ASCB assessing impact of changes to improve minisymposia diversity


Changes to the minisymposia co-chair and speaker selection process have resulted in increased participation by scientists from racial and ethnic groups that have been shown to be underrepresented in the health-related sciences as defined by the U.S. NIH (URM) and scientists who are from primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). In 2020 for the first time, ASCB invited Regular members, EMBO members, and EMBO young/global investigators to apply to become minisymposia co-chairs. In the past, the minisymposia co-chairs were selected by the Program Committee with no external input. In conjunction with this change in 2020, ASCB began tracking speaker diversity starting with the submitted abstracts as a baseline for tracking talks going forward.

Minisymposia Co-Chair Stats: For our first open call for co-chairs, ASCB received 132 applicants for the 56 scientific co-chair positions. Historically, the number of URM researchers who have been selected to serve as co-chairs has been very low. The Program Committee selected two URM co-chairs in 2019. Prior to 2019, the Program Committee did not select more than five URM co-chairs in any given year. Through the new application process in 2020, nine URM scientists were selected as co-chairs.

Minisymposia Co-Chair Data: URM vs. Non-URM

Applicant Type Number of Applicants Number Selected Percent Selected
URM Scientists 11 9 81.8%
Non-URM Scientists 121 47 38.8%
TOTAL Scientists 132 56 42.4%


Minisymposia Speaker Stats: The new process increased the number of speakers from PUIs, minority-serving institutions (MSIs), or tribal colleges and has set a baseline for tracking demographics in future years. Selection for a minisymposia talk is a two-step process. Minisymposia co-chairs are asked to 1) review and score up to 150 abstracts submitted to their scientific track and 2) create a specified number of minisymposia sessions consisting of six talks, selected from the top-scoring abstracts. Demographic information was provided to the co-chairs at the second step of the process but was not provided during the initial scoring step.

In 2020, ASCB received 902 abstracts. Abstract submitters were asked to identify their gender identity and geographic location. U.S.-based submitters were asked to identify their race and ethnicity and whether they were located at a PUI, MSI, or tribal college. All questions had a “prefer not to answer option.” Those who identified as URMs had more top-scoring abstracts and a higher acceptance rate than other U.S.-based applicants, as can be seen in the table below. Additionally, in 2020, four abstracts were selected from speakers located at a PUI, MSI, or tribal college. In previous years, it has been incredibly rare for speakers to have a PUI affiliation.

Geographic and Racial/Ethnicity Minisymposia Submission and Selection Data



Applicant Type

Number of Submitters % of All Submitters Top-Scoring Abstracts % Top-Scoring Abstracts Number Selected for Talks % of All Selected Talks
U.S.-Based URM Scientists 58 6.4% 38 8.9% 17 9.8%
U.S.-Based Non-URM Scientists* 610 67.6% 303 70.8% 117 67.2%
Non-U.S.-Based Scientists 234 25.9% 87 20.3% 40 23.0%
TOTAL Scientists 902 99.9%** 428 100% 174 100%

* This includes those who selected “Does Not Apply” or “Prefer Not to Answer.” It is anyone who did not select a URM category.
**Rounding causes this to add up to 99.9%

Future plan: ASCB is dedicated to producing a meeting program that represents the diversity of our members in all facets. As part of that work we plan to continue tracking demographics to measure diversity in our co-chairs, abstract submitters, and speakers. In 2021 we are conducting two experiments.

  1. Due to the success of increasing diversity in minisymposia co-chairs through the open call, ASCB has implemented an open call for members of the program committee, which is the group that selects symposia speakers and the minisymposia co-chairs. The application is open until February 12 and we encourage all ASCB Regular Members and EMBO Members to apply.
  2. ASCB will conduct blind initial abstract reviews. During the scoring step of the abstract selection process, ASCB will hide the names and location of the submitters and will see if this changes the demographics of the top-scoring submitters who are then selected to speak.

We will report back the results of these experiments once they are known.


About the Author:

Erika Shugart is the Chief Executive Officer of ASCB.
Alison Harris, CMP, is ASCB's Director of Meetings.