Alison Harris
Director of Meetings
American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB)

Alison Harris, CMP is the Director of Meetings at the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). Before joining ASCB, Alison worked in the hotel industry for a short time before discovering her true calling as an event professional. After working at a hotel property, she transitioned to an event coordinator at Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) before finding her home at ASCB. Alison joined ASCB as a meeting coordinator in 2005 and enhanced her skills before becoming the Director of the department in 2015. Her focus is providing strategic oversight of the annual meeting content and logistics, while ensuring a pleasant and memorable experience for the meeting attendees and exhibitors.

Alison has been a member of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) since 2005. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Maryland, College Park with a B.S. in General Business and a B.A. in Communications with a Public Relations concentration.

2017 ASCB-EMBO Meeting Brings Together 5,000 Scientists in Cell Biology and Related Fields
Mukesh Buch
October 30, 2017

What is the history and the mission of the American Society for Cell Biology?

The American Society for Cell Biology, or ASCB, is a non-profit membership organization of biologists studying the cell, the fundamental unit of life. It is an inclusive community of scientists, who are dedicated to advancing scientific discovery, advocating sound research policies, improving education, promoting professional development, and increasing diversity in the scientific workforce.

Based in Bethesda, Maryland, ASCB, was legally incorporated in New York State on July 31, 1961. It was first organized at a meeting in the office of Keith Porter, an electron microscopy scientist, at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1960. The first ASCB Annual Meeting was held November 2-4, 1961, in Chicago.

Since its establishment, the ASCB has grown to approximately 9,000 members in the United States and more than 65 countries around the world. About 25% of ASCB members are international. Current members come from universities, colleges, professional schools, government, industry, public and private research institutions.

The ASCB is organizing the event together with EMBO, the European Molecular Biology Organization. Could you explain what the EMBO represents?

EMBO is located in Heidelberg, Germany. The major goals of the organization are to support talent and researchers at all stages of their careers and to simulate the exchange of scientific information, to build an European research environment, where scientists can achieve their best work.

It is an organization of more than 1,700 leading researchers promoting excellence in the life sciences. They not only help young scientists advance research and promote international reputation, but also provide many courses, workshops and conferences to help them. Members of EMBO must be elected.

When and where is the annual meeting going to be held this year?

The ASCB | EMBO Meeting will be held from December 2nd to December 6th this year at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia.

What is the goal of the meeting?

We have been identifying constantly emerging new developments in research and technology. The goal of the meeting is to bring all scientists, who could benefit from cell biological approaches, under our umbrella and to stimulate collaboration. Hopefully, the collaboration would bring further advances in science and the understanding and eventual cure of disease.

Our strategic goals is to look for partners in cell biology or related fields and really work on those collaborations in the emerging areas right now. The scientists are interested in the latest developments in the field and in networking with their peers for new collaborations. They discuss new experimental results and techniques in various domains of basic science.

This year is our first joint event with EMBO, but we plan at least a two-year partnership. EMBO used to have an annual meeting in September, but has decided to approach us with the idea to merge our meetings. We are really excited about that partnership, because it will further advance the international aspect of science.

What is the focus for the 2017 event

The focus of the event is to bring together scientists from around the world to discuss cutting-edge research and discovery in a large, city-wide meeting.

The meeting is usually attended by more than 5,000 scientists who study cell biology or related fields. Attendees also include research scientists, students, educators and technicians with education or research experience in cell biology. They may be from universities, colleges, professional schools, or government. The idea is to bring all of them all together to share their research. So, the focus is collaboration across the wide field cell biology and bringing those people together.

Over the years, we have increased the number of presentations at our meeting. The presentations are selected through abstracts. This year one of the speakers is Cori Bargmann, an internationally recognized neurobiologist and geneticist, who is President of Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and head of the laboratory at Rockefeller University. It would be great for our scientists to interact with somebody at that level.

In 2016, we started an initiative called the Doorstep Meeting, which focuses on an allied field that could benefit from cell biological approaches. The field this year will be the neuron, so we are doing a Doorstep Meeting on neurobiology and Cori Bargmann is going to be the keynote speaker.

The idea is to provide access and interactions with some of the best and brightest minds, some of the greatest scientists. There are 32 Nobel Laureates among the members of our association and many of them come to the annual meeting. That’s an incredible opportunity for all the younger scientists and students to meet these superstars and collaborate with them.

What are the main topics in the symposia?

The symposia are developed by our program committee each year and they cover broad areas of research under the umbrella of cell biology. Basically, the symposia provide exposure to new problems and different approaches to people who may not specialize in the specific topic. They help solve complex problems and potentially learn new techniques.

How many speakers have you invited for the event?

We’ll have 16 large symposia speakers, including the keynote speaker. We also have seven scientific award lectures.

In addition, we have 25 mini-symposia sessions and each of them features 10 speakers, selected based on abstract submissions. Another 18 microsymposia sessions feature 162 talks selected from abstracts.

We have also organized Special Interest Subgroups and those feature many talks on focused areas. Those applications are submitted by our members and reviewed by our program committee.

In total, we’ll have more than 600 speakers at our meeting, including brief talks, as well as plenary symposia. They all take place at the convention center. For other events, we use multiple hotel properties, but we don’t do much evening programming.

The goal of the meeting is to bring all scientists, who could benefit from cell biological approaches, under our umbrella and to stimulate collaboration. Hopefully, the collaboration would bring further advances in science and the understanding and eventual cure of disease.

