On Celebrating Discovery and Building a Meeting

The most important event of our Society is the Annual Meeting. This year, the meeting will be held in San Francisco. And while the weather forecast is still undetermined, we look forward to welcoming you here with a sunny disposition and the most exciting science in the world, put together by this year’s Program Committee Chair, Jonathan Weissman, working closely with an outstanding committee of world-renowned cell biologists. I vividly remember both the challenges and rewards associated with putting together an ASCB meeting. I was Program Chair in 1991, when Marc Kirschner was the ASCB President. It was a lot of work but also a lot of fun. Intriguingly, it was at this very ASCB meeting that Jonathan Weissman, then a graduate student in Peter Kim’s lab, was invited to present his own work for the first time in public. What follows is a short recollection of Jonathan’s experiences with delivering his historic talk, how it and the meeting helped shape his career, and what he together with his committee has done to amplify the meeting’s traditions and raise the impact of this year’s meeting.  

When you look at the scheduled talks and events, we hope you will realize that this is a meeting not be missed! 

—Peter Walter, ASCB President

Complete and utter fear followed by a twinge of excitement—that was my reaction to learning that I had been chosen as a graduate student to give a talk at a Minisymposium on protein folding at my first ASCB Annual Meeting in 1991. Not only would this be the first time I would present my

Jonathan Weissman

Jonathan Weissman

work in a public meeting, but the Minisymposium was organized by one of the true heroes in the field of in vivo protein folding, Ari Helenius, and I was speaking right after another hero in the field, Art Horwich, who was presenting the then-unpublished discovery of the eukaryotic chaperonin. Any anxiety I managed to shake off was rekindled once I arrived at the session and realized the room was filled to the brim and that Art had written out his entire talk and committed it to memory. It was baptism by fire and I survived. Looking back, I remain enormously grateful for having been given this challenge and opportunity at such an early stage in my career, and I have since remained a regular attendee of the ASCB Annual Meeting.

Fast forward 24 years. Similar emotions hit me when I was asked to be Chair of the Program Committee for the 2016 meeting. While thinking about how to put together the meeting I was reminded of a parable David Foster Wallace told at the beginning of his 2005 commencement speech for Kenyon College:

Two young fish happen upon an older fish who asks “How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit until one asks the other, “What the hell is water?”

I thought the Annual Meeting is like the water in Wallace’s parable—the environment that has had a strong influence on the entire field of cell biology and on my personal scientific development, but the essential character of which I had honestly never considered.

In heading the Program Committee, I realized that the meeting and our Society serve many purposes and many masters, but at the core it is about building and nurturing our community. Given how stretched we all are for time and resources, the number of committed people who make the annual pilgrimage stands as the greatest testament to these meetings’ continued vibrancy and relevance. We can get caught up on the latest advances, meet old friends, make new ones, see the latest tools and equipment from our loyal group of vendors, come to learn about what it means to be a cell biologist, and get practical advice about navigating any stage of our careers. Indeed one of the great joys of the meeting is simply to stand in one of the halls, see who comes by, and engage them in memorable conversation. I have done so many times.

Building the Meeting

Attendees at the 2015 ASCB Annual Meeting

Attendees at the 2015 ASCB Annual Meeting

When Peter Walter and I started to think about putting together the 2016 meeting, it was obvious that we could not hope to be comprehensive. Cell biology as a field had long ago become too rich and diverse for that. A natural temptation was to divide and conquer: define a set of essential topics, the key advances over the last year or so, and invite to be committee members the leaders who most helped make those advances possible. This type of top-down strategy would have been a reasonable and safe approach that would have allowed us to craft a balanced meeting designed to bring together all of the essential elements of modern cell biology.

But it just didn’t seem like much fun. So instead, as is the tradition of the ASCB, we started with minimal preconceptions and assembled a fantastic Program Committee to complement our personal strengths and interests: a combination of former program chairs, long-term ASCB devotees, and some wonderful scientists who had never set foot in an ASCB meeting before. This led to our first happy result: Even though we were asking some of the busiest people in biology, virtually everyone accepted our invitation without much hesitation.

What followed was a fascinating series of conversations that began as stream of consciousness and, over the course of six months, congealed into a solid and exciting program. These conversations were the essential creative process of putting together the meeting.

We all agreed it was important to make the connection between cell biology and disease. But instead of focusing on how to translate your latest basic insights into a clinically relevant story—a distasteful medicine that one swallows because it is good for you (or at least good for your funding)—we instead chose a theme of how studies of human disease have led to fundamental insights into cell biology. This theme will come through in Rick Lifton’s Keynote address as well as in the Symposium with Vamsi Mootha and Joe Gleeson (Disease Informing Cell Biology). More broadly, we designed this meeting to be a celebration of discovery, but one that covers a broad range of distance scales, principles and methods. These include Eva Nogales’ Porter Lecture illustrating the power of CryoEM (and elegant biochemistry) to provide physical insights into immensely complicated cellular machines, as well as the Symposia on organellar and nuclear organization, the logic of cell signaling and quality control, and the coalescing of cells into vibrant communities, such as a brain.

While I highlight a few of the great speakers and topics above, a key organizing principle was to decentralize and experiment by providing multiple forums and formats. So, yes, come for the terrific Symposia, Minisymposia, and posters, but also please pay special attention to the extra speaking opportunities that will give so many young scientists a chance to present their work. Attend the workshops where you can learn about the latest advances in CryoEM, CRISPR gene editing technology, and high resolution light microscopy. Arrive early to attend the multiple Special Interest Subgroups starting Saturday morning preceding the start of the main meeting and covering a wonderful array of topics from the latest concepts in cell biology to educating the next generation of biologists. Or come early to attend the first ASCB Doorstep Meeting, on the Cell Biology of Cancer, or a one-day course on getting a biotech job. Throughout the meeting, visit the Career Center, which offers career counseling, career panels, and scientific writing workshops and is only one of the many resources available to you in the Learning Center. The Learning Center is also where you’ll find posters, exhibits, Tech Talks, Science Discussion Tables, and much more.

Our second happy surprise was that having assembled this theoretical meeting—a kind of the dream team of cell biology—the vast majority of invited speakers accepted our offer.

We hope that YOU will be our third happy result. Come and join us in San Francisco, the WATER is wonderful! A tip, though, from an adopted son: just don’t call it Frisco.1



Questions and comments are welcome and should be sent to president@ascb.org.

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