A president’s perspective on Experimental Biology 2014

Experimental Biology logoAs a society president, attending the annual meeting is a great pleasure, and this year’s Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego was no exception for me. With many events to lead, participate in or at least make an appearance at, the meeting is quite full. However, the benefits of attending many outstanding talks, catching up on science and other activities with old friends and acquaintances, seeing long-planned projects come to their next phase, and meeting young students and excited teachers and hearing them talk about new educational programs make it all worthwhile. This year’s meeting also provided many new perspectives on social media that, I believe, were thought-provoking for many involved.

Before the meeting

For the president and other officers and staff members at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the activities start before the opening of Experimental Biology with meetings of the ASBMB Council and other committees. These meetings allow the groups who are working on both longstanding ASBMB activities, such as publications, and more recent initiatives, such as public outreach, to meet and to update ASBMB leadership on their efforts, get feedback and advice, and plot the paths forward for the next year. Although there are, of course, many challenges, I am pleased to say that the society is in reasonably good shape.

Award lectures

Michael Gottesman
Mike Summers
Freeman Hrabowski III
Once the Experimental Biology meeting formally begins, a considerable amount of the president’s schedule revolves around the award presentations. The society gives more than 15 awards, and the award lectures give the society members an opportunity to hear the winners describe the work that led to their selection. These presentations come from a mix of well-established investigators describing long careers’ worth of work and relatively young investigators who have made important contributions early in their careers.
For me, two special treats this year were the inauguration of the Bert and Natalie Vallee Award in Biomedical Science, awarded to Michael Gottesman, and the Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award presentation by Mike Summers. Bert Vallee was one of the early leaders in the field of the biochemistry of zinc (my favorite element), and Gottesman is a cancer biologist I got to know well during my time at the National Institutes of Health who got his start in research as a medical student in Vallee’s laboratory. Summers, a professor at University of Maryland Baltimore County, shared the Kirschstein award with UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III for their development of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a leading initiative to launch students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds into careers in science and technology. Mike gave an engaging presentation about the conceptual framework for the program and presented both anecdotes and data about the program’s successes. He concluded with a discussion of efforts to replicate the program at other institutions. I was just sorry that he did not have time to discuss the outstanding research in RNA structural biology that he and his largely undergraduate research team have completed over the years (which also has roots in zinc biochemistry).

The Public Affairs Advisory Committee panel on sustainability

One of my major efforts during my term has been to stimulate discussions about addressing some crucial issues that have made the biomedical research enterprise unsustainable in its present form. I wrote about this effort a year ago, and a key next step was a panel discussion at Experimental Biology.
While we were in the final stages of preparation for this, a commentary appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written by Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Varmus, titled “Rescuing U.S. biomedical research from its systemic flaws,” which noted our efforts. This paper, which identified many of the same issues that we had raised and proposed some potential solutions, has led to much discussion in the scientific community.
Our panel discussion at the annual meeting was lively, with different perspectives on these complex issues, as anticipated, and it was covered by official meeting blogger Biochem Belle. Spurred by our efforts and the Alberts et al. paper, we anticipate that much discussion and, with luck, some needed action will occur over the next year.

The role of social media

Discussions of the role of social media were a thread that ran through the meeting, starting at the ASBMB Council meeting. Social media have potential roles to play in many activities related to the ASBMB, including meetings, publications, education and outreach. Indeed, considerable coverage of the sustainability panel came from tweeting with the hashtag #SBRE, as summarized in the Storify summary by Biochem Belle.
Some of the younger ASBMB staff members gave the Council a presentation on the rudiments of Twitter and some other social media tools. I found it interesting to watch the body language in the room that revealed attitudes ranging from skepticism to confusion to excitement. A few Council members moved toward exploring the possibilities of strategic use of these tools and even attended a breakfast meeting built around a Twitter tutorial.
ASBMB staff and others used Twitter as a useful tool for highlighting upcoming events at the meeting and for calling out exciting comments or results in real time. Indeed, the societies involved with Experimental Biology enlisted the services of social-media-savvy individuals to live tweet selected events.

On to Datahound

It has been a great honor to serve as ASBMB president following in the footsteps of many great scientists and leaders. I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to write these monthly columns and have been gratified by many positive comments that I have received over the years, including some at the meeting.
Indeed, as my term approached its end, I realized that I likely needed to find another outlet, particularly for the data analyses that I find helpful for my own thinking about science-policy issues that also help shape discussions in more productive directions. One of the happy outcomes of the Experimental Biology meeting was a chance to meet with some science bloggers who operate the collective blogging platform called Scientopia.
I was invited to join the group and have started a new blog called Datahound. I already have posted on many topics, including trends in training stipends, the distribution of indirect cost rates and gaps in research funding. I am looking forward to continuing to post and welcome thoughts about topics of interest.
Steve McKnight
Finally, the meeting gave me a great opportunity to interact with the incoming ASBMB president, Steve McKnight. Steve and I have known each other since I was an assistant professor in the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University and he was a staff member at the nearby Carnegie Institution for Science. We shared many spirited conversations about the then-unknown structures of zinc finger and leucine zipper DNA-binding domains recently discovered in eukaryotic transcription factors. Steve is one of the most passionate advocates for the science of biochemistry that I have ever known, and I am thrilled to hand over the reins to him.

Experimental Biology 2014 tweet analysis

Shortly after the Experimental Biology meeting ended, Colby Vorland, a Ph.D. student in nutrition science at Purdue University who tweets under the handle @nutsci, created a fascinating analysis of the meeting chatter on Twitter. Here are just a few of his findings. See more of his analysis from this year and his analysis from last year on his blog: http://nutsci.org/.


Top 10 Tweeters


In 2013, the meeting hashtag was #EB2013. But this year it was changed to #xBio. Some users just assumed it was #EB2014. Here’s what Vorland found:
  • • 83% of tweets contained only the #xBio hashtag
  • • 12% contained only the #EB2014 hashtag
  • • 5% contained both hashtags


In 2013, there were 5,455 tweets with the meeting hashtag (#EB2013) over a 10-day period, and in 2014 there were 6,223 with the meeting hashtags (#EB2014 and #xBio) over an 18-day period.


network graph Vorland created a network graph of the relationships among the most common words in tweets and retweets with the meeting hashtags. He explained: “The connections between words are weighted by how common they appear together in tweets.” Click on the graph to see a more easily readable version of it.


The ASBMB asked its undergraduate attendees which society social-media channels they used. This is what they reported:
social media pie chart
Jeremy BergJeremy Berg (jberg@pitt.edu) is the associate senior vice-chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences and a professor in the computational and systems biology department at the University of Pittsburgh.