Nature Methods | Methagora

Pittcon: Mixing the old and the new

After attending the Biophysical Society Meeting in Boston last week, I am now in Chicago at the annual Pittcon meeting. For those of you do not know about Pittcon, the focus of the conference is on technology development for the fields of biology, analytical chemistry, and nanotechnology. Being so broad it should come as no surprise to learn attendance is usually quite large – around 17,000 attendees are here now. This year sessions have included advances in mass spectrometry, in vivo imaging, nanotechnology sensors and surfaces, vibrational spectroscopy, biofuels, nanomedicine, magnetic resonance and biomarker discovery/analysis along with an exhibit hall requiring a tram to move people between sections (more below).


While technology development seems to be at the core of the conference – adapting and advancing technology for novel uses is also on the agenda. The best example of this was a session on Tuesday afternoon called “Shedding Light on Art” which focused on the use of lasers and other intense light sources for art analysis and conservation efforts. One of the talks looked at the application of optical coherence tomography (OCT) – a technique with micrometer resolution and cross-sectional imaging capabilities — to better understand a painting’s history. The example given in the talk was the analysis of the several hundred-year-old painting called “Marriage of the Virgin” where the artist is not known. The researchers thought a clue to the artist’s identity could lie in the ‘punch tool’ used in the making of the painting. ‘Punch tools’ were instruments used in an artist’s workshop to create extremely small three-dimensional shapes within the paint. When done hundreds of times in succession these punches can create an intricate halo pattern. Turns out the patterns left by punch tools are distinct since each tool had a slightly different shape depending on its use and manufacturing. Applying OCT the group was able to reconstruct the three-dimensional geometry and patterns of the individual punches on the “Marriage of the Virgin” as well as other paintings and are now trying to match these patterns with known artists.

Between sessions I have been making my way through the exhibit hall. Navigating this part of the conference requires time, effort and, as I have learned, a map since the packed floor of developers covers around two football fields. I am still touring around trying to figure out the latest trends among developers. And while it is clear that mass spectrometry developers are moving towards easier to use instruments and software for applications like food and drug testing, unlike the Biophysical Society Meeting last week, here technology diversity appears the order of the day. Maybe that is the best part of a large conference like Pittcon – there is a little something for everyone.

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