Blogging the ASBMB annual meeting

Day 5, April 6, 2016

Shutting it down, closing it out

EB 2016 began winding down today, though awesome talks and posters kept attendees wanting more.

Excellent sessions on radicals and catalysis and ubiquitination featured fantastic talks by Vahe Bandarian, Brenda Schulman and Jon Huibregtse.

Taking off from these morning sessions, the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee presented a session on maximizing training for graduate and postdoctoral researchers for nonresearch STEM careers. Sorely missed from this session was Marion Sewer (1972 – 2016), though Marion’s lifelong commitment to trainee career development continues to provide inspiration to students and faculty alike.

Kenneth Gibbs got the session off to a great start with a talk drawing on data and his own experiences. Gibbs acknowledged upfront the trend of significantly greater growth in number of Ph.D. degrees awarded relative to the number of faculty positions and that, six years out, only 11 percent to 23 percent of life science Ph.D. holders have tenure-track faculty positions. Significant challenges are clearly present to all trainees, though women and underrepresented minorities experience greater challenges.

Gibbs stressed that it really is not appropriate to consider biomedical research career tracks as a pipeline; rather, it should be viewed as a tree with multiple potential branch points where career decisions are made, “each of which are equally valid and worthwhile.”  Vicarious learning through observing the career paths of near-peers is a strong learning method for determining career decisions, “though you should be careful not to draw conclusions based on a group with n=1!” said Gibbs. At the same time, you need to routinely assess where you are and where you want to go. In fact, Gibbs said, “the further my training progressed, the farther I felt from the reasons I went into science.”

Gibbs' career path was transformed by a AAAS science policy fellowship he had at the National Science Foundation. "For me," he said, "both research and policy application are necessary to feel fulfilled and neither is sufficient.”

Clearly, Gibbs’ career decisions and path are examples that training at the bench can transfer not only to faculty positions but also to exciting and impactful careers in science policy and beyond. Gibbs closed by saying: "Whatever you do, make sure you write because you’re known by what you write.”

After Gibbs was Rick McGee of Northwestern University,who explained faculty positions as “pathological grant-seeking behavior with intermittent reinforcement” — "intermittent reinforcement" being the awarding of grants. “You have to love the journey as much as the outcome,” said McGee.  

A study spearheaded by McGee followed more than 270 students from the undergraduate level into graduate school and tracked their views and perceptions on anticipated career tracks. Exciting and complex data highlighted the tremendous diversity inherent in the youngest generation of the biomedical research workforce. Additional years of the study have been funded by the National Institutes of Health and will allow for tracking of these students through graduate school and into themyriad sectors of the workforce. Stay tuned for more info!

McGee closed with great advice on how to figure out your career track, saying, “Don’t just do an (individual development plan) to get the IDP police off your back. Make sure yours is an IDP with a mission! Make a poster of your IDP that you can use to talk through with others.”

Time to head out. Be sure to join us next year in Chicago for EB 2017! 

Day 4, April 5, 2016

Exploring the basic science juggernaut

Day 4 at EB 2016 was another strong day of research talks, posters and sessions focused on advancing education and training.

The day kicked off with a speech by Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. An active scientist, one whose origins in physical chemistry has led to an fruitful exploration of genetics, biochemistry and genomewide epigenomics, Collins spoke to a packed room on the importance of basic research.

Building upon a letter written by Collins and co-signed by all current NIH Institute directors, titled “Basic science: Bedrock of progress,” published last week in the journal Science, Collins strongly echoed past statements reinforcing the NIH's commitment to basic research.Collins highlighted recent advances in biomedicine, including cryo-electron microscopy and CRISPR/CAS, emphasizing throughout the dependence of advances in all areas of biomedical science upon a strong and broad base of support from high quality basic research.

Stressing the advances in cancer immunotherapy, Collins wowed the audience with a video showing how the field of cancer immunotherapy has rapidly advanced, all supported and enabled by basic research. “The public may think that these advances came out of nowhere; of course, all of you know better. These advances have been made possible by decades of basic research,” said Collins.

The efforts of the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee to promote the biomedical research enterprise  also were highlighted as Collins encouraged everyone to become more active and make real connections to  elected representatives in Congress. Show your representatives the science firsthand and “invite them to your labs,” he said. 

Collins also presented thoughts on using the relative citation ratio as a newer and better measure of publication impact. In the course of doing so, Collins provided a robust endorsement of preprint servers for biomedicine, such as bioRxiv. ASBMB has led the way in this effort, fully supporting the use of preprint servers as the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular & Cellular Proteomics and the Journal of Lipid Research all accept manuscripts previously posted as preprints.

