Gathering our community

Published October 03 2016

Serving as president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is an honor and a challenge. An honor because I grew up scientifically with the ASBMB and found my community here. A challenge because, in an era when there are gobs of scientific groups to join, maintaining the vitality of our community is among our most important goals for the future.

Since I began as president-elect a year ago, I’ve been in listening mode, asking researchers, mentors, postdocs, students, policymakers and anyone else who wants to talk about their views of the ASBMB.

Two questions have come up most often in these conversations.

The most common question that arises is “Who are we?” By this people mean, “What scientific scope defines our society?”

I initially found this puzzling, because I have always known that the ASBMB is exactly where I belong. But I now understand, especially when talking with younger researchers. In an era where biochemistry and molecular biology technologies form the foundation of every discipline in modern biosciences, what gives us our identity?

We are the scientists who discover the molecular mechanisms of life. The founders of the ASBMB were those who drove science beyond physiology toward a chemical and physical description of biomolecules. It was ASBMB members who discovered the fundamentals we all know about: how enzymes work, the chemistry and biochemistry of metabolic pathways, the folding and assembly of proteins, the reactions of nucleic acids and recombinant DNA technology, and the networks of signal transduction, to highlight just a few. (To see others, check out the ASBMB Nobel laureates.)

No matter the specific system, we figure out how things work. And this is surely the frontier of bioscience as new genes emerge lacking known function and high-dimensional datasets result with accelerating speed, each creating myriad new connections between biomolecules and disease. We go beyond correlative evidence to discover new mechanisms.

New discoveries are what we all strive for. But to be creative, it is essential that we stay abreast of new knowledge and technologies. This presents us with one of our most important challenges. With the rapid pace of science, how do we stay at the cutting edge?

One way is to attend the next ASBMB annual meeting, which will focus on the mechanisms of life, in April 22–26, in Chicago. The meeting is where our community gathers each year to make contacts, exchange information, have a good time and appreciate the ASBMB’s wide reach across discovery, education and advocacy, which benefits everyone.

Which raises the other question that I hear most frequently: “Why should I attend a meeting spanning broad areas of research instead of one focusing on my own specialized area?”

The answer is clear: The demand for interdisciplinary research is growing all the time. I hear this each time I review grants: “Innovative” means integrative, not insular.

To succeed in science, you have to learn new strategies, form new collaborations and see your work from a fresh angle. At the ASBMB annual meeting, you can meet new people in other areas, fertilize your mind with their knowledge, and use this to spark new avenues in your own endeavors.

Steve McKnight, the ASBMB’s past president, and I are working with the society’s Meetings Committee to make the 2017 ASBMB annual meeting a must-attend gathering chock full of the latest discoveries.

You’ll see exciting changes to the format next year.

Instead of having themed symposia that stretch across several days as we have had in past years, the 2017 meeting will feature 16 symposia, four concurrent ones each morning for four days. Each symposium, which is being organized by a top leader in the field, will give us fresh perspectives and integrative strategies for discovery that we all need to stay current.

An “Issues in Depth” series will feature three morning symposia, each linked by a common theme. This year’s theme is “Antibiotics and resistance.” It will be coordinated with a special session on new funding initiatives by the National Institutes of Health. Plus, you don’t want to miss the award talks by scientific heroes who have advanced research with their discoveries and promoted education.

Poster sessions will be held on the exhibition floor. There will be networking opportunities to meet invited speakers and award winners. Importantly, we’ve limited concurrent programming during this time so that all eyes will be on the posters.

Speakers for the afternoon “Spotlight Talks” will be selected from volunteered abstracts. These 15-minute oral presentations will give attendees a new way to show off their latest work at the meeting.

Invigorating technical workshops will cover everything from big-picture concepts to nitty-gritty details of technologies that everyone needs to know, such as CRISPR, lipidic cubic-phase technology, drug discovery in academia, the latest innovations in proteomics, modern kinetic and equilibrium analyses, and how to glean epigenomic information from high-dimensional data.

The meeting also will offer workshops that will help you flourish as a scientist. You can learn how to write successful grants. Two of the nation’s best mentors, Bill Wickner at Dartmouth College and Randy Schekman at the University of California, Berkeley will describe “how to get a life in the life sciences.”

As always, the meeting will offer a full day, before the opening session, devoted to career development and professional skills training for students and postdoctoral fellows. And did I mention more than 250 travel awards will help undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows enjoy great science?

The ASBMB annual meeting is where I presented my first public talk. The society has supported my career since, and the meeting is where I found my ever-growing community of colleagues and friends. It can do the same for you.

Please submit an abstract by Nov. 17 and join us in Chicago!

My thanks to the ASBMB Meetings Committee — Dan Raben, Andrew Kruse, Arun Radhakrishnan, Cheryl Bailey, Edgar Cahoon, Enrique De La Cruz, Evette Radisky, Florencia Pascual, Jessica Ellis, Kelly Ten Hagen, Lan Huang, Patrick Grant, Squire Booker, Takita Sumter and Yan Jessie Zhang — and ASBMB meetings professionals Joan Geiling and Danielle King.

Natalie Ahn Natalie Ahn of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is president of the ASBMB.