Embracing change to strengthen ASCB

Soon we will meet in Philadelphia for our Annual Meeting, where I will pass the gavel to incoming president Jodi Nunnari. As I prepare for this transition, I reflect on our Society, on the journey that brought us here, and on ASCB’s future.

The Values at the Heart of ASCB

The founders of cell biology who established ASCB in 1960 set the highest standard for our newly born field: scientific excellence with a focus on quality and depth of research, irrespective of the newsworthiness of a specific topic. They also imprinted the Society with the values associated with the best practice of science, such as intellectual honesty, respect for diversity, and the importance of mentorship. These values are part of the genome of ASCB. Things have evolved, but this spirit is still very much alive. This culture has been passed down through generations of scientists, as I had the opportunity to witness through work with my colleagues on the ASCB Council and committees. Working for ASCB has been a privilege and a most rewarding experience.

We have come a long way from the early days of ASCB. Progress from those days in our understanding of cell structure and function has been astounding. Our Society and its members had a central place in these advances. ASCB meetings have been, and continue to be, crossroads where new information is exchanged, places where people meet their colleagues, hear about new ideas, start new

Pietro De Camilli

collaborations, and forge new research directions. They are events where one is sure to learn about the best science and the best new technology. Often they are the first opportunity for junior scientists to be exposed to a large scientific community and are a defining experience for their careers. For generations of cell biologists, ASCB became an intellectual home, and one expected to last throughout their professional life-time.

The Changing Landscape of the Scientific Enterprise

However, the landscape of science in general, and more specifically of cell biology, is changing, with implications for our Society. The Internet and social media have revolutionized scientific communications, and these changes have impacted the role of ASCB (as well as of other societies) as a conduit for scientific and interpersonal exchanges. The increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science makes cell biologists interested in other traditional societies or in new societies that focus on rapidly expanding fields. The lifelong loyalty of scientists to the societies in their primary field is being eroded.

In the face of these changes, we need to reaffirm the importance of having a strong society of cell biology. As I wrote in January concerning the centrality of cell biology, the study of the cells is where all other biomedical disciplines interconnect.1 The impressive progress that we have made in the elucidation of molecular mechanisms makes it possible to understand all manifestations of life at the cellular level. So, more than ever, our Society has a central importance in science. We should embrace change and strengthen ASCB by capitalizing on this renewed interest in cell biology and by adapting our Society to the new landscape of the scientific enterprise. Identifying the best ways to do so and to guide its future was in fact a motivation behind the Strategic Plan that our Society developed this year. Some priorities for the future include the following:

We need to improve the ways we connect with our membership throughout the year. The effectiveness of COMPASS, our student and postdoc committee, testifies to the importance and usefulness of the engagement of our junior colleagues in helping us navigate the new world of communications.

  • We should enhance the involvement in our Society of scientists from other disciplines by enriching the menu of our offerings at the Annual Meeting and at other venues throughout the year. Modern cell biology requires cooperation of scientists from many different fields, not only biomedical fields, but also physics, chemistry, and computer science.
  • We need to find a good balance between topics that address “core” cell biology, the traditional strength of ASCB, and those that focus on specialized functions of cells in animals and plants. At this year’s meeting, we have emphasized neuroscience, but the inclusion of these topics will have to be expanded in the future. The possibility that we now have to understand most diseases at the cellular level makes ASCB the natural home for research on disease mechanisms.
  • We need to help young scientists discover new and unconventional career paths, since we train more scientists than traditional career paths can absorb.
  • A major priority for the future will be to help enhance diversity in the cell biology workforce. Many of our labs have a good balance of male and female students and postdocs, but the representation of female faculty in most cell biology departments continues to be very modest. ASCB has been at the forefront in addressing this problem, to a large extent through the passionate efforts of the Women in Cell Biology Committee, but clearly much remains to be done. The problem is even more acute for other underrepresented minorities despite the dedication and great work of the Minorities Affairs Committee. This lack of representation deprives the cell biology community of the different perspectives that these groups can bring.
  • A special responsibility of ASCB will be to help shape the future of publishing, following in the steps of the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) initiative. As my predecessor Peter Walter pointed out in a President’s Column that he wrote with Dyche Mullins,2 we have become hostages of for-profit publishing companies, who set the value of the science that we generate. It is important for us scientists to reclaim our responsibility in defining the value of science.
  • Finally, it will be important to expand the international reach of ASCB. We are delighted to have partnered with EMBO in the organization of this year’s meeting, but hopefully this will be only a first step in efforts to have a more international ASCB. Unfortunately, travel restrictions imposed by the current U.S. administration challenge the openness that has defined science in our country and that has been so critical to our scientific excellence and to the advancement of science worldwide.

Promoting the Importance of Science
In the context of the last point, it is important to emphasize that scientific societies are not only about the specific fields that they represent. Their collective strength can and should help shape policies. Over the last year, we have witnessed an unprecedented attack on the values of science and on evidence-based reasoning. This makes it especially important for scientific societies to reaffirm their role as champions of these values. This is particularly true for ASCB, which has typically been at the forefront in promoting the importance of science in society. We have been actively engaged on this front in recent months. Scientific pursuit not only fulfills our wish to understand the natural world and makes possible advancements that improve the quality of life, it is also an important school of intellectual rigor. It shapes our thinking and the way in which we relate to the world. We cannot underestimate our major responsibility in supporting science education at every level, from K–12 to graduate school and beyond, because being exposed to science has an impact that goes much further than learning some facts.

In closing, I feel grateful for the opportunity I had to work closely with exceptional colleagues at ASCB during the past year. I would like to thank members of ASCB’s Executive Committee and Council, as well as members of the ASCB committees, for their dedication to the Society. I also would like to thank Tobias Walther and Laura Machesky (Program co-chairs) and all members of the Program Committee for putting together an impressive Annual Meeting, Kelsey Martin and Frank Bradke for spearheading the doorstep meeting on the Cell Biology of Degeneration and Repair in the Nervous System, and Alison Harris and Heather Smith for providing exceptional support in the organization of these meetings. I am especially grateful to Erika Shugart, our CEO, who has embraced with enthusiasm and passion her new job at ASCB and whose partnership with me in leading ASCB has been critically important during this past year. Finally, I would like to thank the entire staff of the central office, whose work, mostly hidden from our view, is so essential for the life of ASCB. I wish the best to Jodi Nunnari. With her vision, enthusiasm, and energy she will be a very effective president.


1De Camilli P (2017). The centrality of cell biology. ASCB Newsletter 40(1), 3–5. www.ascb.org/centrality-cell-biology.
2Walter P, Mullins D (2016). On publishing and the Sneetches: a wake-up call? ASCB Newsletter 39(8), 3–8. www.ascb.org/walter-on-publishing.

Questions and comments are welcome and should be sent to president@ascb.org.

About the Author:

Pietro De Camilli, MD, is the John Klingenstein Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Cell Biology; HHMI Investigator; Chair of the Department of Neuroscience; and Director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience and Program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair (CNNR) at Yale University.

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