I Cain’t Quit This Science Conference Flier

Just as these genetically modified gay mice cain't quit each other

As a science journalist, I get all kinds of magazines, brochures and fliers from universities and academic societies, inviting me to learn about new research and attend science conventions. None has ever caught my attention like this amazing flier, which arrived in my mailbox today.

Announcing a study about “gay genes” is one thing—featuring cartoon mice as the stars of “Brokeback Mountain” is something else altogether. Update: We’ve got the story from the flier’s creator.

The American Society for Cell Biology, based in Bethesda, Md., is using this postcard to entice scientists to send in cell-biology-related videos to its annual convention this winter, as well as to encourage journalists to cover it.

The mice posed a la “Brokeback Mountain” sets a Western theme for the whole conference, despite the news that it’s being held in Philadelphia. Major sessions are all named after Westerns—there’s “Butch Cassidy and the Celldance Kid,” which is the cell biology image contest, and “The Good, the Bad and the Misfolded,” a talk about cellular quality control.

John Fleischman, a science writer for the ASCB, comes up with a new poster every year. He says the posters belong to the very small field of cell biology humor.

Last year, he brought us “The Wizard of Arp,” a joke only cell biologists would understand (Arp2/3 complex is an important protein involved in cell building). The year before that was “Harry Drosophilia,” a nod to the common fruit fly. The first five were done by Devall Advertising, the ASCB’s graphics supplier. This year, Devall brought in an illustrator to draw the Brokeback mice. Click here to see all the posters dating back to 2005.

The mice led me to think the conference might include discussions of some recent controversial “gay gene” studies. (Abstracts are still being accepted.) Fleischman says not so, however—he just liked the concept. But if you ask us, it’s too good a joke to have happened by accident.

He says in an e-mail that he asked the artist to make the mice look more melancholy: “I think they look tragically concerned about their mitochondria.”

The ASCB is urging members to put up the “Brokeback” poster in their labs to spur entrants to get their work in before the September 28 deadline.

In general, the ASCB seems to value wit as an attention-getter—its Web site has a note headlined “Coked-Up Stimulus Monkeys,” which is a post about stimulus-funded studies that caused some members of Congress to question their worthiness.

Kudos to the ASCB, I say. It’s great when scientists have fun bringing their work to the public. Plus, it’s not every day a snail-mail flier can capture your attention, let alone make you laugh.