Less than two weeks after my return from Beijing, I was back at the airport. This time my destination was Berlin, Germany! This new journey had been set in my calendar long before, since it marked the final annual meeting of an international consortium. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had invested thirteen years of funding in our tuberculosis biomarker project.
Though I have been to Europe several times, I had never been to Berlin. My first trip to Europe, a semester abroad during my junior year of college (late 1994), included a grand clockwise tour of the continent via Eurail, starting from Paris, France. My original plan had been to leave from Dresden (airport code EDDC on the map) to head north to Berlin, but I… well, I chickened out. I told myself that I was trying to avoid election day crowds, but actually I was just trying to cope with my fear of large cities.
Getting to visit Berlin for work would help me patch that hole in my 1994 trip. I also decided to take this opportunity to visit Warsaw, Poland; in 1994, I had seen only Krakow, which acts as something of a cultural capital for the country. My favorite part of the 1994 cycle was seeing Eastern Europe. In fact, the Cold War ended for me on the day that I visited Prague (LKPR). A local college student showed me the Prague subway and explained that it had been driven deep into the earth so that it could serve as a fallout shelter when the Americans nuked the city. It changed my view to learn that they had been as terrified of us as I had been of them.
Getting to Berlin was reasonably straightforward. I used an overnight flight from Cape Town direct to London Heathrow. Then I took the shorter hop from London direct to Berlin.
Tegel airport in Berlin (TXL) is disappointing. It seems like a relic from another age. The first commercial flights (from Air France) began using this airport in 1960. That said, it is very quick to navigate, since one can walk the entire hexagon in twenty minutes. Berlin will have a new airport as soon as the end of 2017, south of the city center. I left the airport by way of a city bus that could take me directly to the hauptbahnhof (main rail station), where my hotel was located. It’s nice to be able to get from an airport to my hotel for only 2.70 Euros!
Our meeting took place at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. This Institute was created in 1992 on the grounds of the university hospital Charité (its services date back to 1710, during a bubonic plague epidemic) to improve the basic research capabilities of the former German Democratic Republic (“East Germany”). I have really enjoyed our interactions with the bioinformaticists at this site. January Weiner has constructed some pretty cool pipelines for handling data, even unfamiliar types like metabolomics data. Helpfully, he was also able to share some suggestions to improve my trip to his native Poland. His colleagues Gayle McEwen and Jeroen Maertzdorf have also impressed me with their thorough and careful analysis of metabolomic and transcriptional experiments.
Our research meeting had an unusually emotional tone. The “GC6” team (Grand Challenges Six) has been in action since 2003. Thirteen years is considerably longer than most collaborations stay together (I enjoyed nine years with NCI CPTAC, by comparison). The effort has produced a considerable number of publications, Ph.D.s, and spin-off grants. Some of its graduates now serve as co-investigators, actually. The effort touches a large number of countries: the United States, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, the U.K., South Africa, the Gambia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Malawi. I was really glad that everyone was game for a group picture.
In upcoming posts, I will describe my tourism connected with this meeting, but I do not want to start a travelogue without remembering the work that brought me to Berlin!