‘I wish I had this when I started out’

ASBMB’s summer education meeting offers new pedagogical research, career guidance and a strong sense of community, organizers say
Brian O'Flynn
April 7, 2023

Suffolk University will be the place to be for undergraduate educators at all levels in July. After a four-year hiatus, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s “Transforming undergraduate education in the molecular life sciences” meeting returns with a comprehensive lineup of speakers, workshops and discussion sessions. Attendees are guaranteed to expand their educational tool belts and learn about transitioning into leadership roles within their departments and beyond.

The organizers of the meeting are steadfast in what they consider the most important thing about it: the community. “The whole reason that the four of us came together to host this year’s meeting is because we want to make sure the community we grew before the pandemic comes back,” Joseph Provost of the University of San Diego said.

ASBMB Today conducted a roundtable-style interview with Provost, Celeste Peterson of Suffolk University, Pamela Mertz of St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Odutayo Odunuga of Stephen F. Austin State University about the meeting and the importance of the community found at it. The interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.

How did this meeting come to be, and what has it become?

Joseph Provost

Provost: Ellis Bell (University of California, San Diego) came up with this concept in 2009 and led the first of several meetings, and the ASBMB continually supported this community with this catalytic event.

Mertz: Our meeting fits in with the other summer education meetings, but we have some unique features this year. We are bringing together seven groups that have National Science Foundation funding for education purposes. They will be presenting their work, and participants will have the opportunity to get more involved with those projects. We also have a keynote speaker the very first night talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. And this is a theme throughout the conference.

Provost: The structure gives faculty a chance to see these really well-designed projects and actually get involved with them through the various breakout sessions. So, after the meeting, instead of just a bunch of ideas with nowhere to go, they’re going to have already-made connections to establish networks and keep them continuing for as long as they want to. It’s a really active kind of thing.

Pamela Mertz

Mertz: We are also focusing on leadership. We have a number of sessions dedicated to leadership in education, such as a talk by Ben Caldwell (Radford University) on the shift from faculty to administration. The leadership aspect is a new piece that we haven’t had a lot of at these small meetings before.

Peterson: I’m excited to host the meeting in Boston, which is a hub for biotech. So we are going to have a panel on helping students transition into an industrial role.

Provost: Taking on all the hard work to organize, host the meeting and write for funding to increase access for our community is a call of responsibility and caring. Nobody asked us to do this. We all just agreed that this meeting must keep going. We are all in this for the ASBMB education community.

What else can attendees expect?

Celeste Peterson

Peterson: There will be lots of opportunities to participate in the meeting, such as the poster sessions and Catalyst Conversations, where people can demonstrate how they implement different techniques in the classroom.

Odunuga: The networking stands out for me. You meet lots of experienced colleagues in molecular biosciences education all in one place. It’s a great opportunity to network for those who are transitioning to leadership or those who are just starting their careers. I wish I had this when I started out.

Provost: People go back to these meetings year in, year out because the meeting is so important to them professionally and personally. The first hour or so is basically a big hug fest.

Odutayo Odunuga

Odunuga: I see this like the study groups I ask my students to form but at an instructor level. The more I associate with people in my field, the better I get. I’ve seen this over the years in my approach to teaching. Isolation is not good. You really want to meet the right people, understand the technologies, ideas and concepts. What better way to do that?

Mertz: Yes, the meeting really builds community.

What do newcomers specifically need to know?

Provost: New folks are always welcomed. Once you’re there, you’re in as much as you want to be and sometimes more than you expected.

Odunuga: You see new people coming who over the years start to take up leadership roles. I am a prime example of that. One thing that stands out for me is the openness that people bring. Here, you can be yourself. I always feel that people come with the mindset to be themselves and to learn.

Mertz: I think the telling sign is when people come back or get more involved in the society in general. For many of us, there are competing societies, but the ASBMB feels more like my home. Sometimes people find a home in the society through conferences like these.

How are you implementing the diversity and inclusion theme?

Provost: We’ve got some great people in to talk about it. For example, our first speaker, Dontarie Stallings (University of California, San Diego), has been finding ways to increase access and retention of marginalized students and faculty in chemistry and biochemistry. He’s going to share with us his experience as a Black biochemist in ways that have actual items that we can take back to our departments.

Odunuga: We want to do things that are impactful. I think we are making progress because now we are even talking about diversity within the content of what we teach in class. That really to me is a milestone, and these are the sort of things we are going to be discussing.

Provost: We are creating a space for those that might not have the opportunities to learn things such as negotiation skills. It’s about helping all folks learn these critical tools.

What are you most looking forward to?

Odunuga: I’m looking forward to learning more about education research.

Provost: Yes, I’m really interested to hear what Erika Offerdahl (Washington State University) and Erin Dolan (University of Georgia) have to say. These two are luminaries in disciplinary-based education research. We’ve been engaging with both to see how they can bring their experience and expertise to all of us.

Odunuga: The other thing is learning from people who made the transition into leadership roles.

Mertz: I’m looking forward to the community. But, honestly, I’m looking forward to the whole program: We have some great speakers.

Peterson: I am looking forward to seeing colleagues I haven’t seen in years and meeting new ones. That’s what it really comes down to: having people who are equally passionate about teaching.

About the meeting

The ASBMB’s “Transforming undergraduate education in the molecular life sciences” meeting will cover:

  • Leadership development.
  • Supporting educators in their midcareer and in shifting careers.
  • Teaching in a diverse and equitable environment.
  • Discipline-based education research.
  • Preparing students for jobs in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

Funding from the National Science Foundation will support:

  • 80 travel awards.
  • 23 meeting registration awards.
  • 10 dependent-care support awards.

Early registration ends May 23. The regular registration deadline is June 27.

Learn more and register.

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Brian O'Flynn

Brian O'Flynn is a scientific writer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

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