Writing my last Executive Director’s Column for the ASCB Newsletter is bittersweet. The bitter part comes from reflecting on the end of my time leading this fabulous organization. I know I will miss so many ASCB people with whom I have closely interacted. That includes the Society’s leadership, its staff, and the many members whom I have had the privilege of meeting. It was an honor to have had a chance to work so closely with so many inspiring science leaders and practitioners, along with a talented national office staff. All of you have enriched my experience, my job, and my vision of what science must be in the mid-21st century.
So, what’s the sweet? The sweet comes from looking ahead to my new role at the American Society for Microbiology, where from January 1 will be the new Chief Executive Officer. I look forward to joining the scientific renaissance sweeping through the microbial sciences, which are now poised to contribute to solving some of the daunting problems facing humanity—emerging and reemerging infectious diseases, food sustainability, clean energy, and climate change.
The ASCB is a complex machine that relies on a delicate balance between our valuable volunteers…and our dedicated staff….
But the three years that I have spent as ASCB Executive Director have been a revelation. First there was my rapid education in managing a modern scientific society. The ASCB is a complex machine that relies on a delicate balance between our valuable volunteers, themselves faced with time constraints and multiple demands, and our dedicated staff, who have been extending our operations in new directions. All this came at a time when new resources have become harder than ever to find. But redefining the role of a professional society in a rapidly changing environment has been our common mission.
The New Cell Biology: A Central and Vital Discipline
From a scientific perspective, cell biology is in the midst of radical transformation, moving from a self-standing discipline toward becoming an “embedded” discipline in other, more specialized fields. Many scientists who are clearly cell biologists now belong de facto to more narrowly self-identified communities such as cancer biology, neuroscience, synthetic biology, and many others. Paradoxically, the centrality of cell biology has never been more powerful.
During my tenure, I saw the Lasker Award go to ASCB members in three separate years. In 2012, the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research went to ASCB members Ron Vale, Jim Spudich, and Mike Sheetz. In 2013, it went to ASCB member Richard Scheller (together with Tom Südhof ). And in 2014, ASCB member Peter Walter (who will be ASCB President in 2016) shared the prize with Kazutoshi Mori. The year 2013 was memorable as well for what I call the Nobel Prize in Cell Biology, which went to ASCB stalwarts Randy Schekman and Jim Rothman as well as to Tom Südhof for “discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.” You see? The Nobel Prize in Cell Biology, not in Medicine or Physiology!
In the last three years, I also saw several ASCB members being elected to the National Academies and winning other important prizes. I am deeply suspicious of those who use statistical rankings (e.g., journal impact factors) to evaluate science, but I do regard these high- level recognitions as an indicator that our field, our people, and our science are vital elements in the big scheme of things. I also recognize the great value of day-to-day research by our members who identify key mechanisms, tease out cause from correlation, and brick by brick construct the edifice that is our knowledge of the cell.
[T]he centrality of cell biology has never been more powerful.
Still, a major challenge for cell biology and for ASCB is not to rest on our laurels but to capture the future of science and nurture the young scientists who will build it. On this front, I think we have moved the needle in a positive direction over the past three years. We have extended the rubric of cell biology and drawn in new disciplines, new technologies, new energy, and new people. We can’t stop here. But I believe that the ASCB Council, staff, and the next Executive Director will press on.
The New ASCB: Learning about Ourselves In this changing environment, I am reminded of a quote from Jack Welch, who ran GE for many turbulent years. Welch said that when the rate of change outside an organization is greater than the rate of change inside the organization, the end is near. By this measure, the end of ASCB is
NOT near. The rate of internal change at ASCB over the past three years has been exhilarating. It has been painful at times, but we have put in place the outlines of what I call “organization learning,” a professional society version of machine learning. ASCB is learning how to learn about itself, about our members’ needs, about the wider horizon of scientific trends, and about our generational differences. This has allowed ASCB to focus on key strategic changes. It would be tedious to enumerate all the changes and new initiatives ASCB has undertaken in the last three years, but let me look at them on the aggregate level.
An important focus of the ASCB is on young scientists, who are facing unprecedented challenges in today’s environment. We want them to be better off because of what ASCB does for them, so we have focused on their “value proposition.” What’s in ASCB for them? It’s a fair question. The days of belonging to a scientific society for the sake of belonging are gone.
First, ASCB responded to their needs by offering students and postdocs a seat at the leadership table. The ASCB Council also invited them to form their own committee, COMPASS, and Council has since watched as that committee exploded into the most dynamic and energetic committee of the modern-day ASCB.
