October 2011

Awards in biochemistry

Of all the responsibilities assigned to an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology president, presenting awards is probably the most fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy handing out checks and plaques to delighted scientists, thereby forever changing their résumés? You probably would be surprised to learn the number of award recipients who invite their mothers to hear their lectures and join us for a celebration dinner afterward. I personally don’t think that we, as a community of scientists, do enough to recognize excellent science as well as significant contributions made in support of the community of scientists. It is important that the ASBMB recognizes outstanding research by presenting a dozen or so awards every year.

Some of our awards are made possible by generous, annual gifts: The ASBMB Merck Award is sponsored by Merck, and Avanti Polar Lipids sponsors two awards, one for a senior scientist and one for a more junior scientist. The Delano Award and Earl and Thressa Stadtman Awards are supported by endowments created by friends of the scientists in whose honor the awards were established. Other awards are supported by the ASBMB directly.

It was not that long ago that science was a much less populated vocation, and it was even possible to win more than one Nobel Prize. Fred Sanger did just that: In 1958, Sanger was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for determining the primary structure of insulin, and in 1980 he shared the Nobel Prize (with Walter Gilbert and Paul Berg) for his novel method for determining the sequence of nucleic acids. There is no question that Sanger’s contributions deserved two prizes, but today there seem to be many more scientists than available awards and many who deserve to be recognized but aren’t.

I feel strongly that ASBMB awards should be given to scientists who may not already have been recognized for their contributions. When the community of scientists honors a small number of scientists with multiple awards, the field seems much smaller than it really is. By thinking hard and broadly about whom to honor, we do a better job of supporting the community – by providing role models for younger scientists and by identifying award recipients who can pass the torch to an even broader and more diverse group of future awardees. Our breadth and diversity as a community should be celebrated.

Why is it that a small group of scientists seem to get all the awards? Assembling a nomination package takes a reasonable amount of effort. A nominator must obtain a current curriculum vitae for his or her nominee and write a summary of that person’s research contributions. Letters of reference must be obtained from scientists of stature (or sometimes from mentees) who agree that the nominee deserves to be recognized. All of this takes time – both on the part of the nominator and the letter writers. When a package already is assembled and the letters require only a change of date and recipient, nominating candidates for multiple awards is an easier path to take.

Some individuals are highly proactive in nominating their colleagues. Indeed, last year, two award winners came from a single, excellent department thanks to the efforts of a devoted chairman. In other cases, friends nominate one another for a variety of awards. Some scientists nominate themselves by preparing the packages and asking others to submit them on their behalf. This practice is actually more common than you might think and, in some cases, it is even recommended (1).

A number of demographic groups have not yet achieved a level of recognition commensurate with their presence in the halls of science. Anne Lincoln, Stephanie Pincus and Phoebe Leboy have noted (2) that “the proportion of women receiving service or teaching awards in the past two decades is roughly equivalent to the proportion of women within the cohort-adjusted Ph.D. pool in that discipline, but only half of these have won scholarly awards.” Using available data for 13 disciplinary societies, they found that the proportion of female prizewinners in 10 of them was much lower than the proportion of female full professors in those fields (1, 2). When lists of award recipients exclude any category of scientist, it can seem as if that category simply doesn’t exist.

Award-selection committees must avoid conflict-of-interest issues – such as voting on their own nominees. It is also important that they include a diverse group of members to address potential unconscious biases to which all of us can fall victim. The pool of female nominees for an award is usually quite small; the pool of minority scientists is even smaller.

Given that the FASEB Excellence in Science Award, which is expressly dedicated to honoring women scientists, receives as many as 50 nominations a year, one might have expected that some of those 50 women also would be nominated for other, gender-independent awards.

Unfortunately, many of us still think of women as nurturers and mentors rather than discoverers and thought leaders. The ASBMB is trying to correct this. With funding from the National Science Foundation, The Association for Women in Science is collaborating with seven U.S. science societies (including the ASBMB) and the RAISE Project (3) to raise the status of professional women through better recognition of their achievements. The ASBMB awards committee is actively soliciting nominations to diversify our nominee pool. You can help us by submitting nominations of talented folks who may not yet have been recognized.

What else can be done? Jim Wells of the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that we streamline the nomination process to make it easier for all of us to submit nominations. He also suggests that the ASBMB consider allowing self-nominations. If certain individuals write their own nominations anyway, why shouldn’t everyone have this opportunity? Opening the nomination process has the potential to level the playing field, as long as those who have been under-represented take the initiative to promote themselves. Please let me know what you think of these suggestions, as the ASBMB council will be discussing them during its December meeting. And thank you to those of you who nominate candidates for recognition by the ASBMB.


1. P. Leboy (2008) The Scientist 22, 67
2. Nature 469, 472
3. www.raiseproject.org

Suzanne PfefferASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer (pfeffer@stanford.edu) is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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