Annual Meeting

#DiscoverBMB spotlight talks to showcase members’ findings

Vahe Bandarian, chair of the ASBMB Meetings Committee, offers advice for making your abstract competitive and other tips
Marissa Locke Rottinghaus
Sept. 13, 2023

Discover BMB 2024, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s annual meeting in San Antonio in March, will feature 12 thematic symposia centering the hottest scientific topics in the field and other matters of great concern to the BMB community. The symposia will feature invited speakers and will be complemented by spotlight talks by speakers — most of whom will be trainees and early-career investigators — who submitted abstracts to related categories.

Vahe Bandarian

ASBMB Today talked to Vahe Bandarian, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Utah and chair of the ASBMB Meetings Committee, about the purpose of the spotlight talks, how organizers select the speakers, how to make your abstract stand out from the crowd, and more.

The interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.

How do spotlight talks work?

Bandarian: Spotlight talks began a few years ago, and we have continued hosting them to round out the program.

Historically, the ASBMB annual meeting has been focused on 10 to 12 major areas of biochemistry. We obviously can't cover all of the subtopics and focus areas as part of the main program.

The spotlight talks are a way to extend the program and add a bit of color by allowing more members to present. These talks are selected from submitted abstracts rather than from invitations. For the most part, these talks are given by postdocs, graduate students or junior faculty.

This year they will be closely associated with the themes of the symposia.

Who selects abstracts for spotlight sessions?

Bandarian: We get a ton of submitted abstracts, and it is a big job to evaluate all of them. Everyone has a role to play, including the meeting co-chairs, theme organizers and the Meetings Committee. There’s a lot of programming to be planned so the theme organizers can’t do it alone.

What makes an abstract competitive for a spotlight talk?

Bandarian: You have to tell people what is important and why it’s important. The abstract must address an interesting problem, be novel and may tell a bit about where the project is headed. The authors need to try to engage the reviewers of the abstract. Good abstracts are general enough that anyone in BMB can understand them; jargon can make the science difficult to decipher. (See more in the box below.)

What advice do you have for first-time attendees?

Bandarian: I think the best thing to do is to look at the program a few days beforehand to plan what parts you want to attend. There are so many sessions during the day that you’re not going to be able to go to every talk. But we try to schedule the talks close enough together that you can hop around.

Travel award categories

The ASBMB offers several types of travel awards to make the meeting financially accessible. Applications for travel awards must be submitted at the time of abstract submission. Below are the award types:

Meetings are expensive. Talk about how the society makes the meeting financially accessible.

Bandarian: The ASBMB does a very good job with this and has extensive travel award programs.

There are a number of awards available to undergraduates involved in the ASBMB Student Chapters, graduate students, postdocs and early-career faculty. Undergraduate faculty also can apply for support.

The Maximizing Access Committee has put together an award to help out historically marginalized graduate students who want to attend the meeting. Plus, we have an award for those with dependent-care obligations.

These awards are available for ASBMB members only, and the deadline to apply is Nov. 30, the on-time abstract-submission deadline.

What do you enjoy most about #DiscoverBMB?

Bandarian: I go to the meeting every year. The science is great. I like going to the scientific sessions. But, for me, there are benefits of the meeting that go a lot further than just the science.

I really enjoy a lot of the other activities that I’m involved with at the meeting, such as the Maximizing Access Committee events and the receptions where I get to meet folks such as the travel-award recipients, MOSAIC scholars and IMAGE grant-writing workshop participants.

I really like catching up with people I don't usually see. As chair of the Meetings Committee, I have a lot going on, and I almost never sit in any session for very long because I’m always nervous about what’s going on everywhere else. I tend to walk around a lot from session to session, just making sure things are good and looking at what sessions are the most popular.

I look forward to a lot of aspects of the meeting, not just the science. I love the personal connections with colleagues and making new connections.

Two important tips for spotlight talk hopefuls

Spotlight talks are intended to give graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and early-career investigators a platform for communicating their research.

While in previous years these talks were scheduled in the afternoon, the 2024 meeting will feature them in the morning and afternoon during thematic symposia sessions. This change both elevates the spotlight talks and reduces scheduling conflicts so that more people can attend them.

Below are two tips for abstract submitters who wish to compete for spotlight talk spots:

1. Pick your theme thoughtfully: Spotlight talks will be integrated into thematic symposia this year, and this will give presenters greater visibility. Naturally, the reviewers will be looking for abstracts related to those themes. When you submit your abstract, you’ll be asked to indicate which theme you think embraces your work. If your work isn’t a perfect match, that’s OK. But do try to select the theme that comes closest.

2. Sell your work for all it’s worth: Meeting attendees are expecting to learn about new findings and innovative approaches. Reviewers will be prioritizing fresh and exciting research. Make sure to convey in your abstract why what you’re working on is both timely and relevant.

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Marissa Locke Rottinghaus

Marissa Locke Rottinghaus is the science writer for the ASBMB.

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