Scientific horde descends on DC

Exhibit Hall from the 2018 ASCB|EMBO Meeting in San Diego, CA, Sunday, December 9, 2018. 
(Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography)
Exhibit Hall from the 2018 ASCB|EMBO Meeting in San Diego, CA, Sunday, December 9, 2018. (Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography)

If we sported tattoos that said things like “Cells Rule” and “I’m Dynamically Unstable” and we rolled into Washington on a vast phalanx of Harley-Davidsons, this might be the headline greeting this year’s ASCB|EMBO meeting in Washington DC—Cell Biology for the 21st Century. Instead, we’ll quietly take trains, fly, and drive into town with nothing mightier than poster tubes and laptops. As a result, neither the national nor local press will deign to notice our descent on a convention center that is within a mile of the White House and the Capitol. But as stealthily as we arrive, we will matter because science matters and matters twice over: once to the store of human knowledge and once for the ability of that knowledge to improve the human condition.

But you smile and say, “Enough with the lame jokes and noble prose. I’ve already gone to a meeting this summer, there were only 150 attendees, they all worked in my field, there were no concurrent activities, and they gave talks and posters that I could effortlessly understand. Why should I go to this huge meeting, where I have to plan out which one of competing talks I’ll listen to and navigate a sea of posters that stretches as far as the eye can see?” The answer is that the ASCB meeting has everything: scientific diversity, professional development, the chance to see cool new methods and machines, a Doorstep Meeting, and the same sort of specialization you got in your small, manageable summer meeting. I’m going to go through these draws, one at a time, to convince you why you and your lab should head to DC this December.

Just as realtors have three words “Location, location, location,” scientists should have three “Connections, connections, connections.” As the phrase implies, the connections I’m talking about come in three forms. The first is the intellectual connections between different areas of science. Every time you see (in your own research) or hear (in that of others) something unusual you have a chance to make a unifying connection with some other piece of knowledge and that connection can produce new ideas and push science forward. But you can only make the connection if the other piece of knowledge, or something related to it, is already in your mental filing system. The more items and ideas there are in your relational database and the more diverse those objects are, the more likely you are to make exciting connections.

The ASCB|EMBO meeting offers scientific diversity at many different levels. One of them is a meeting within a meeting, Saturday’s Doorstep Meeting, highlights a specific intersection between cell biology and another part of biology or medicine. The theme of this year’s Doorstep is Cancer: From Genomic Instability to Therapy; it will feature speakers and discussions that emphasize the links between the fundamental aspects of cell biology that explain the genetic instability of cancer cells and new approaches to cancer therapy.

The ASCB|EMBO meeting proper also starts on Saturday, beginning with the meetings of 22 Special Interest Subgroups. These are selected from proposals made by groups of scientists who want to focus talks and discussion on a particular subject. The focus of the groups ranges from particular problems, such as Bacterial Cell Organization and The Mechanics of Large Cellular Machines, to newly emerging techniques, such as Tools and Devices for Cell Biology and Machine Intelligence and Statistics in Cell Biology. Others, such as Building the Cell and Bottom Up Cell Biology, cut across disciplines, facilitating connections between diverse groups of cell biologists.

Saturday afternoon ends with the formal introduction of the meeting and the presentation of our keynote speaker, Bruce Stillman, who has spent his career studying how cells replicate their DNA. Since any cell that you study appeared by the growth and division of other cells, including the replication of their DNA, you should be there. You’ll come away with two messages. The first is that cells use a remarkably complicated set of enzymatic processes to enact the process that was first hypothesized in the famous line, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” The second is that persistence matters: it has taken almost 30 years for a community of dedicated scientists to get from the first protein that binds to a replication origin to a fully reconstituted system that depends on 42 proteins that interact to form 16 distinct replication factors.

