MDA Scientific Conference Blog: Gracious Professionalism and ‘Coopertition’

As the conference approached the halfway point yesterday afternoon, between talks my mind occasionally wandered to nonscientific topics, like remembering to complete the online check-in for my departure flight exactly 24 hours prior to departure so that I don’t wind up in Boarding Group 37.

I also started thinking about robots. You see, early tomorrow morning, a few hours after landing back home, I’ll return to the airport, this time with my daughter, who is a junior in high school. We’re heading to St. Louis for the FIRST Robotics National Championship. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics is a school program that is capturing the hearts and minds of thousands of ambitious kids around the nation. Each school team designs and builds its own robot, pretty much from scratch. They’re not those mean “battlebots” that get into a ring to fight each other to the death. These robots are friendly. They form alliances with other robots to accomplish mutual tasks. This year’s assigned task is to toss Frisbees into goals and climb up a scaffold tower.

The founders of FIRST (Segway inventor Dean Kamen and MIT engineering professor Woodie Flowers) are churning out legions of students with great engineering and math skills. But their loftier goal is to create a generation of creative leaders, who have an ethos of compassion, mutual respect, collaboration and responsibility for bettering society.

The FIRST community calls this Gracious Professionalism. Gracious Professionalism goes hand in hand with another credo, which they call “coopertition.” In FIRST’s own words, “coopertition is founded on the concept and philosophy that teams can and should help and cooperate with each other even as they compete. Coopertition involves learning from teammates. It is teaching teammates. It is learning from mentors. And it is managing and being managed. Coopertition means competing always, but assisting and enabling others when you can.”

Which brings me back to the MDA Scientific Conference. There is a remarkable amount of gracious professionalism and coopertition on display at this meeting.

Make no mistake, there is competition in biomedical research: competition for precious research dollars; races to be the first to publish important findings in the best journals; and the holy grail — the race against time for bringing therapies and saving lives.

Competition is good. It makes us all reach higher and push to be our best. In the mid-1980s, a fierce competition between three international research teams (instigated almost entirely by MDA) resulted in the identification of the gene that goes awry to cause Duchenne muscular dystrophy. That competitive spirit is still very much alive between academic research teams, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and funding organizations.

But if there’s any single theme to take home from the 2013 MDA Scientific Conference, it is that we are all in this together, competing and cooperating with each other toward our common task of saving and improving countless lives by finding therapies and cures for neuromuscular diseases.

Professor Dame Kay Davies

That’s not just an abstract sentiment. These past three days I’ve watched representatives from competing companies and labs cheer each other’s successful results and exchange ideas for improving and refining experimental strategies. I’ve listened to ALS researchers tell how their ideas for therapies were inspired by findings from the myotonic dystrophy field.

Everybody I’ve spoken with at the conference shares my sense of exhilaration. Professor Dame Kay Davies, who led one of those three teams racing for the Duchenne gene three decades ago, observed about the conference, “We’ve got optimism and excitement — much more than we had two years ago. The great thing is that we’ve got a lot of people here and most of them are young people, so we’re getting the next lot of scientists/clinicians involved in muscular dystrophy, which is going to be so important for the patients. So, from all points of view this is a really major conference. It’s groundbreaking actually.”

To everyone who has made this conference such a success, on behalf of all of us at MDA and those we serve, I offer my best wishes for your noble work, and my admiration and thanks for your gracious professionalism.

Be sure to stay connected with MDA and read more blogs from the 2013 MDA Scientific Conference. To learn more about Paul Muhlrad, read his bio page.