In preparing to take on the directorship of the Lipid Research Division, I reflect on the genesis and accomplishments of the division and on the new challenges that lie ahead. The Lipid Research Division was born from a grassroots discussion of broad concerns shared by all lipid research scientists. These included such issues as increased national and international visibility for lipid research, representation within the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and increased funding for lipid research. These foundational goals were outlined in previous ASBMB Today articles, and these set a clear and appropriate course. But in moving forward, it is also of paramount importance that the lipid community actively build upon the progress already made. Realization of these foundational goals will rely on the enthusiastic support of the greater community of lipid researchers. A primary challenge faced by any director of the Lipid Research Division is to foster that enthusiasm and to help translate it into action.
But challenges lie ahead. Some can be foreseen; others cannot be so easily identified at this time. The success of the Lipid Research Division ultimately rests on gainful management of what I perceive to be a fundamental (but unofficial) concern in the lipid community. That, ironically, is one of identity.
The lipid community is composed of divergent disciplines involving chemists, biochemists, physical chemists and physiologists who study both prokaryotic and eukaryotic systems. Imprinted upon these broad disciplines are not only different areas of concentration that focus on understanding the impact of eicosanoids, sphingolipids, glycerolipids and cholesterol metabolism on basic biological processes but also a diverse array of unique technical approaches. Moreover, interest in lipids is obviously increasing in many disciplines, such as neuroscience, developmental biology, cell biology, physiology, clinical medicine and pathogenesis. The large advances made in lipidomics are and will continue to be significant drivers in these areas. With so much scientific breadth and excitement in the lipid arena, how can there be identity issues?
While the scientific diversity and expanding horizons of lipid research are undoubtedly strengths, our ability to meet our future goals and challenges demands that we embrace our primary identity as a community of investigators with a unifying interest in lipid research. It is here where diversity often becomes a double-edged sword. The expanding horizons of lipid research present growing pains as well. In my opinion, these issues play out in the perception by many in the lipid community that recent high-impact lipid research has come from directions removed from the historical core of lipid research.
On one hand, productive evolution of any vibrant discipline absolutely depends on such cross-fertilization, and the conceptual and technical advances that accompany such progress must be welcomed. On the other hand, this evolution does bring with it a rather unique potential for confusing the conceptual frontier of lipid research. This is particularly the case when “high-impact” studies are insufficiently anchored on the essential foundations so carefully laid down by lipid enzymologists and biophysicists. These foundations, and the science behind them, are often alien to researchers who come to lipid science from other disciplines. (I speak with some authority on the issues that accompany unexpected journeys into the world of organic phases and membrane surfaces.) Popularization of simplistic and occasionally naïve “high-impact” cartoon models (for which “high-impact” journals and the scientific community at large have a raging thirst) often exerts an unhealthy influence on editorial decisions at said journals. The ripple effects then flow down to funding decisions that are themselves wrapped in the subjective criterion of impact. It is this cycle that many see as a threat to the very research ultimately required to understand mechanisms (e.g., “boring” enzymological and biophysical work). Those concerns are not without merit. As we move forward, a principle responsibility for the community is to find ways to productively embrace newly developing areas in lipid research and foster their integration with its established foundations. The Lipid Research Division provides an outstanding forum for shaping this essential interface.
In closing, I am compelled to mention how important altruistic citizenship is to the health and vitality of any professional community. I take the opportunity to extend to Dan Raben, Barbara Gordon and the ASBMB the deep gratitude of the community of lipid researchers for their vision in organizing the Lipid Research Division and for their efforts in shepherding the organization through its critical birth phase. As we move forward, Dan and Barbara’s experience and advice will be most valuable, and I am particularly grateful to Dan for his willingness to remain actively involved in continued development of the division. Moreover, many of our colleagues, both senior and junior, generously donated their time and talents to making the division a reality. Their contributions were central to getting the project off the ground. While I cannot name them all here, it is essential that their efforts be acknowledged, for they are deeply appreciated. To me, it is the spirit of this extended group that forecasts a bright future for the Lipid Research Division.
The Lipid Research Division set out worthwhile goals at its inception and successfully initiated organization of an infrastructure to support attainment of those goals. Now we come to the stage where execution is the name of the game. I look forward to working with the Lipid Research Division steering committee in formulating pragmatic strategies for reaching the goals already set and in charting the future activities of the organization. This committee is an outstanding and experienced group that is loaded with ideas and opinions, and I am confident that we will navigate those strategic waters effectively. Members of the steering committee and I are excited to have the privilege to serve the lipid community in these most interesting of times. We welcome input of all kinds, so please feel free to contact us directly with your ideas and concerns.
Vytas A. Bankaitis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the E. L. Wehner-Welch Foundation Chair in Chemistry at the Texas A&M Health Sciences Center.