Collins touched on the topic of rigor and reproducibility as well,  increasingly important concerns in biomedicine. Suggesting that “efforts by the NIH alone will not be sufficient to effect real change in this unhealthy environment,” Collins identified resources developed by NIH for addressing some of these issues. You can find these resources on the NIH website

Clearly, EB 2016 is continuing to provide a vibrant platform for discussing and advancing the research of ASBMB members. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s update on the final day of EB 2016!

Day 3, April 4, 2016

Visualizing interfaces

Interfaces were the name of the game at EB 2016 today — from how premed students interact with the new MCAT to how computers allow students to visually connect with biology.

Biochemistryand today’s premed student

The students of today more and more lean toward medical school from the moment they step onto our undergraduate campuses. As professors, our task is to ensure that these students are fully prepared for medical school. A significant potion of this task is enabling our students to be well prepared to take the MCAT and perform at their best.

A morning session provided valuable insights and evaluations of the new MCAT and the focus on biochemistry and psyco-social sciences. Full-length (230-question) sample tests are available from the Association of American Medical Colleges, and Saundra Oyewole stressed that “the AAMC strongly encourages all students to take at least one practice exam.” Scoring is available for the exam, and students are encouraged to check out the AAMC website for more info. A second practice exam will be available in the fall.

Through a partnership with the Kahn Academy and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than 1,00 videos and 3,000 questions are now available that follow the MCAT blueprint. This resource covers all natural and social science content on the new exam, with new critical analysis and reasoning skills sections that will be added in December.

Further help for advisors can be found at

Molecular visualization: Biology is beautiful!

Todd Yeates of the University of California, Los Angeles, was awarded the ASBMB's 2016 Delano Award for Computational Biosciences and gave a fascinating talk on symmetry and self-assembly in proteins.

“There is rich opportunity for discovery at any juncture where we can pair computers with biology,” said Yeates.

Presenting initial insights into symmetric assembly dating back to the 1950s alongside new insights made possible by high-power computational resources, Yeates left the audience in awe with a rich array of images made possible by the work of Warren Delano. A fitting tribute to  Delano’s memory, Yeates’ presentation showed the beauty inherent in the interface between computers and biology. 

The Delano Award for Computational Biosciences was a fitting segue into an afternoon session organized along the theme that “Molecular Visualization is Your Friend.” Led  by Eran Hodis with a presentation of, the session focused on how to make protein structures more accessible and how this can interface into and enhance education.

As a structural biologist myself, it is hard to imagine not thinking of protein structures as intuitive, however multiple resources presented in the session offered significant advances in increasing access to protein structures for nonstructural biologists.

The key is to “allow for enriching 3-D components,” said Hodis. This thought was echoed throughout the session, with connections that were repeatedly drawn between ease of use, ease of access, richness and accuracy of content.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a physical model is worth a thick book of pictures,” said Tim Herman speaking to a room rapt with excitement as Herman presented and disassembled a 3-D printed physical model  of CRISPR CAS9 endonuclease. The demonstration truly showed the incredible information content of a physical model and the power that physical models can provide.

Many more advances will be reported in the future, though it is clear that the ASBMB is home to a number of thought leaders in this space who are keenly and actively interested in using structure and visualization to increase the impact and appreciation of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Day 2, April 3, 2016

Pushing the research enterprise forward:
from national policy to the classroom and laboratory

On the national policy front, a critical discussion took place today. It was moderated by the chair of the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee, Wes Sundquist, and included panelists Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman, National Institute of General Medical Sciences Director Jon Lorsch, University of Utah Health Care CEO Vivian Lee and Michigan State University Assistant Vice President J.R. Haywood. Several key themes arose time and time again in the session, each relating back to the core idea of seeking to support sustainability of the biomedical research enterprise.

Funding models: Multiple comments from the panel focused on the effects of the National Institutes of Health's doubling period on funding models and “habits” that have formed. The trend toward emphasis on soft money positions in particular was stressed as an area that needs reformation. Panel and audience members stated that the current dependency on soft money support is unsustainable. A proposed method to address this included reforming viewpoints from the perspectives of funding agencies and institutions and tying funding more closely to individual researchers by funding researchers, not just projects. Clear recommendations were not settled upon, though the need to further pursue change in this area was identified as a high priority.

Diversity: The funding of a diverse group of researchers was discussed as a method to ensure viability and sustainability. Widely mentioned was the benefit of diversity in all metrics as a way to allow the research enterprise to bring about the next big breakthrough. Top-down approaches mandating specific research areas have not traditionally brought the radical advances we crave and require in science. Placing the responsibility and freedom for discovery in the hands of researchers was an idea reinforced on multiple fronts.

