Professional Societies, Who Needs ’Em?


You’re a hip graduate student looking at the latest installment of PhD Comics and checking your Twitter feed to find today’s hot takes on the role of the actin cytoskeleton in reprogramming somatic cells when your PI walks in and distracts you. Instead of asking what IMHO stands for or what a meme is, she wants to know why you’ve let your ASCB membership lapse. Simple, you reply, I went to the ASCB|EMBO meeting last year and found a fantastic lab that I will join as a postdoc, I’m writing up and getting ready to graduate, and I just don’t have the time, energy, or liver strength to go to this year’s meeting, much as I would like to see what our capital will look like during next year’s government shutdown. You tell your PI that you understand that in the dark ages when she was a student and postdoc and there weren’t even cell phones or personal computers, she went to ASCB every year and that the people who saw her posters and listened to her talks had an enormous influence on her science and career. Those ancient stories are charming, but this is the 21st century and most of your peers can text and surf faster than they can speak and have ways to navigate the infosphere and scientific culture that don’t require them to take long plane rides breathing recycled air.

“Not so fast” goes your PI, and as the newly minted President of the society that you’ve just lapsed from, I’m right behind her. You’re right in thinking that the existence of the Web and the vast amount of information and opinion that it stores has changed how scientists access information, that you may never enter a library again, and that your problems are more about processing information than they are about finding it. But paradoxically, all that overload and excess of opinion over information might mean that you need ASCB and other professional societies even more than your PI did back in the halcyon days when she and I had to sit in the bowels of musty libraries to read papers in the yellowing back issues of journals that didn’t even have diverting advertisements. So on her behalf, I’m going to list six different things that ASCB (and other scientific societies!) do for their members.

ASCB Talks to Congress
The first is that ASCB represents scientists’ views to the elected officials who propose and vote on the legislation and budgets that control how science is funded and regulated. We have a Public Policy Committee that just produced an impressive white paper on research on organoids. Every spring members  of ASCB’s Council and committees go to Washington and meet the staff members who advise our senators and representatives and urge them to support science. This spring we did three things: We thanked them for their unstinting support of biomedical research and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, we told them that immigration is a critical issue because the global progress of science depends on free movement of scientists between countries, and we alerted them about an innocuous-sounding piece of legislation (HR 70) that would have dramatically slowed the appointment of scientists to the study sections that review and advise on funding decisions on research grants from NIH. You, too, could be part of this effort.

Last year, Rocio Gomez, who is a member of COMPASS  (COMmittee for Postdocs And StudentS), was one of the ASCB members who participated. Sure, you say, a bunch of ancient cell biologists get to talk to even more ancient politicians, but where’s my chance to break the national gridlock? There are three problems with your response. The first is that there’s not that much congressional gridlock on the importance of biomedical research: The two politicians who’ve done the most to increase the NIH budget over the last few years are Republicans, Tom Cole from the 4th congressional district in Oklahoma (a member of the Chickasaw nation and a fifth-generation Oklahoman) and Roy Blunt, the senior senator from Missouri. The second is that the staffers are your age and are as smart and committed to their jobs as you are to your research. The third is that ASCB is committed to being transparent and inclusive: We welcome our members to nominate themselves to serve on our committees, of which one of the most active and exciting is COMPASS. That means that unlike me, who spent my time as a student and postdoc doing experiments and occasionally moaning about how little management cared about the workers toiling at their benches, you can play an active part in the discussion about where science in general, and cell biology in particular, should be going.

MBoC Publishes Outstanding Work in Cell Biology
The second thing that ASCB does is to publish a journal, Molecular Biology of The Cell (MBoC), that features outstanding work in cell biology. Founded on the principle of “Is it new and is it true?” MBoC is dedicated to the idea that our Society should publish interesting, rigorous papers that advance our knowledge of cell biology. Counting me and ASCB’s President-Elect, Eva Nogales, the five most recent presidents of ASCB have published 33 research papers and 5 reviews or commentaries in MBoC. While ASCB is strongly opposed to the idea that impact factors (roughly speaking, how many times a paper gets cited by other papers in a given period) are a useful judgment of a journal’s worth, you might be surprised to know that the average number of times those 33 research papers have been cited is 47, which is more than many of the papers that appear in the “big three” biology journals (Cell, Science, and Nature)!

ASCB Informs the Public
The third thing that ASCB does is outreach, helping to inform the public about what we scientists do. You might not know this yet, but this year’s NIH budget is $37.3 billion dollars. In a nation of 329 million people, that means $113 for every child and adult in the United States. The next time someone at a party asks you what you do, you can say “I’m a money launderer.” And when they ask you “Who’s money?” you can answer “Yours!” and if that doesn’t interest them in what you do for a living, I’ll be surprised. Through its Public Information Committee, ASCB gathers information to put on our website to explain to the general public what we’re doing with their money, both to understand the fundamental mysteries of life and to try and use what we learn to improve human health and reduce suffering. Through a grant from the Simons Foundation, ASCB sponsors small, member-initiated outreach projects  that bridge the gap between scientists and the public.

ASCB Can Help You Find a Fulfilling Career
Our fourth area is professional development. At the annual ASCB|EMBO Meeting, on our website, and through courses we run, ASCB helps its members develop the skills and connections that will help them find and pursue fulfilling careers. We recognize that most PhD students and many postdocs aren’t going to be running labs at research universities, and we are committed to helping you find attractive and fulfilling careers that use the training you’ve gotten in how to produce, marshal, argue from, and make informed decisions on the basis of evidence.

ASCB Helps Build the International Research Community
Number five is the international scientific community. As much as the Olympics, science is an international activity. Knowledge belongs to humanity, not individuals or countries, and we scientists work together to add to what we know and use that knowledge to try and make a better world. The last two and the next annual ASCB meetings have been organized jointly with the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), a transnational scientific organization that is funded by the European Molecular Biology Conference, which consists of 30 countries that are in or neighbor the European Union. ASCB is working hard to recruit members from other parts of the world and engage with national scientific societies to build international scientific partnerships to increase scientific dialog, interactions, and migration of scientists across the globe.

ASCB Sponsors the Ultimate Jamboree for Cell Biologists
And finally, at number six, comes our flagship activity, the annual ASCB meeting. Yes it’s huge, yes there are concurrent activities, yes you can’t look at more than a tiny fraction of the 2,494 posters, and yes you can get in your daily 10,000 steps by just walking back and forth through a convention center that is bigger than an aircraft hangar, but this is the ultimate jamboree for cell biologists, and since all of biology revolves around the activities of cells, biologists in general. You do need  to get organized before you go, but if you’re a graduate student, you can contact people who you want to come look at your work or talk to about postdoc positions; if you’re a postdoc you can ask people on search committees to look at your poster or listen to your talk; if you’re a faculty member you can explore potential collaborations; and everyone can track down and catch up with friends and colleagues from their previous stops on the science circus, catch up with the latest developments in their field, and learn about new methods, instruments, and areas of research that they didn’t even know existed until they mistook one Minisymposium for another! In 10 years’ time, improvements in virtual communication, like the evolution of a third and fourth thumb, may have eliminated big meetings, but until then they remain an unparalleled way to visit the global village that is science and mingle with colleagues from near and far.

I close my first column by asking for two favors. If you did let your membership lapse, please renew it or ask your generous PI to renew it for you. And if you didn’t let your membership lapse, ask a colleague who did, or who never even thought of joining ASCB, to race his or her eyes across this column.

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.