A Year of Challenges and Silver Linings

The year 2021 may be remembered by many to be a year of challenges and silver linings. After we spent most of 2020 in our homes, afraid to get close to others for fear of contracting, or worse spreading, COVID-19, basic research into the use of mRNA technology that had been under development for decades brought the anxious world two highly successful vaccines. 

I am reminded of a blog written by journalist Dan Rather after he received his vaccine. The post, titled “Yay, Science,” includes the following, “None of this would have been possible without the scientists working in basic research over decades. Their curiosity-driven research about how life works at its most fundamental levels was devoid of accolades, generous compensation, or in some instances even job security. But their perseverance led to revolutionary new insights and vaccine technologies the world had never known. And now their work is saving the world.”

As the new year dawned, those in the United States most in need started receiving their shots. By summer, any adult wanting a vaccine could receive one and a new conversation spread: Moderna? Pfizer? or J&J? By fall, children in the United States as young as five were beginning to be vaccinated, making the return to school for elementary students a little safer. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration were beginning to lay out the plan for booster shots for those vaccinated earlier in the year. While the U.S. story has also been repeated in Europe and in other developed nations, large sections of the world have seen too few vaccinations and are still suffering the ravages of COVID-19.

[S]ome of our colleagues are still experiencing the consequences of the lost research time during the lockdowns.

Life in our labs has mirrored life in our communities. Labs slowly began to open up with alternating shifts or limits on the number of people allowed in the lab at any one time. By now most universities are back to in-person attendance with many requiring proof of vaccination. But some of our colleagues are still experiencing the consequences of the lost research time during the lockdowns.

It has been a year of challenges and silver linings at the ASCB too. We have seen changes to important leadership positions at the same time that we have made important decisions and seen significant accomplishments on behalf of our members.

Early in 2021, Alison Harris, ASCB director of meetings, made the recommendation that, regrettably, Cell Bio 2021 should, like Cell Bio 2020, be virtual, and ASCB Council approved the recommendation. As spring arrived, and small meetings started to be held, I wondered if we had decided too quickly. But then the Delta variant arrived, proving just how prescient Alison’s recommendation had been. In fact, by deciding to cancel the in-person meeting early, we saved ASCB hundreds of thousands of dollars that would otherwise have had to be paid in meeting-related cancellation fees.

In March, after five years as our CEO, Erika Shugart announced that she was leaving us to become Executive Director of the National Science Teaching Association. While we were very sorry to have Erika leave, we were lucky that two longtime staffers, Thea Clarke, Director of Communications and Education, and Kevin Wilson, Director of Public Policy and Media Relations, agreed to serve in the roles of Interim Co-CEOs. 

A few weeks ago, I was very pleased to announce that Rebecca Alvania will become our new CEO beginning January 3, 2022. Rebecca, a cell biologist by training, is currently the assistant director of journals at the American Society for Microbiology. From 2015 to 2019, she served as the executive editor of the Journal of Cell Biology and director of editorial development at Rockefeller University Press (RUP). Prior to her time at RUP, she spent five years as an editor with Cell Press, working at Neuron and Trends in Cell Biology

Despite the challenges of staff continuing to work remotely and not having a leader for much of the year, 2021 has been a year of tremendous accomplishment for the ASCB. 

Professional development remained an important component of programming offered to ASCB members. The society offered 29 separate webinars this year, which were attended by more than 2,500 participants. Despite the need for social distancing, we continued the very successful Public Engagement Grants, which provide funding to our members who have innovative ideas for bringing science to their communities. In 2021 alone, we provided $35,000 to five awardees. The amazing programs funded by these grants are dedicated to bringing awareness of science to tomorrow’s scientists.

The process of reviewing and scoring of abstracts for the annual meeting has undergone important changes to bring greater equity to the selection process. With the implementation of concealed scoring followed by allowing only top-scoring abstracts to be considered for talks it is our hope that this is one step further toward a fairer and less biased selection of speakers.

The various honorific awards presented each year recognize the outstanding contributions of our members. A number of changes have been made beginning this year that are intended to achieve greater equity in the awards process, more diversity in ASCB members eligible for awards, and greater clarity and uniformity in the descriptions of criteria and the selection process itself. 

[C]hanges have been made beginning this year that are intended to achieve greater equity in the awards process

We are also continuing our partnerships with federal and private funders. The National Science Foundation renewed the Faculty Research and Education Development (FRED) grant. Thanks to a grant from the International Federation for Cell Biology, we are pleased to be accepting applications now for a unique program that will offer scholarships for African and Central and South American early-career researchers in the life sciences to attend in-person or virtual courses, summer research experiences, off-season experiences, and advanced research courses at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Marine Biological Laboratory. There are several other projects under development now that I hope we can tell you more about in the coming months.

As part of the organization of Cell Bio Virtual 2021, the Kavli Foundation supported the 2021 Doorstep Meeting on Neurodegeneration. The ASCB meetings department is already looking ahead to the 2022 meeting and is working with the 2022 Program Committee to create a diverse and inclusive program  for what we hope will be back as in-person meeting. 

Earlier this year, ASCB’s Public Policy Committee (PPC) conducted a survey of our members, asking about the impact COVID-19 and the connected lockdowns have had on labs and research. The results were truly worrisome. The committee has spent time working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to make sure that the grant review process properly recognizes the impact the pandemic has had on the NIH community, in particular on early-career investigators. We have urged the NIH Office of Extramural Research (OER) to improve the way they communicate with the NIH community about the flexibilities currently available to grantees. 

Many of you who serve on study sections have most likely heard differing messages about how and even if you should consider the impact of COVID when reviewing applications. The PPC also worked with the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to make sure all reviewers were given the same information. We’d like to thank OER and CSR for working with us to make things better for our members.

I also thank Hugo Bellen and the Genetics Society of America for inviting us to work with them to argue for funding in support of the critical model organism databases at NIH. This important work continues.

This certainly has been an interesting year. It has been an honor to serve as your President. While it is unfortunate that we were unable to rekindle old friendships and make new ones at the annual meeting, I dearly hope we will see each other again next year. I am confident that the changes and new programs we started this year will make for an ASCB that is more welcoming to everyone in the future. 


I thank Thea Clarke and Kevin Wilson for their contributions to this column.

About the Author:

Ruth Lehmann, ASCB President for 2021, is Director and member of the Whitehead Institute and a professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.