Bio21 Director’s Message - Losing Sight of Lorne - 23 February 2021

For nearly 30 years now, I’ve embarked on an annual pilgrimage to the Lorne Proteins Conference. I’m lured from the office and lab by the sun and the sound of the crashing surf, the rainforest walks to hidden waterfalls, koalas spotted drunkenly lolling on gum tree limbs, kangaroos on the golf courses and salty hot fish ‘n chips on the beach. All whilst consuming an intellectual feast of protein science.
And like a cherished family holiday retreat, Erskine House (now Mantra Lorne), carries memories of people, encounters and adventures in science since the very first Lorne Proteins Conference in 1986. Due to its popularity, over the years the magic of the Proteins conference has spawned similar and successful conferences in Proteomics, Cancer, Genome and Infection and Immunity and many of you would have memories of attending one or more of these conferences.

Lorne Proteins is a true celebration of proteins, where, as a seasoned protein scientist, I can reunite with old friends and colleagues, catch up on cutting edge developments in the field, hear the debut conference presentations from early career researchers and students and ruminate on a protein puzzle whilst on a leisurely forest walk with a Nobel Prize winner. It has also gained a reputation internationally as one of the premier protein science conferences around the world.

So, after the past year largely spent in lockdown, I was immensely grateful to leave the boundaries of the city and head back along the Great Ocean Road to the Lorne Proteins Conference.

But like in many other areas of our life affected by the coronavirus, I could not help but notice the differences this year:

We arrived in masks, logged in using QR codes and proceeded to get on with science. But it wasn’t business as usual; not how I’d hoped. Numbers were down from previous years; registrations dropped from 400 to 305 (97 face-to-face and 208 virtual), with international visitors absent and interstate attendees staying away. Trade stalls, that usually add colour, conversation about new product innovations and a bit of fun through the prizes they offer, were severely diminished in number and size. We were confined to one conference room of Mantra and many speakers were Zoomed in. We’d entered the world of ‘hybrid conferences’ and I couldn’t deny the tinge of disappointment and then fear, that the things that made Lorne Proteins unique, special and worthwhile were slipping away and at risk of disappearing all together, leaving just another online conference, like so many that I was become weary of visiting through my computer screen.

So, what did the founders of the conference set out to do?

Simon ‘Syd’ Leach (1920 – 2005) was one of the founders of the Lorne Proteins Conference. His obituary reads:

“He left many gifts behind him. One of the most enduring was the establishment of a biochemistry conference, held each year in Lorne.
The conference, held in Erskine House, brings scientists together from across the globe.” []

In Syd’s own “Reflections on his work at CSIRO then at the University of Melbourne” Volume 31, No. 4, December 2000, he recalled:

“In 1976, with Tony Burgess and Theo Dopheide, I founded the first Lorne Conference on Protein Structure and Function. Melbourne had long been a centre for medical, biochemical and especially protein science with several notable institutes with research interests in common. Our aim was to bring as many of these powerful research groups together at informal Protein Conferences.”

“At our first meeting in 1976 we had 36 participants and one overseas invited speaker. When I retired as Chairman of the Organising Committee in 1985 there were about 200 participants, including a substantial number of overseas delegates.”

The conference became a success. Why did it grow and become so popular? What was the ‘magic ingredient’ of the Lorne Proteins that kept and keeps the protein science community coming back?

In 2005, at the 30th Anniversary of Lorne Proteins, Dr Richard Simpson describes the Lorne Conference on Protein Structure and Function, as "the yardstick by which protein conferences are measured."

“Lorne Protein: The protein pioneers” by Graeme O'Neill, Tuesday, 22 March, 2005 goes on to record the reflections on the conference at the time:

“Simpson, the conference's organiser, attributes its international reputation to Australia's long and rich history of protein research.

Australia established an international presence in protein chemistry long before the word 'proteomics' was coined. It grew out of pioneering research into the chemistry of wool in the 1950s and 1960s by CSIRO's former Division of Protein Chemistry.

"Those people were then recruited by new medical research institutions and became the leading teachers of protein chemistry around the country," Simpson says."


It is good to remember the pioneers and what they set out to do. It is still valid, and yet change is inevitable and can be a good thing. Covid-19 has changed how we do our work and the events we attend. ‘Pivot’ and ‘unprecedented’ were among the words of the year 2020. And pivot we did, as we attempted to survive and continue our work.

Yet, even as change is inevitable, we are not helpless. Many have turned the challenges of Covid-19 into opportunities and I congratulate the organising committee on pulling together a hybrid Lorne Conference this year:

Danny Hatters, the current President of the Organising Committee explains:

Even COVID could not stop us running the Lorne Proteins meeting in its 46th year! I want to acknowledge the commitment and hard work of the organizing committee for this success.

Over the last four and a half decades the meeting has evolved immensely, along with protein science, but some aspects of the meeting have remained steadfast: focusing on bringing the best of the best of research in protein structure and function from around the world to Australia and providing local researchers an exemplary forum to meet, network and present their findings. In recent times the meeting has found immense energy from the emerging cryoEM technologies. However, I stress too that the committee takes great pride in bringing breadth to our program across all areas of structure and function. 

Despite the COVID pandemic and see-sawing lockdowns creating major logistical challenges for the committee, I was really delighted to see it go so seamlessly as a hybrid format for the first time with just a few hiccups. In person, the meeting was more casual and intimate than usual, which brought a more relaxed vibe than in recent years and, perhaps, a greater opportunity for networking. The science remained on par in excellence with previous years, and I want to thank Melissa Call as program chair for her hard work in coordinating this under highly challenging conditions. 

Lastly, I do suspect we are at a pivotal point in time as to how conferences will be run in the future with online meetings becoming a more regular fixture. Only time will tell how things will pan out, but our meeting, as well as all others, will likely need to adapt to this changing world to remain relevant.  Lorne Proteins embraces this challenge!”

And even as I feel a sense of loss, it can remind us of what is valuable to us and worth holding onto:

  • For me it is the informality of coming together in this beautiful place, that allows conversations to happen over lunch or on a walk, that wouldn’t otherwise. Informality and serendipity are difficult to recreate online.
  • It is the uniquely beautiful Australian location, that draws international visitors to our shores. We are fortunate that they can Zoom in to present a talk, but they miss out on experiencing Australia and the Australian science community and we miss out on getting to know them as a person and a scientist, and to honour them as our guests.
  • And for PhD students, it can be where they make their first presentation on an external scientific stage; where they have lunch with an international guest speaker and so forge important relationships for a research collaboration, or the next lab they will join as a postdoc. They miss out on this.

It is undeniable that good things have come from online, ‘hybrid’ and virtual conferences and events: increased accessibility; innovations in online event presentations and reduced travel costs and carbon emissions. Whilst we embrace some of these benefits, let’s hope some of the costs are not too high, or permanent. And let us consciously hold onto the precious moments, where we can gather in person with scientific peers, in a beautiful Australian location; connect, become friends and share ideas over lunch, in a rainforest, or on the beach.

Michael Parker
Director, Bio21 Institute