Migratory Microbiologists Boston Bound

June 13, 2016

We could never hope to outnumber them. There are, after all, trillions of microbes around (and in) us, but this week at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) those who study microbes, dedicated microbial scientists, will gather in the thousands to present, argue, and ponder our favorite subject: the microbial sciences. I could not be more excited to be ASM CEO for the very first ASM Microbe meeting.  Thus far, we have over 10,000 registrants and I am imagining poster tubes by the thousands being stowed in overhead bins of every flight bound for Logan Airport. I can visualize the crowds converging on the Convention Center and hotels. Most importantly, I can see scientists from around the world touching down in Boston to catch the most recent discoveries, the sharpest insights, and the widest overviews. Our science never stands still, and neither do ASM members. 

A great migration of microbial scientists is about to begin and the convocation will officially start on Thursday with the opening session address by Bill Gates.  I hope all my bLogPhase readers will be in the room but for those who cannot make it, the Gates session will be live streamed.  

It is both an honor and no accident that Bill Gates will be the featured speaker at the ASM Microbe meeting. Since his departure from Microsoft, Gates and his wife Melinda have devoted their time and their wealth to tackling “unsolvable” health problems that have long plagued humanity. Gates is a problem solver, someone who wants to change the world for the better. In that pursuit, he is someone who knows that microbial science is a crucial gateway to changing the world. Microbiologists should take his appearance at our meeting as a vivid external validation of the renaissance of the microbial sciences and of their increasing importance in protecting our future. 

The program of the ASM Microbe meeting reflects two main aspects of our science today.  First, it surveys the breadth of the microbial sciences while covering in depth many issues fundamental to bacteriology or virology—clinical diagnostics, ecology, infectious diseases, oceans, soil, energy, and many more.  This makes Boston the place where the whole spectrum of the microbial science will come together. Some say they prefer more focused, smaller meetings. Indeed, there is value in this approach and we respond to that demand through the rich programs offered through the smaller ASM Conferences. And yet there is nothing like the ASM Microbe meeting, where the whole community gathers to learn from each other and to see what is stirring up excitement or controversy in other domains of microbiology. 

This brings me to the second major attraction of the Boston gathering—the growing interdisciplinary nature of microbial sciences. This is precisely why ASM decided to build a different kind of ASM Microbe meeting; we want to integrate—not disaggregate—the diverse sciences needed to further the understanding of the microbial world. Today, we need to bring together basic and clinical as well as molecular and computational scientists. The days when microbiology was a beautifully crafted chest of drawers with one little drawer for each subdiscipline are over.  It is no longer possible for scientists to spend their entire career in one drawer. The microbial sciences of the mid-21st century will need all the experts—from math, from biophysics, from bioengineering, from informatics—that we can attract. They need to survey our microbiology, and we need to see how their disciplines could reimagine ours.

Let me conclude with one thought for young scientists. For those of you who may be coming to an ASM meeting for the first time, I want you to know that you are at the epicenter of a fabulous field. At the dawn of your scientific career, you will see a science so hot in technology, so vibrant with new knowledge, and so rich in potential that I hope this will be the best meeting you will attend for years to come. (Only next year’s ASM Microbe meeting will top it.) Seriously, please take advantage of the 130 scientific sessions and of the variety of professional development sessions. One highly important point—meet people. I would especially like to meet every first-time ASM meeting attendee, so if you see me, please stop and introduce yourself as a first timer. I may not have time to talk (being the CEO at the ASM Microbe meeting is like being the ringmaster of a 100-ring circus) but let me see your name tag. Years later, I will be able to say, “Oh, I met her at her first ASM Microbe meeting back in ’16. That was long before she won the Nobel.” For me, seeing ASM members, first timers, or seasoned researchers is a reminder of why ASM is in business. We are here to promote and advance microbial sciences.  ASM is about YOU, and we want YOU to be better off because of ASM!

So before I plunge into the joyful swirl of the ASM Microbe meeting, let me offer a sincere word of thanks to my incredible staff in the Meetings department. Led by the indefatigable Kirsten Olean, they have worked both hard and fast to invent a new kind of big meeting for ASM, one that will offer the best and most valuable experience for you. Microbiologists will never outnumber the microbes in a single drop of water but we will never lose our curiosity to understand their world and the massive impact that microbes have on ours. So on to Boston. Safe travel. Come curious. And it’s okay to have fun.

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.