February 2011

MAC still on task

ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee chairman Craig E. Cameron discusses a few of his committee's recent achievements as well as some of the minority programming coming up at the 2011 annual meeting.

Partnership for DiversityFor more than a decade now, I have been a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee. During this time, the committee’s roster has expanded to its current size of 12. MAC’s overarching mission is to inspire and facilitate diversity in biochemistry and molecular biology, and the increase in membership has led to more ideas for new directions and activities for the committee. During my tenure as chairman, my primary objective has been to keep the committee focused on bringing a few of these ideas to fruition. As I will discuss briefly here, the committee remains on task and is having a positive impact not only on minorities in ASBMB but also on the wider community of junior scientists who belong to the society.

The ASBMB annual meeting: a warm climate for all

When I think back to the first time I attended a large scientific conference like the ASBMB annual meeting, I still get chills. I was excited about presenting my work but intimidated by the vast number of people whom I did not know and even more concerned about their (possibly negative) responses to my work. The meeting came and went, but the perceptions from that first experience remain vivid some 20 years later. Having come of age in Richard Hanson’s biochemistry department at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, I went to the meeting with graduate and postdoctoral students from the department as well as a third or so of the faculty. The networking opportunities were enormous; the number of people who engaged with me positively at my poster was huge. The impression on me was indelible: It motivated me to do more work, to attend more meetings and, ultimately, to commit to the service that I now do for ASBMB.

Unfortunately, the experience I had may now be more of an exception than a rule. Trainees do not, generally, attend our meeting as a part of a pre-existing community of members. Of even greater concern is the number of students who are not being engaged during the poster sessions. MAC has been active in developing strategies to address some of these issues. Last year, we hosted a networking reception that brought together minorities and travel award recipients, their mentors and the ASBMB leadership on the second night of the meeting. The event was such a big success that we exceeded the capacity of the venue. I received positive feedback throughout the meeting and already have received inquiries about the 2011 reception. We were able to establish a community for many of the students early enough in the meeting to increase the overall quality of their experience. We will hold a similar event this year and hope to see you there.

At the 2011 annual meeting in Washington, D.C., MAC will pilot a program aimed at enhancing the level of engagement of our students at the poster session. The general concept was inspired by MAC member Michael Summers. We will deploy groups of our travel award recipients and their mentors to the poster sessions. By mixing and matching travel award recipients and mentors, we hope to expand the passive mentoring that occurs for these trainees. And by having these groups seek out students who are not being engaged, we will increase the quality of the experience for our poster presenters. As a member of ASBMB, we ask you to join with MAC to accomplish this important goal. If each member pledges to visit five posters at random with the sole intention of engaging those who are not interacting with others, then all of our poster presenters will return home with a better perception of the meeting.

Making use of the Partnership for Diversity

In order for ASBMB to have a sustained, diverse membership, we not only need to recruit new, diverse members but also to retain our existing, young, diverse members. It is my belief that both recruitment and retention will be affected positively by having a diverse platform of award recipients and lecturers. Identifying people of color who are doing high quality science in biochemistry and molecular biology has not been easy. More than a year ago now, we launched the Partnership for Diversity to identify minorities in science and champions for diversity. While the list of partners still is short, we have been able to use it to increase the diversity of our platform at the 2011 annual meeting. In addition, we have been able to use this information to contribute to the list of scientists who we are featuring each month in the “Research Spotlight” section of our website. If you embrace diversity, please join the partnership.

The Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award

A few years ago, the ASBMB council approved the creation of an award to recognize an outstanding scientist who has shown a strong commitment to the encouragement and/or mentoring of under-represented minorities entering the scientific enterprise. The call for nominees went out for the first time last year. The inaugural award will be presented at the 2011 annual meeting to Arthur Gutierrez-Hartmann, a professor at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine.

Obesity, obesity, obesity

In keeping with tradition, our scientific programming for the annual meeting will deal with a disease of high public health significance – obesity. Sessions will cover topics ranging from the molecular basis of obesity to medical complications of obesity. I am particularly excited about the lecture from Nora D. Volkow. Volkow is the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and will tell us how the science of addiction also may apply to the treatment of obesity.


The final activity that I would like to mention is our latest foray into outreach. In collaboration with the Education and Professional Development Committee, Regina Stevens-Truss and Ishara Mills-Henry of MAC will bring junior high school science students and their teachers from the D.C. area to the annual meeting for some special programming that promises to convey the thrill of discovery to all. The programming will emphasize strategies that each of us can use to connect with and engage this important, at-risk cohort. We are excited about the potential effects this outreach activity will have on educating the public and hope to repeat this line of programming annually.

MAC is busy! My priority has been to make the meeting a memorable experience for both our under-represented and junior scientists; to create scientific programming that is of broad appeal and will permit a platform of diverse scientists to be assembled; and to begin to prevent leaks in the pipeline of future scientists by targeting the underserved junior high school population, their teachers and their parents.

February is Black History Month. As important as it is to remember our past, it also is important to remember that the impact of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans on the life sciences has yet to be fully realized. So as we look back, let’s also look forward and use this month to say or do something to inspire the next generation of black scientists.

Craig E. Cameron (cec9@psu.edu) is the Paul Berg professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at The Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee.

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