April 2011

ASBMB accreditation

Dear Editor,

I write this in response to the article by Kennelly and Bell on accreditation in the February issue. I am very apprehensive about the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology getting involved in a program of accreditation based upon examinations. As noted in the article, the concept is logically simplistic.

One only has to look at the recent accelerated evolution of topic sections in the Journal of Biological Chemistry such that the journal covers virtually all areas of modern biology. I venture that a good number of senior authors of papers in the journal could not pass such an examination. Pity the poor undergraduate who has become very excited about a research project and spent a large part of his or her time and effort on a relatively narrow aspect of modern biology.

In sum, ASBMB and its flagship journal have evolved beyond the BMB, and it makes little sense at this point to accredit programs. In fact, I wonder how many biochemistry and molecular biology departments now exist. Most students pursuing these disciplines are in broader departments with broader names. Often, these might just as appropriately be accredited by the American Society for Microbiology, the American Society for Cell Biology or basically any Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology member society. Indeed, let me suggest that perhaps accreditation might be more appropriate for FASEB.

Stuart Linn
Department of molecular and cell biology
University of California, Berkeley



Dr. Linn is correct in asserting that a) accreditation should not be undertaken lightly and b) the development of an effective assessment instrument will be critical to our success or lack thereof.

However, I find myself in serious disagreement with his first point for a number of reasons. First, Ellis and I are not alone in believing that accreditation can serve as a constructive tool for raising the bar in undergraduate BMB education. We enjoy the privilege of serving as spokespeople for scores of ASBMB members who have devoted many, many hours to this issue. Moreover, we constantly are approached by people at meetings wanting to know when the accreditation program will be in place. While this anecdotal evidence hardly constitutes proof beyond a reasonable doubt, its consistency and pervasiveness suggests that the concept does possess merit. Second, I strongly believe that if we do not engage college students and their mentors, our society likely will fade away to a small publishing house precisely because young BMB professionals continue to be drawn to those professional societies that have established their brand with these professionals during their college years.

As for the use of an examination, while politics and history have led to the Byzantine proliferation of names for what is at heart BMB, I strongly suspect that all of us look for a remarkably similar set of fundamental knowledge and skills when we screen applications for graduate school or consider taking a new student into our laboratories: Do they understand the proper application of positive and negative controls, the difference between correlation and causality, or the dynamics of chemical equilibria? Can they perform the necessary calculations and manipulations to produce a buffered solution of defined composition? Do they understand what a catalyst is, why His tags bind to Ni2+ columns or why the distance a protein migrates on an SDS gel generally is related to its size? I agree that a multiple-choice BMB trivia game would likely prove challenging for our editors and found wanting as an assessment tool. But what we propose is quite different.

Informed by many years of distinguished service as a scientist and educator, Dr. Linn has offered a thoughtful challenge. In return, I would ask the question, “What should the society be doing to capture the attention of young biochemists, molecular biologists, cell biologists, etc.?”  I do so because I believe that inaction is not a viable alternative.

Peter J. Kennelly

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