No luck required: Society-funded translational cell biology symposium was well-planned

Panelists (left to right) Tamara Mandell, Dr. Zahara Jaffer, and Glenn Ladwig answer a variety of student questions centered around careers outside academia.
Panelists (left to right) Tamara Mandell, Dr. Zahara Jaffer, and Glenn Ladwig answer a variety of student questions centered around careers outside academia.

The bad luck of Friday the 13th proved to have no hold over the events of the Third Annual Florida Translational Cell Biology (FTCB) Symposium this September as over 160 scientists from all career stages gathered on the beautiful campus of the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville to further their shared passion for cell biology. This event, generously supported for the third time by an ASCB Early Career Meeting Grant was organized by a committee of five PhD students from UF, the Florida State University (FSU), and the University of Central Florida (UCF). The goal of the meeting was to “bridge the gap between basic cell biology and translational research” in the state of Florida. A full program of student ASCB microsymposium-style talks, a poster session, career panel discussion, and keynote speaker did just that.

Throughout the day, 15 graduate students and 1 postdoc were given an opportunity to present their work as a talk and receive feedback on their projects. One of the most nerve-wracking but important questions researchers can face in their work is so what? When asked to provide a real-world analogy for her model, Randi Reed (FSU) compared the insertion of proteasome subunit tails into neighboring subunits to the prongs of a plug needing to be inserted into an outlet in order for a vacuum cleaner to turn on and work. You would never have known she made up the analogy on the spot if she hadn’t confessed to it! This exercise illustrated two key principles to me: First, developing the ability to think on your toes can elevate your scientific communication. And second, scientific inspiration can be found anywhere—even in everyday objects such as household cleaning supplies!

Third Annual FTCB Symposium Organizers (left to right): Kristen Skruber (UF), John Calise (UF), Caitlyn Blake-Hedges (FSU), Marisa Tillery (FSU), Jami Conley Calderon (UCF).

New to the symposium this year was a panel discussion on careers outside academia featuring three local panelists: Dr. Zahara Jaffer, Program Director for Business Development at UF Innovate; Mr. Glenn Ladwig, Partner and Registered Patent Attorney at Saliwanchik, Lloyd, and Eisenschenk; and Ms. Tamara Mandell, Director for Education and Training at Biotility. These panelists patiently and enthusiastically fielded questions on topics ranging from broad career advice to job-specific inquiries. They also graciously made themselves available after the panel to converse with interested students. One constant theme, interwoven through all their answers, was the importance of networking. Panelists emphasized that you never know where a connection might take you.

If you personally have never been to a local meeting such as the FTCB Symposium, I would encourage you to go. They are wonderful (and perhaps less intimidating) places to jumpstart your network. If you are unable to locate a regional meeting, that’s an opportunity to start one yourself! Obviously tackling the planning of a meeting alone would be overwhelming, but this is where networking comes into play. The collective wisdom of members of your institution is a great place to start. Reaching out to those who have organizational leadership experience (like us, the FTCB Symposium organizers) is a close second. In my experience, advanced scientists in our field are more than willing to help younger scientists with these projects. When the opportunity to plan your own meeting arises, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and seek plenty of advice from a variety of sources. Choose a manageable goal and go for it! Some good places to start the creative juices flowing are:

Dr. Samara Reck-Peterson (UC San Diego, HHMI Investigator) gives her keynote talk, “Trucks, tolls, and traffic jams: Mechanisms of the cellular interstate system.”

Headlining the day’s events was University of California San Diego (UCSD) professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator Samara Reck-Peterson, PhD with her keynote lecture titled, “Trucks, tolls, and traffic jams: Mechanisms of the cellular interstate system.” Here she presented novel data indicating that a clinically relevant protein may form “roadblocks” along microtubules that dynein must navigate in order to carry out its microtubule-dependent transport function. After a full morning of talks, posters, and a panel discussion, I was especially glad to listen to her well-organized, easy-to-follow presentation. It reminded me that good science reaches its full potential when others can understand and appreciate it. At one point during the Q&A after her talk, with arms raised above her head to carry an invisible cargo along a “microtubule” floorboard, Reck-Peterson herself became dynein as she explained how the complex might make its way along the cytoskeletal highway. You may read that and chuckle, but it was a very effective way of getting her point across. As someone who aspires to include teaching in my future career, I definitely appreciated this lesson.

The day concluded with an informal reception and opportunity to continue the conversation with Reck-Peterson at a local restaurant. For us organizers, it was a welcomed time to relax after a well-planned but busy day. Having since had a little time to recover after the event, I can now say that I can’t wait to start planning next year’s symposium! I look forward to seeing all the friends (read: network) that I’ve made from across the state and hearing updates on the fascinating science being done all around me. Having attended the Symposium every year since its inception in 2017, I can attest to the fact that it keeps getting better year after year. Once you’ve organized your first symposium or conference and see how your plans play out in real life, you will gain a better understanding of best practices and can tweak next year’s plans accordingly. And when you plan everything to a T, you don’t have to worry about luck, and Friday the 13th becomes like any other day!

By the Numbers:


Institutions Represented:

  • UF
  • FSU
  • UCF
  • Mayo Clinic
  • Nova Southeastern University
  • UC San Diego

Participant Career Levels:

  • 85 Graduate Students
  • 33 Faculty
  • 16 Undergrad
  • 16 Other (Technicians, Research Staff, etc.)
  • 10 Postdocs
  • 2 MD Students
  • 3 Panelists

A new program offering financial support for local and regional meetings will be rolled out in early 2020. Please watch ASCB’s website for more details.

About the Author:

Marisa is a PhD student in the Biomedical Sciences Department at Florida State University. She works in the lab of Dr. Timothy Megraw where she studies microtubule organizing centers using Drosophila melanogaster as a model system. In her free time, she enjoys playing her mellophone, knitting accessories she’ll never wear in Florida, and binge-watching whatever TV show she’s currently into. Email: