Helping Each Other

Although you are reading this essay in February, I am actually writing it in the first weeks of January. We have a new year, a new ASCB CEO (welcome Rebecca Alvania), a new ASCB President, and, unfortunately, a new Covid-19 surge. I am excited about working with everyone at ASCB to make this year helpful and exciting for all our members. 

I want to start this column by saying thank you to several people. First, I want to thank Ruth Lehmann, who did a terrific job as last year’s President. Navigating the ASCB through a second year of remote participation and a search for a new CEO was quite a challenge, but Ruth carried it off with ease. I also want to thank Eva Nogales, last year’s Past President, who with Ruth showed me how to be an ASCB President. My transition was also helped by Kerry Bloom, our Secretary, and Malcolm Campbell, our Treasurer. Together they make a terrific Executive Committee that will be even stronger this year with the addition of Erika Holzbaur as our new President-Elect. They and the ASCB Council show a commitment and enthusiasm that indicates a real love and admiration for the Society.

Last year my one big job as President-Elect was to begin organizing the 2022 Annual Meeting. I was nervous about all the work that I thought was involved, but was told by past presidents that I shouldn’t worry because Director of Meetings Alison Harris was amazing and would make it easy. If anything, they underestimated her abilities. Alison along with Avery August and Maya Schuldiner, the co-chairs of the 2022 Program Committee, and the other members of the Committee have already put together a very exciting meeting—one that we all hope will be in person. Indeed, I enjoyed working with all of them, and I am grateful for their efforts.

Finally, I want to thank all of the amazing staff at ASCB, especially Thea Clarke and Kevin Wilson who ran ASCB as acting co-CEOs. Life continued and the Society flourished because of their efforts and the remarkable work of all the members of the staff. Thank you.

I have been very proud over the years to see the Society push itself and its members to continue to help one another.

I have been reflecting on why I have felt strongly and positively about the ASCB since I was a postdoc, and I realize that it is because of how I was treated by an impressive group of cell biologists when I was starting my career. I had gotten my PhD in physiology and arrived at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, England, in 1977 to do a postdoc in Sydney Brenner’s worm group. This group was part of the Cell Biology Division, but I actually knew very little cell biology. I started working on the genetics of touch sensitivity in Caenorhabditis elegans, a system that had just been discovered by John Sulston. The touch-sensing neurons had a very prominent bundle of microtubules, and by looking at the many serial micrographs that had already been made of the cells, I realized that the microtubules were short and did not run continuously through the entire neurite as people had thought. This observation led to a paper in The Journal of Cell Biology. Six or so months after publication my friend and fellow postdoc Phil Anderson was being interviewed for a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Frank Solomon. Frank mentioned that he had just been at a small meeting in which my microtubule paper had been discussed, and Frank, not knowing me, asked Phil if I was a staff member at the lab. Phil said no, I was a postdoc and then added that I wasn’t getting any job interviews. Frank then did something wonderfully kind and, to me, surprising: he called several friends and at the end of the day I had invitations from Frank to talk at MIT, from Bob Goldman to talk at Carnegie-Mellon, and from Guenter Albrecht-Buehler to talk at the Cold Spring Harbor Labs. I was beginning to learn about the incredible willingness of cell biologists to help others in their field.

I soon had another example. We had had a group of very accomplished cell biologists who spent their sabbaticals at the LMB, and I learned from all of them: Dick McIntosh, Gary Borisy, Ron Morris, and Joel Rosenbaum. The last two were at the LMB at the time I started applying for assistant professorships, and both surprised me one day by asking if they could write letters of recommendation for me. I was bowled over by their kindness.

This helpfulness gave me a model of how scientists should (and how many cell biologists do) behave toward one another. When I went to my first Cell Biology Meeting after starting my lab at Columbia (and ASCB was the first professional society that I had joined), I found many more people who were just as enthusiastic about their science and supportive of their colleagues. And I have been very proud over the years to see the Society push itself and its members to continue to help one another. To name just a few initiatives, it was the ASCB that started the Coalition for the Life Sciences, CBE—Life Sciences Education, and the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). And we have a wonderful tradition, spearheaded by the Women in Cell Biology (WICB; now starting its second 50 years), Minorities Affairs (MAC), and LGBTQ+ Committees and the Committee for Postdocs and Students, of making sure that all members of our community are welcomed, included, and helped.

Give us your input and opinions.

This camaraderie is what drew me to the ASCB, and the examples of helping that so many showed me is what has motivated me to give back to the Society. During these first weeks of the year, I have attended meetings of several ASCB committees and have been heartened by the dedication of all of their members. They all consider ASCB their scientific home and want to make it such for all our members.

Nonetheless, the question remains of what else we can do to help one another. I would like to make three suggestions. First, become more involved in the Society. Give us your input and opinions. The members of the Executive Committee, the Council, and our many committees are here to help you. Reach out to any one of us, and let us know how you feel the Society can better help you in your professional life. In turn, you can contribute to the success of the Society by volunteering. Use the “Volunteer” tab on the ASCB website or get in touch with the committee chairs and the Program Committee for the Annual Meeting to find out about volunteer opportunities. And become more involved in Society activities. For example, contribute to various community discussions, organize a local event, or attend one of the Emerging Researcher talks, which start on February 17 and occur throughout the year.

Second, promote cell biology and cell biologists at your institution. Invite more cell biologists to give seminars in your department. The WICB, MAC, and LGBTQ+ Committees have prepared lists of astonishing cell biologists who deserve to have their science and voices heard. In general, we should be promoting the science of our peers. As I indicated above, it was such support that really made me feel welcomed when I was starting out. And let people know when you like their research. 

Papers put into a preprint archive…contain the latest results, and the authors are still open to feedback and suggestions

Third, start a preprint journal club in your lab. For almost five years now, the members of my lab have had a journal club every other week, but the articles we read are not published in journals; they come from a preprint server (this idea isn’t mine; I learned about it from Francis Collins). Journal clubs help people learn new material and hone their skills evaluating science. Unfortunately, journal clubs with published papers have inherent problems since the amount of time needed for review and publication makes the material dated and any suggestions that one might have to improve the paper are moot. Papers put into a preprint archive, however, contain the latest results, and the authors are still open to feedback and suggestions. In my lab, one person (technician, undergraduate, graduate student, or postdoc) chooses a preprint, leads the discussion, collects all the comments and questions that arise, and sends our suggestions to the authors. We learn the latest results in areas that we care greatly about, gain skills in evaluating science, and get an opportunity to help other scientists with their projects. I feel this last aspect is one of the real advantages of these journal clubs. We are all in this together, so why not help one another? And the authors benefit from having new eyes looking at and thinking about their work. The authors we have contacted have been very grateful for our feedback and often say that they are starting similar journal clubs in their labs. No one has ever told us to stop reading their papers. To me, this is one of the easiest ways we can support one another while we also help ourselves and carry on the tradition of helping that I so admire in the members of this Society.

P.S. As an added note (just to get it on the record): Soon after January 1, I mentioned to my wife, the geneticist Tulle Hazelrigg, that I was now officially the President of ASCB. She asked me how long my term was, and I told her that I was President-Elect, President, and Past President, each for one year. Then she asked, “When do you become Jester?” I’m still trying to figure that out.

About the Author:

ASCB President Martin Chalfie is University Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University.