Extreme Makeover of the Annual ASCB|EMBO Meeting

ASCB President Eva Nogales asked Buzz Baum and Rebecca Heald, co-chairs of the Program Committee for Cell Bio Virtual 2020–An ASCB|EMBO Meeting, to be guest authors for this issue’s President’s Column.

Over a year ago, back when we agreed to help organize the 2020 ASCB|EMBO meeting, we had a vision. We thought back to the thrill of previous meetings. We remembered the talks we had heard that captivated us, conversations over a beer that altered the path we took in science, the awesome sight of a sea of hundreds of cytoskeleton posters, and the feelings of exhilaration and terror when sharing unpublished data. We wanted to make sure that this year’s meeting lived up to this legacy as an event to remember both for those coming for the very first time and for those who have come to every ASCB meeting since they were students.

We also wanted this year’s ASCB|EMBO meeting to be more than just a U.S./European affair. We wanted it to live up to its reputation as an inclusive conference that brings together cell biologists from across the globe. This seemed especially important given the recent tides of nationalism. Science, after all, is a collective human endeavor. While a flash of insight by one individual may change the way we see things, it is the work of the community that drives science forward and ensures that our understanding of the biological world stands on solid foundations. For research to have lasting impact, it has to be possible to replicate it in Buenos Aires, Birmingham, and Bangalore. It is by sharing our data and our ideas at meetings, like the 2020 ASCB|EMBO meeting, that the truth emerges, and we can suddenly make sense of how all the little pieces fit together.

[I]t is the work of the community that drives science forward and ensures that our understanding of the biological world stands on solid foundations.

To make this possible, and mindful of the need to share our views of the natural world in a way that doesn’t contribute to its destruction, it was our wish that the 2020 meeting be streamed online. The idea was to use the latest technology to bridge the entire cell biology community so that scientists could still attend even if they were unable to travel to the meeting (because of financial or family concerns or visa issues) or had decided not to fly because of their concerns about the carbon cost. Everyone said, “Nice idea. But no. The technology simply isn’t there yet. It’s impossible. In five years?” And then along came SARS-Cov-2.

The impact of COVID-19 on all of our lives has been devastating. But in responding to the challenges of the pandemic our eyes have been opened. The virus has shown us how adaptable we are. It has showcased the amazing ability and urge of scientists worldwide to share data (including the Chinese scientists who first released the SARS-Cov-2 genome sequence) and to rise to a challenge. With humanity pitted against a deadly virus, funding agencies acted quickly to support research, journals were willing to fast-track the publication process, and our scientific community has been eager to apply basic research to the problem and to correct any misconceptions that have come with the pressure to produce drugs and vaccines. It has been amazing to see the speed at which knowledge can advance! The virus has also taught us how much of our work can be done from home, in pajamas.

So, here we are, hosting the first virtual ASCB|EMBO meeting. It’s a milestone! Suddenly there are no borders. From undergraduates to emeritus professors, there are no limits to who can share their results and learn about the very latest, exciting cell biology and participate in career development and networking events.

While we envisioned the ASCB|EMBO meeting having an online presence, we never imagined anything like the virtual conference that has been made possible through the heroic efforts of the ASCB and EMBO leadership including ASCB President Eva Nogales, the Program Committee who helped to identify the very best speakers and topics, and most of all the ASCB and EMBO staff who are actually going to make it happen. Suddenly, however, all that is lost by not meeting in person becomes clear. It’s not just the smell of the poster session popcorn. We are reminded that the annual ASCB|EMBO meeting was never just a conference. It’s a family affair and carnival all mixed into one. By not gathering, we’ll miss the session juggling, the brave student who puts his head into the jaws of the old lion, the magic of a gesticulation that makes an abstract idea clear, and above all, the multigenerational lab reunions. Yes, science is a collective social endeavor. And we are social creatures: “Half chimp, half bee.” So, let’s hope that future meetings can include online streaming but also emphasize the importance of and need for human interactions.

[C]hange out of your pajamas (if you feel like it), sign up, and log on for what promises to be one of the most memorable ASCB|EMBO meetings ever.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis and the decision to put on a virtual meeting, ASCB was committed to making the meeting more diverse and inclusive. This year, for the first time, a new speaker selection process was deployed that ensures better representation of presenters and topics. As always, the program includes education and professional development sessions, as well as opportunities for attendees at all career levels to interact and establish mentoring relationships.

So, change out of your pajamas (if you feel like it), sign up, and log on for what promises to be one of the most memorable ASCB|EMBO meetings ever. We have a brilliant set of sessions and speakers covering the full breadth of cell biology. Our Keynote speaker, Svante Pääbo, promises to tell us about one of the most remarkable stories in modern science—our origins as a species. We have a wide range of Symposia, Minisymposia, and Workshops on topics including the cytoskeleton and intracellular trafficking, cell–cell communication and information processing, the emergence of pattern and form in tissues, and the cell biology of diseases. The meeting also features a special session on COVID-19.

This year, the virtual format removes barriers and allows our global cell biology community to get involved, participate in the conference, and connect with other scientists and educators.

We can’t wait to see all of you there!

Rebecca Heald

Buzz Baum

Register for the Cell Bio Virtual 2020 Meeting or learn more about the meeting program here.

About the Author:

Rebecca Heald is professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Buzz Baum is Group Leader in the Cell Biology Division at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.