What award lectures are scheduled this year?

We have both scientific and career awards. The ASCB E.E. Just Award Lecture is given based on research and career progression. This year the winner is JoAnn Trejo, University of California, for Cell Signaling by Protease-activated Receptors.

The Porter Lecture is selected by our president and the program chair each year and approved by our council. That’s a very high-level, selected talk, which this year will be presented by Scott Emr, Director of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology of the Cornell University.

The EMBO Gold Medal Ceremony and Lecture was won by Dr. Maya Schuldiner from Weizmann Institute of Science and she will be presenting a lecture this year.

And the ASCB’s highest honor is the E.B. Wilson Medal and we have two medalists this year, F. Ulrich Hartl and Arthur L. Horwich. That will be the ASCB’s largest award lecture.

For the Louis-Jeantet Prize Lectures, the winners are selected by the Louis-Jeantet Foundation in collaboration with EMBO. The Louis-Jeantet Prize Lectures will be given by Sylvia Arber from the University of Basel and Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, and Caetano Reis e Sousa from the Francis Crick Institute.

How many attendees do you expect this year? Could you describe the attendees?

This year we hope to see about 5,000 scientists and additionally some exhibitors. The ASCB itself represents 9,000 cell biologists worldwide. More than 25% of the members resides outside of the United States in over 70 countries. Last year, for example, 48 countries were represented at our meeting. That was about 30% of our attendance. Despite the name American Society for Cell Biology, that’s definitely an international endeavor. Attendees and members come from all over the world.

Attendees range from undergraduates all the way through late-career scientists. Even emeritus members come to our meeting on an annual basis. In terms of gender, our membership and meeting attendance is very balanced. There are scientists and students that come from universities, colleges, professional schools, government, industry, public/private research institutions, undergraduate institutions. Overall, the meeting is for everyone with education or research experience in cell biology and allied fields.

Also, we take pride in our professional development programming, which helps attendees reach their career goal. Some of the programming this year includes tips for undergraduates to get into graduate schools and describes the types of careers they can go into with a science background. So every career level can benefit both from the science and the professional development that we complement with our influence.

What exactly is the learning center?

We actually call our exhibit hall our learning center, because it is the place where exhibitors have the opportunity to educate our attendees on how to use their products and services. It’s also a place where we do our Poster Sessions on a daily basis and all the programming that takes place between 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. So, we are basically bringing the audience to our exhibitors and putting their products and services in the middle of all the action.

The Doorstep Meeting will focus on how cell biological approaches can contribute to solving complex problems in neurobiology. If you are a neurobiologist or a cell biologist interested in neurobiology, this is a must-attend event.

How many exhibitors come for the event?

Typically, there are more than 250 exhibitors. We have a Startup Central Area for new exhibitors, a Fed Central Area for new central government exhibitors, and a Non-Profit Central Area for new non-profit exhibitors.

There is also Publisher’s Row for books and publications and Artists’ Row, which is a cool marketplace for artists with any sort of art related to science. In addition, we also have two tech talk theaters, where exhibitors can buy time to deliver a presentation and display products, do product launches, or whatever they wish to do during their time slot.

The scientific microsymposia sessions, the shorter format talk sessions, also happen inside the exhibit hall in theaters. We also have a career center for the professional development programming. Overall, we try to draw many people to the learning center for more than just the exhibitions. That gives the exhibitors the opportunity to interact with the audience when it comes for the other activities as well.

What are the new features of the event this year?

This year we will be live streaming the Breakthrough Prize to our attendees on Fox and National Geographic Channels. The event will take place in California on December 2nd at a nearby hotel. It will be at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday evening East Coast Time.

The Breakthrough Prize is a set of international awards in three categories in recognition of scientific advance. The three categories are Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics.

Another new feature is the event called Bar Night. Groups of five to ten scientists will go to local bars near the convention center to advocate for science and to engage in conversations about science with the local public in a more organic manner. The ASCB will reserve multiple bars and we hope to get many people involved. That’s a public outreach event that’s organized by our committee for post-docs and students. Its goal is to get the conversation started about what science is, how science advances can help, and to answer any questions that people may have.

How do you see the key benefit for the attendees this year?

Due to the central role of cell biology and scientific research, we hope to embrace all of the constantly emerging new developments in research and technology. We want all the scientists studying cell biology to attend our meeting, so that they can be exposed to more diverse biological problems, experimental approaches, and perspectives.

I also would like to point out that the 2017 Doorstep Meeting is on neurobiology. The meeting will focus on how cell biological approaches can contribute to solving complex problems in neurobiology. If you are a neurobiologist or a cell biologist interested in neurobiology, this is a must-attend event, which will feature many sessions on cell biology of the neurons.

Do you provide webinars or certification programs?

Currently we don’t, although we have done it in the past. We work on partnerships with corporations and foundations to be able to offer such programming in the future. Now we have a partnership with the National Cancer Institute and next April we’ll have a meeting on cancer imaging together, but that’s not going to be online. It is an event.

How do you see the future plans of the event?

The ASCB recently went through strategic planning. One of our goals is to develop overarching scientific threads to help attendees better navigate the scientific portion of our meeting. With these threads, we want to embrace all the new and emerging areas of science related to cell biology and study of the cell. We hope this will happen by 2019, so in the next years will be looking for more collaborations in areas of research that could benefit from the cell biological approach and vice versa. Collaborations are the key to scientific discovery in the future.

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