This year’s meeting features eight Symposia—sessions with talks given by leaders in fields that Elly Tanaka and Sue Jaspersen, and the Program Committee they chaired, picked because they represent cell biology’s most exciting areas. While many talks will cover topics similar to ASCB regulars such as the cytoskeleton and organelles, the Symposia were chosen to illustrate how cell biology is at the hub of fields as diverse as modeling and developmental biology, or biochemistry and genomics. Therefore, instead of giving them traditional titles, like “Cell biology of the cytoskeleton,” we’ve tried to find something that better conveys how cell biology acts as an integrating theme for many areas of science. Our symposia are titled, “Beyond Figure 7: Integrating modeling and experiment in cell biology,” “Attack of the Killer Bugs: The cell biology of infectious disease,” “Decisions, Decisions: How cells choose their fates,” “21st Century Machinery: The structure, function, and evolution of protein machines,” “What Blueprints Tell Us: How genomics informs cell biology,” “Getting from Here to There: Individual and collective cell migrations,” “Google Maps of the Cell: Controlling intracellular traffic flow and direction,” and “D’Arcy Thompson at 100: Controlling Cell Shape and Function.” If you want to know more, you’ll have to come to the meeting or at least look at its webpage (

Beyond the Keynote and Symposia lies the chance to present your own work. Every year, 40% of the participants at the ASCB|EMBO Meeting present their work in a Minisymposium, Microsymposium, or Special Interest Subgroup, and everyone who wishes can present a poster. The opportunity to present your own work and listen to others in these smaller sessions allows me to emphasize the second kind of connection: the human connections that scientists make with each other. At previous ASCB meetings, my work has changed directions because people shared unpublished results with me (and I hope I’ve done the same for them), I’ve started collaborations, I’ve recruited postdocs, I’ve made new friends and I’ve chatted (and occasionally caroused) with old ones. On the science side of social media, presenting a poster will get you new Twitter followers, and meeting interesting scientists will give you new people to follow.

If you’re a student, postdoc, or young PI, figure out who you want to come and listen to your talk or visit your poster. Email them before the meeting to ask them to come hear about your work and critique it. If you’re a geezer like me, respond to these invitations and take the time to wander the poster sessions, get the two minute description from young scientists, and give them your feedback and advice. From either end, discuss your own ideas and unpublished work openly. Being honest and open with others encourages them to reciprocate: The more information you give, the more you’ll get back. On several occasions talking to people at meetings has revealed that my lab was working on the same topic as another lab and led to both collaborations and submitting complementary papers that were published together. They have also led to new ideas and approaches to a research question.

Besides posters, the Exhibit Hall also houses exhibitors, and these range from manufacturers of equipment and reagents to publishers, societies (including both ASCB and EMBO), and the National Institutes of Health. It is a great place to meet editors from your favorite journals, including Molecular Biology of the Cell. You can test drive the latest microscopes and learn about other machinery and techniques and figure out what your holiday wish list looks like for the moment when your personal scientific deity sends floods of your local currency into your office.

Finally, there is the third and last form of connection: making connections that influence what you’re going to do in the future. ASCB and EMBO are deeply committed to helping individual scientists and scientific communities develop and grow. At our joint meeting, we offer a wide variety of professional development activities designed to foster the growth of both individuals and groups. Career-focused workshops and hands-on sessions provide training and mentorship to people at all levels, with sessions on finding a graduate school, a postdoctoral lab, or a position in industry or academia; navigating through tenure; and how to write and review proposals and papers and produce more accurate and unbiased assessments of research and individuals competing for positions. Personal growth is accentuated by sessions on topics such as work–life balance and how to communicate with your boss. All attendees are invited to join in one or more ASCB communities, which host events throughout the meeting. This year brings a new topic, the Scholarship of Diversity, an effort to use evidence-based approaches to measure the impact of diversity in the sciences. ASCB embraces the importance of diversity and inclusion: we present awards and honor those who embrace our Society’s commitment to inclusion and diversity and we have initiated a Diversity Keynote at the ASCB|EMBO Meeting to engage the broader community in sharing a vision of an inclusive scientific society. The Public Policy Committee will host a Capitol Hill Day, a day of meetings with your elected members of Congress. Indicate your interest in participating in this first of its kind event on your meeting registration form. The Public Policy Committee also trains attendees in local advocacy skills, including how to give .a two-minute “elevator speech.”

So now that you know that you have a chance to come to the 2019 ASCB|EMBO Meeting—Cell Biology for the 21st Century—and utter our magic three words, “connections, connections, connections,” it’s time to go to the Web and register for the meeting. Note that registration is more expensive after October 3 and October 8 is the final deadline to submit an abstract.

About the Author:

Andrew Murray is the 2019 ASCB President. He is the Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, and Director of the NSF/Simons Center for the Mathematical and Statistical Analysis of Biology at Harvard University.