virtual meeting. We gathered together from our spare bedrooms, kitchens, gardens through time and space to celebrate Biophysics through time and space. Registration was free and the final registrant number was 1458, with the peak number of concurrent participants being 530. Our virtual guest book was signed by 261 participants and attendees joined us from throughout Europe, the USA, India, Singapore, Iraq, South Africa, Brazil and Australia, showing that 60 years later the British Biophysical Society is now a global Biophysics community. Perhaps in the year 2080 a group of Biophysicists from around the globe will gather in some form to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1st British Biophysical Society virtual meeting!


Mon 14th Sept

Kicking off the meeting with a welcome by Society Chair Professor Olwyn Byron (University of Glasgow), we then continued to celebrate work on unstructured proteins, membrane proteins and ribo-proteins by David Brockwell (University of Leeds), Anthony Watts (University of Oxford) and Ben Luisi (University of Cambridge). However, the most special events of the day were the awarding of the BBS Kendrew Doctoral Thesis prize to Daniel Hurdiss (Utrecht University) for his PhD work, carried out at the University of Leeds, structural studies of non-enveloped viruses associated with human diseases and the presentations from selected poster submissions by Conrado Pedebos (University of Warwick) and Giulia Paci (UCL). The day ended with a virtual poster session and flash talks, followed by a virtual meet and greet.

Tue 15th Sept

On the second day of the meeting we celebrated work on DNA structure and DNA binding proteins from Mike Fried (University of Kentucky) and Marcelo Nollmann (CNRS, Montpellier); on high resolution cryo-EM of clathrin by Corinne Smith (University of Warwick) and biological nanowires from Tom Clarke (UEA). We also had the privilege to welcome and hear from Venki Ramakrishnan (LMB, Cambridge, Nobel Laureate) about work to decipher how eukaryotic ribosomes initiate translation. Again, the final session was a poster session with flash talks and the day ended with some online Karaoke at our virtual meet & greet social event.

Wed 16th Sept

On the third day of our meeting we had the great pleasure to hear Nobel Prize winner, Richard Henderson, give an overview of progress in electron microscopy and cryomicroscopy – his first talk at a BBS meeting was in 1968 as a post-doc. We also heard about molecular dynamics studies of potassium channels from Bert de Groot (MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen), macrocycle mediated protein frameworks from Peter Crowley (NUI, Galway), disordered proteins from Perdita Barran (University of Manchester) and a quantitative imaging approach to the study of oncoprotein activation in cancer from Banafshé Larijani (University of Bath). The BBS Louise Johnson Early Career Award lecture was given by Séamus Holden (University of Newcastle). He was given this award for his work applying ground-breaking concepts in optical microscopy to study bacterial cell biophysics. Again, the day ended with a meet and greet virtual social session to which nearly everyone brought a favourite drink, from water to prosecco-based cocktails.

Thu 17th Sept

On the final day of the meeting we had the pleasure of hearing from Alison Rodger (Macquarie University) - one of this years BBS Honorary Member inductees. Alison gave a unique presentation mixing lessons from life with lessons from her career and discoveries made using total reflection infra-red spectroscopy. Allen Orville (Diamond Light Source) told us about time-resolved femtosecond crystallography and Amanda Wright (University of Nottingham) told us about her work using optical trapping to sense the microenvironment of cells. We also celebrated the work ofJohn Christodoulou (UCL, Birkbeck College and The Francis Crick Institute) who was awarded the Sosei Heptares Prize for Biophysics and gave us a wonderful lecture about protein folding on the ribosome. The final session of the meeting was focused on biophysics research ongoing into the reason we were all at a virtual meeting: SARS-CoV-2. Dave Stuart and Peijun Zhang (both Diamond Light Source) told us about work to image the virus and John Briggs (LMB, Cambridge) spoke to us about his groups work on the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The meeting ended with the introduction of our new British Biophysical Society Honorary Members: Alison Rodger (Macquarie University), Steve Harding (University of Nottingham) and Simon Phillips (Research Complex at Harwell). It was a great pleasure to welcome these eminent scientists in the field of biophysics as Honorary Members of the British Biophysical Society, especially under these truly unique circumstances.

The first venture of the BBS into online meetings was a great success. What appeared at first as a huge negative was turned into a positive by opening participation to a truly international community who could never have attended an in-person meeting. There was a great sense of community, as attendees joined in the virtual social sessions from all over the world and PhD students mixed online with Nobel Prize winners. One lesson we learnt from this experience is that virtual meetings are possible and can be a success, meaning that neither financial barriers, nor caring responsibilities, nor travel restrictions should prevent participation in science discussions or the opportunity to present your work to the world. The BBS is absolutely committed to retaining virtual access to its Biennial Meeting in future and we look forward to welcoming you to our next meeting in 2022.

Claire Friel, University of Nottingham (meeting co-organiser) and the BBS committee.


Virtual meet and greet featuring (left to right, top to bottom) Tony Watts (UK), Olwyn Byron (UK), Claire Friel (UK), Adriana Erica Miele (France), Syma Khalid (UK), Tharin Blumenschein (UK), Gideon Femi Tolufashe (Portugal), Antonio Diego Molina-Garcia (Spain), Steve Harding (UK), Olfa Laouini (Tunisia), Prince Prabhu (India), Richard Henderson (UK), Mike Fried (USA), Ines Camacho (UK), Dave Scott (UK) and Laia Pasquina Lemonche (UK)