A year, fast and slow

The year 2020 is coming to an end and this will be my last column as ASCB President. It has been a year to remember, or many would say, a year to try to forget. For probably most of us, the last nine months have given us a strange sense of time. They seem to have passed in the blink of an eye, but also to be interminable, a period simply too hard to conceive, almost illogical. It has been a time when science has taken, almost involuntarily, but ultimately with a passion, center stage to keep us sane and hopeful.

For me, the extra dimension of going through these unique and challenging times has been to do so as ASCB President. And for that, I am grateful. I am grateful to have shared those challenges with so many of you, to have learned so much from you, and to have been amazed at your resourcefulness, your dedication, and your disarming optimism. I am writing this just a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday, which this year will have a different taste of tart cranberries at smaller tables, but for me will be more reflective than ever before. So much to give thanks for, to appreciate how those around us, by whichever means they could envision, have supported each other and given us a sense of community that does not cave under challenge, but rises, persists, and builds resilience as it goes. So, I want to use this last column to say thanks, to express my gratitude to those that have rubbed, often “screen-based,” shoulders with me this year, working within and for ASCB.

To start with, I cannot express enough gratitude to ASCB’s CEO, Erika Shugart. Erika, your professionalism, your thoughtfulness, and your grace, no matter the difficulty of the circumstances, is simply inspirational. I knew from others that coming into this post you would be my best ally and support, but I never imagined to what extent I would come to rely on and trust your judgement and your leadership. I wish I could convey to those reading this column how thankful we all should feel having you at the helm of our Society. It has been a true privilege to work with you.

I am also immensely grateful to my predecessor, 2019 ASCB President Andrew Murray, who is a brilliant and deeply caring individual. Andrew and Ruth Lehmann, 2021 ASCB President, are both first and foremost, truly amazing scientists, but also possess a generosity that I deeply admire. Ruth, I look forward to my Past-President post under your very capable leadership!

I want to extend my gratitude to everyone in the ASCB office, who have gone beyond the call of duty to adapt to challenging and constantly changing circumstances this year and have done so in such a smooth way that it appeared seamless to the rest of us. I would like to especially thank Azra Chughtai, who with her amazing patience answered all my questions, often more than once, holding my hand to take me where I needed to be in so many occasions; the Membership staff, Brian Theil and Jennifer Acker, for never giving up on their efforts to engage and retain ASCB members; Kevin Wilson, for teaching me so much about how to talk to policy makers (and in better times for organizing those fantastic Hill Day visits to Congress); Uloma Nwauche and her finance team, Kelly McManus and Ruth Williams, for giving us the numbers in ways we could understand and that helped us make decisions moving forward; Alison Harris, a true magician in the crazily complex process of organizing and running an annual meeting and who this year fearlessly led the process of moving to a virtual platform along with her team, Danielle Raiford and Jennifer Acker. To the rest of the staff, thank you for your incredibly successful efforts to make ASCB so strong in education, professional development, scientific publishing, and advocacy.

Within the Executive Committee, Gary Gorbsky just ended six years of dedicated service to our Society as Treasurer. It is thanks to him that the robustness of the Society will get us through unprecedented economic challenges. Thank you also to Kerry Bloom for his thoughtfulness and kindness, and for renewing his commitment to serve as ASCB Secretary.

I would like to thank all the members of Council whom I had the opportunity to interact with. This year we needed to convert our biannual in-person meetings to virtual ones, so I did miss the chance to interact with you beyond the business meetings. But the June gathering was particularly meaningful to me because of the diversity, equity, and inclusion training that we did together. It was a unique opportunity to get to know you and how much you care about issues as central to our scientific society, and to the United States society in general, as racial injustice and inequality and the paths ahead to overcome them.

So many from our cell biology community generously volunteer their time and mental and emotional energy to contribute to the running and the successes of ASCB. I am particularly thankful to Rebecca Heald and Buzz Baum for chairing the Program Committee this year and putting together a fantastic lineup of speakers and events for Cell Bio Virtual 2020–An Online ASCB|EMBO Meeting. The amount of thought they and their committee put into this hard balancing act cannot be overstated.

A big shout out to the members of all the ASCB committees, which ultimately serve as the engines for many of our activities, and who often challenge the status quo so that ASCB can continue to get better. The generous participation of many members at different stages of their careers in these committees also seems like the umbilical cord connecting leadership with the broader ASCB membership.

Finally, I am grateful to be able to count myself among all of you, my cohort, my peers, my fellow scientists. There is only one thing better than the privilege of dedicating your life to do scientific research, to discover the complex beauty of the cell one little bit at a time, and it is to share that privilege with a forward-looking, creative, and bright community that is in a constant state of renewal.

This year I have been incredibly fortunate, lucky beyond deserving, thanks to my position as ASCB President. Because I was in this post, I was able to meet, if only virtually, the recipient of this year’s Public Service Award, Anthony Fauci. I admire Fauci’s conviction, integrity, intelligence, and compassion, and talking to him for a few minutes was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of 2020 for me. It also gave me great pleasure to represent our Society in a letter addressed to President-elect Joe Biden expressing the urgency of reversing policies that are damaging our scientific endeavors (see p. 23). While uncertainty lies ahead in so many aspects of our lives and our work, my experience this year as ASCB President has taught me that there is a lot that can be accomplished when we keep our goals clear, when we remain true to our purpose, and when we work together.

About the Author:

Eva Nogales is professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator; and Senior Faculty Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She is the 2020 President of ASCB.