De-risking risk-taking: Of course, giving investigators the freedom and opportunity to explore the next great idea is the heart of our research enterprise. The panel was resolute in suggesting that risk taking and innovation, particularly by new and early career researchers, must be encouraged and fostered. Change must come from all levels, and promotion and tenure requirements and search committees were clearly identified as areas or groups that need to become leaders in instituting this change. We cannot expect our young researchers to innovate and take risks unless they have the backing of promotion & tenure committees and University administrators.

Training: Panel and audience members agreed that enabling risk and innovation by our young and dynamic investigators requires a robust and effective training paradigm across the biomedical research enterprise. Though training programs, approaches, and policy mechanisms to support and advance training were briefly discussed, the panel closed with a note that an emphasis on training is, and will continue to be, a key component of ensuring sustainability of the research enterprise.

The closing thoughts on training blended perfectly into the afternoon session called “Integrating Complementary Skills into Graduate and Postdoc Training.” Major questions throughout the session that came to the forefront were raised by ASBMB members dedicated to training and education. Key questions included:

  • How do we teach graduate students the skills they need?
  • Where do postdocs go after their fellowships end?  
  • It is clear that times and jobs are a changing. How will graduate and postdoc training change in response?

Individual development plans: IDPs have become common nomenclature in the training environment, with new, discipline-specific IDPs now beginning to appear. Emphasis was placed on the need for mentors, along with trainees, to take the IDP process as an opportunity to enhance training, not just another required meeting. The necessity of follow-up and viewing the IDP as a living document was stressed as well. “This is not another BuzzFeed poll that you can fill out once and figure out where you are meant to be,” said Yvette Seger. You need to revisit the document, and it must change as you change. Also stated Seger: “We must ban the phrase ‘alternative careers.’” This pejorative phrase does not capture the truth of the situation: A job in academia IS the alternative.   

Train for the career you want: Teresa Evans presented an outstanding set of plans and approaches used at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio. These plans included a range of science outreach and leadership efforts — all centered on communication as the key. Evans stated that communication takes on multiple roles, both within the scientific community and beyond. Emphasis was placed on the need to cultivate communication skills and to get out and act. Communication skills can’t be developed or refined in isolation! Evans strongly encouraged trainees to take the lead in shaping their career.

BEST: Patricia Labosky of NIH presented a view of the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program (BEST) with a focus on maintaining a robust and sustainable biomedical research workforce. As of 2009, only 23 percent of U.S. Ph.D. graduates went on to faculty positions. For certain areas, such as structural biology and biophysics, the numbers are even lower. So what happens to the other 77 percent??? How do we prepare them for the careers they go on to pursue? Labosky made it clear that “current training programs do little to prepare people for anything besides an academic research career.” Labosky highlighted that we need to be “all in” and that as a scientific community we need to share the responsibilities of setting up appropriate training programs. “Time to take some of the responsibility off the researchers and back onto the universities,” said Labosky. 

The 2016 Experimental Biology conference is heating up, come back tomorrow to see how biochemistry education interfaces with today’s premed student, and how molecular visualization can be your friend!

Day 1, April 2, 2016

Wake up for the sunshine, stay for the poster competition

The 2016 Experimental Biology meeting got off to a great start today. A major highlight was the 20th Annual Undergraduate Poster competition. 

The poster competition is always a great event, and the 2016 Annual Undergraduate Poster competition was no exception. The pre-competition meeting of judges was a hive of activity buzzing with excitement to see 228 posters from fantastic ASBMB undergraduate junior scientists. These bright undergraduates hail from all parts of the U.S. and span a wide range of disciplines.

Though early in their careers, their research is not simple — it is not just baby steps. Significant research in proteins, enzymes, DNA and more blew away the judges. The level of technical expertise combined with broad ranging knowledge of the backgrounds and applications of each project were amazing. The research presented also will be featured in additional poster sessions throughout the week.

Take time to talk to these undergraduates at their posters. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’m sure you’ll be impressed.

The work done by ASBMB undergraduates serves to highlight the research prowess of this next generation of ASBMB researchers. The posters presented today confirm that the future of research by ASBMB members is indeed bright and gives us glimpses of exciting scientists headed soon to a graduate school near you!

Stay tuned for more exciting developments as the 2016 Experimental Biology conference gets into full swing.

Photo of Rick Page Rick Page is an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department at Miami University. His laboratory studies the role of protein quality control pathways in heart disease and cancers. Follow him on Twitter.