Buzzword bingo

Game brings entertainment to genetics meeting

Science is serious business, but some geneticists have found a way to make sitting through scientific lectures a little more fun.

Dozens of researchers attending the American Society of Human Genetics annual meeting are playing buzzword bingo during presentations. The game is played with randomly generated bingo cards on the web site. Players listen for speakers to spout certain overused words or phrases or flash slides bearing oft-seen images, and then tap the corresponding box on the bingo card. Some of the phrases are ones audiences could hear at any symposium, such as asking if the laser pointer is working or the classic “How am I doing for time?” Others are only-at-genetics-conference entries, including “metagenomics,” “exome chip,” “$1,000 genome” and “missing heritability.” Mentions of a little boy from Wisconsin named Nicholas Volker, whose doctors used analysis of his genetic instruction book as part of his care, or of famous scientists like National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins or father of the personal genetics movement George Church could also earn players a square.

No one is shouting “bingo” in the middle of talks. That would be rude. Game master Konrad Karczewski, a graduate student at Stanford University, says the perfect way to win would be to ask a question of the speaker and incorporate “bingo” into the question. That also hasn’t happened yet as far as he knows. Instead, players who get bingo can submit their scorecard online, and the winners are announced on Twitter.

Karczewski admits his bingo game isn’t just for fun. It’s a type of viral marketing for Interpretome, which aims to help people explore their own genetic makeup (provided they have already paid a company such as 23andMe or Lumigenix to decipher their genomes). The site was created as part of a Stanford course on personalized medicine and genomics.

Whether the marketing scheme is successful remains to be seen, but providing a little levity to genetics, well, that’s a bingo.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.