Why meet?

Next month, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will convene its annual meeting in Boston. Thousands of scientists, young and old, will attend. Scientific communication ranging from plenary talks to poster presentations will allow both members and guests to share their science.

What is the value of our large annual meeting, and why is it important that ASBMB members participate?

In thinking about how to address these questions, I go back 39 years to the first scientific meeting I ever attended. It was the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the fall of 1976. I was then a second-year graduate student working under the mentorship of Oscar Miller in the University of Virginia’s biology department.

For weeks, I assembled my poster presentation, and I can remember as if it were yesterday when Joe Gall came to grill me on the electron micrographs I had taken of active genes being transcribed from early embryos of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. That an esteemed cell biologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences would take the time to investigate what I had to contribute represented the single most inspirational moment of my early career.

I attended ASCB scientific sessions small and large and was enthralled to hear George Palade consider the enigma of how membrane-invested organelles could be born only from existing organelles, challenging the audience to think about how mysterious it was for life forms to have accomplished compartmentalization of biological complexity when life first evolved on our planet. I recall the raucous laughter when Lewis Tilney told us about the acrosome reaction elicited by sperm activation, when a huge reservoir of soluble actin is triggered to polymerize — terming the poised, soluble actin pro-filamentous actin, or “profilactin.” I had no idea what David Baltimore or Joan Steitz would even look like.

My contemporaries might have gotten the same rush by attending a rock ’n’ roll concert to hear Elton John, Bob Marley or Van Morrison. But I was far more keen to see and hear — in the flesh — the biochemists, molecular biologists and cell biologists whom I placed on the highest of pedestals.

Fast-forward almost four decades, and let’s consider how the meeting enterprise has evolved. Instead of being limited to the large ASBMB, ASCB and Society for Neuroscience annual meetings, we now have access to an almost limitless number of smaller meetings. What are the characteristics of these postmillennial venues for the dissemination of new scientific information?

More and more, we have access to destination meetings convened at fancy resorts. Unlike our societal meetings, many conferences today are narrowly focused on a single topic or subdiscipline. Finally, participation by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows tends to be significantly limited relative to established, principal investigators.

I argue that the large annual meetings convened by scientific societies remain instrumental as inaugural venues where budding scientists are able to display their wares and to hear directly from the mouths of established scientists whose work helped create the foundation of our knowledge.

Participation in the ASBMB annual meeting is open to undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, technicians and independent investigators. Ample opportunities offer young scientists the chance to present their science in poster sessions, and exemplary abstract submissions are chosen for oral platform presentations associated with specific symposium events. Bottom line: Our annual meeting offers exceptionally liberal access for trainee participation. Beyond science, the ASBMB annual meeting gives us opportunities to hear about developments at ASBMB journals, advocacy efforts for basic research, the diversity of our workforce, educational initiatives and science-outreach activities.

As president of the ASBMB, I have chosen to focus on two aspects of our annual meeting that are of particular importance to me. First, I hope to expand participation of trainees and will strive to enhance all aspects of the meeting that may be of benefit to young scientists. Second, I have helped increase the number of plenary lecturers at the Boston meeting — to include Rachael Klevit, David Allis, James Chen, Bonnie Bassler and Ian Wilson. Together with our ASBMB award recipients, these plenary lecturers help carry the torch such that our membership — and particularly trainees — might be inspired in the manner I was nearly 40 years ago.

The health of our organization will be put to test at the upcoming meeting. Here is what I will be looking for. Are the plenary and award lectures overflowing? Are the smaller sessions also filled to the brim, especially with young scientists? Finally, will the poster sessions be lively and well attended not just by the young presenters but also by our more established ASBMB members?

All of us will be able to measure the pulse of our organization in Boston. Afterward, the society will ask all of us to weigh in by completing a post-meeting survey. Please keep tabs on all aspects of the meeting so that you can participate in an informed way. The ASBMB is our organization; let’s collectively pitch in at the Boston meeting to make it as healthy as possible!

Dorothy Beckett Mary Roberts Joan Geiling
Beckett Roberts Geiling
The efforts of particularly dedicated ASBMB members lead, each year, to a meeting program that covers a wide distribution of the science and activities most relevant to our society. The efforts of Dorothy Beckett of the University of Maryland and Mary Roberts of Boston College have been instrumental in the organization of our 2015 annual meeting. Working with dozens of field-leading scientists, Dorothy and Mary have organized a meeting overflowing with fantastic venues.

Aside from ASBMB volunteers, significant efforts are demanded of our ASBMB staff in preparation for the annual meeting. We are particularly indebted to the ASBMB’s meetings director, Joan Geiling. Joan’s efforts devoted to the Boston meeting began more than 18 months ago and will continue to consume her attention until things wrap up on April Fools’ Day!

Steven McKnight Steven McKnight is president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.