Second, ASCB established new programs to recognize young scientists for their excellence both in and outside academia. We believe that an academic bench career is no longer the default career path in cell biology. Still, research excellence is the hallmark of great scientists. To highlight research achievements and options for younger members, we established the Kaluza Prizes for graduate students, the ASCB-Gibco Emerging Leader Prizes for new independent investigators, and the ASCB-KGI Biotech Course for young scientists thinking of a career in the biotech industry.
We also developed closer relationships with scientists in other countries. To recognize this accelerating internationalization while still maintaining the “A” in ASCB, we added the tagline “an international forum for cell biology” to our logo. It has long been in our mission. Now it’s right out front.
I am proud to say that all these changes and new initiatives have made a difference at the membership level. Thanks to the efforts of the dynamic ASCB Membership Committee and to key ASCB staff, we have greatly slowed or even reversed worrisome trends. In the past two years, we have had double-digit percentage increases in postdoc and graduate student memberships and have seen a strong improvement in regular member retention. These are particularly comforting results.
New initiatives like those described above all required significant resources. We found them by partnering with companies and outside organizations where we could identify a common ground and a common interest. In all cases, ASCB has controlled the scientific agenda. Financially, these new initiatives have paid for themselves, for the staff time involved, and beyond.
We have also increased the value proposition for our invaluable allies, the companies that exhibit at the ASCB Annual Meeting. In 2014, we created the ASCB Learning Center, shifting the accent from a passive exhibit of products to a venue for active learning. This resulted in an enhanced experience for exhibitors, attendees, and members alike. It’s also generated new traffic—and new discussions—along ASCB’s legendary “poster alleys,” which are still the heart of the hall.
Policy and Publishing
We also focused on public policy and advocacy. ASCB has a long, distinguished tradition in science policy. To this, we added more of a “think tank” flavor by exploring controversial topics and producing white papers that can provide new science policy guidelines. With the invaluable help from strong leaders such as Larry Goldstein and Mark Winey, ASCB produced white papers on the future of stem cell research and on the thorny issue of data reproducibility. These reports were widely noted by federal science agencies, the news media, and other science organizations. They added to ASCB’s ongoing reputation on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch as a “go to” group for insights and reliable information.
On the scholarly publishing front, we exercised strong leadership in convening several publishers and editors to start the anti–impact factor insurrection known as DORA (or, more formally, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment). I have immensely enjoyed working with Molecular Biology of the Cell Editor-in-Chief David Drubin and the “DORA team of insurgents.” Changing bad habits and bad incentives is very tough work, and the road is still long and curvy. However, I am encouraged by the over 12,000 individuals and the 592 organizations who signed DORA. Wherever I travel around the world, I am approached by people who know and speak about DORA. There is much to be done, but I think ASCB has already moved the needle in an effective way on this important front.
At ASCB, we live in a community of great scientific stories. To tell them and to talk among ourselves, ASCB needed to move to new digital platforms and online communities. In the last three years, ASCB has dramatically extended its communication reach through new media and old.
I am very proud of our website, which is now rich in content with blogs and timely news in the ASCB Post. Our meeting pages are faster and more useful. Our meeting app is a glamorous necessity. Many ASCB committees such as COMPASS now conduct nearly all their business through online “hang outs” and cloud- based documents. Our scholarly publications continue to pioneer online publishing. But we still produce and circulate our popular ASCB Newsletter on PAPER! (But we also have a new, digital edition of the ASCB Newsletter. Don’t worry; the printed version is not going away.)
The Chemistry of ASCB
Council has since watched as [COMPASS] exploded into the most dynamic and energetic committee of the modern-day ASCB.
I could write about the many other things that we have tackled and many that still remain as challenges, but I have a more important point to make in closing. Of course, I did not do this alone. At best, I think of myself as a recycled catalyst, now three years older. But catalysts need reactants. At ASCB, I was fortunate in reacting well with a series of past, present, and just-elected ASCB Presidents. I captured electrons and formed covalent bonds with many talented ASCB Council members, committee chairs, and “ordinary” ASCB members who seemed to spring out of the woodwork whenever a difficult project materialized.
But particular praise for my staff is in order. Change is difficult—frightening in the beginning, messy in the middle, and, if all goes well, sweet at the end.
As I said at the outset, this is a bittersweet moment—much accomplished, much more still ahead. But I am proud to say that through all the stormy changes I felt ASCB had to face in the last three years, the ASCB staff rose to the challenge. They worked incredibly hard and with great passion toward a vision for a bigger and better ASCB. Every ASCB member should be very proud and grateful to have such a team working on his or her behalf. And so for ASCB staff, for ASCB members, and, I hope, for myself, ad maiora!
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