John Fleischman

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

Consider it a triumphant return appearance. Their roles and most of all their science had changed in the dozen years since Elaine Fuchs, then president of the ASCB, introduced her keynote speaker at the 2001 ASCB Annual Meeting, Craig Venter. That had been during Venter's first big moment in the world media spotlight as head of Celera, his private "shotgun" gene sequencing company that had just completed the first draft of the human genome in an uneasy alliance with the public consortium led by the National Institutes of Health. Already a leading investigator of stem cells, a term that was just coming into the public consciousness in 2001, Fuchs was about to move to the Rockefeller University in New York City.

In the pantheon of Great Biologists, there are major discoveries and powerful insights but great humor is more or less limited to GBS Haldane's wisecrack about evolution revealing the Creator's "inordinate fondness for beetles." But if you're looking for funny in cell biology, try the pantheon's very small humour annex in Chicago where Stan Cohn teaches at DePaul University and studies diatoms, the vast group of unicellular algae that anchors the oceanic food, acts as water pollution markers, and continues to intrigue cell biologists because of their silica cell walls and exquisite photo sensitivity.

Insurrection, intellectual rebellion, or learned remonstrance, call it what you will, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, or DORA, began one year ago this week in a windowless meeting room in the depths of the Moscone Convention Center when a group of scientists, journal editors, and publishers decided they had a common problem that needed addressing—the journal impact factor, or JIF.

It is the Talk of Talks. Win the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology and you get an hour in the brand new 1,000-seat Aula Medica of the Karolinska Institutet in which to explain the science that earned your airfare to Stockholm. In your Nobel lecture, you can thank your mentors, colleagues, and former labbies plus include a wave hello to family. You can also point out the philosophical implications of your work or issue a dire warning.

One is an insider who just came in from the outside, the other, an outsider serving as an advisor at the very highest level. But both are key players in the future of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Both will be on stage at the ASCB Annual Meeting in New Orleans on Monday, December 16, at 1:30 pm in Room 356.

An experiment: Some warm and starry night, take two senior cell biologists out on a boat. Put wine or beer or something that signals "closed for the day" into one hand and a copy of Craig Venter's latest book, Life At the Speed of Light into the other. (You might have to hold the flashlight.) Ask aloud, "So what do you think of Craig Venter?" Be prepared for a long but interesting night.

The Kanawha River cuts through Charleston, West Virginia, on its way north to join the Ohio. On this brilliant October morning, the sun is quickly burning off the fog filling the river bottoms and setting the golden dome on the state capitol ablaze. It is the perfect fall Saturday for tossing a football or raking leaves. And yet 70 grad students, postdocs, and biology faculty turn up at the West Virginia University (WVU) Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center to hear and talk about cell biology.

A task force, organized by the ASCB to consider the next scientific steps in the stem cell revolution, unveiled its preliminary report on Friday Nov. 13. The report highlighted three "opportunities" for using cultured human embryonic (hES) and human induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells in both human and animal model systems. The ASCB Stem Cell Task Force predicted that the greatest scientific payoff for stem cell research in the next few years would come from strengthening our basic knowledge of cell and developmental biology, through better understanding of genetic variation within and between species, and finally by taking advantage of what's already been learned from stem cell biology about biological mechanisms to construct artificial or enhanced organs.

Sydney Brenner is, of course, the Nobel Prize winner who brought us Caenorhabditis elegans, the lab model organism. That should make Brenner "a man who needs no introduction" except in cell biology where historical amnesia is as common as Pipetman. As Brenner himself noted last year in Science, "I once remarked that all graduate students in biology divide history into two epochs: the past two years and everything else before that, where Archimedes, Newton, Darwin, Mendel—even Watson and Crick—inhabit a time-compressed universe as uneasy contemporaries." 

Recently the organizers of Celldance may have gone too far when they threatened to reveal the fates of all the characters on a certain retro TV dramatic serial involving Madison Avenue. The show is wreathed in cigarette smoke so we weren't feeling bad about choking it off.

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