Author

Denise Montell is Duggan Professor and Distinguished Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara and was the 2020 President of the Genetics Society of America.

Frameshifts LogoPeriodically, Mother Nature seems as if she is angry with us, like when Hurricane Katrina drowned my childhood hometown of New Orleans and nearly 2,000 of its citizens. Sometimes we humans bring destruction down upon each other, like the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And then there was 2020.

Like many of you, as we rang in the new year, I was preoccupied with preparing to teach a large undergraduate class, excited about research projects in various stages of maturation, and worried about making ends meet in the lab. I was also looking forward to serving as President of the GSA, though it was disconcerting that my plans were still vague. A year is a short time in which to start and finish any project. It turns out that it was just as well, because whatever ideas I had about leading a scientific society—whatever plans I had about anything—were soon swept away as the pandemic first crept and then crashed over us all.

Every day brought a new challenge. Final exams hastily thrown online, made optional, or abandoned altogether. Classes and conferences cancelled, labs locked down, precious experiments trashed, school scuttled, learning how to do online learning—we had to reinvent every aspect of our daily lives. We desperately scoured the news, teasing information out of the tangle of misinformation and disinformation. At the very moment we needed each other and hard science the most, we were cut off from each other and our labs. Suddenly it became clear what GSA needed to do.

Never in my lifetime has the value of scientific societies in general, and GSA in particular, been more obvious. We are a community of scientists for scientists. In this relentless year, GSA brought us together during our isolation, fought policies that threatened science and scientists, committed to dismantling racism, welcomed more scientists from lower- and middle-income economy countries, and launched an initiative to help scientists better engage with the public. As the year comes to a close, I would like to note a few of the high points on the rollercoaster ride of 2020.

Our first crisis was that GSA had to cancel our much-anticipated, four-years-in-the-making conference, TAGC. The Board considers TAGC—which brings all our meeting communities together—to be an essential component of our mission. While devastated that we had to cancel, we were determined not to let our communities down, particularly our early career scientists. Somehow, without any precedent or even a model to follow, GSA’s dedicated staff stepped up to the challenge and flipped the conference online in the space of a few weeks. We were the first major society to do so and thereby became a model for others to follow.

GSA decided to make the conference free to attend. Although this resulted in a substantial financial cost to the Society, I consider this not so much a budget setback as money well spent. From a mission standpoint, TAGC Online was a wild success. During that critical time of confusion and isolation, the conference brought us all together. When many of us most needed it, we came away inspired by new research and buoyed by the resilience of our community. We even got up-to-the-minute SARS CoV2 genetics information that you could not find in the news we were all obsessively reading.

Taking TAGC to an online format also quadrupled attendance, reaching scientists around the world. As just one example, only four people from Brazil registered for the in-person meeting, while 898 registered for TAGC Online. We learned there is a deep hunger for knowledge and connection amongst people who cannot typically attend in-person conferences. This understanding will reshape the future of conferences.

The great potential for online conferences was reinforced by the first ever online Molecular Parasitology Meeting. Around a quarter of attendees were able to take advantage of free registration for scientists from countries with lower- and middle-income economies (LMICs). With the help of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, we’re excited to extend free registration to LMIC-based attendees of next year’s fly and worm meetings.

Of course, keeping the scientific world connected is much harder in the face of xenophobic policies. Throughout the year GSA opposed multiple new immigration policies that would have harmed international scientists in the US, and we joined efforts opposing political interference in health policy and research. Thankfully, the combined work of universities and scientific societies like GSA succeeded in getting an executive order reversed that would have deprived US universities of the talent and dedication of many of its international students.

And then, Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Many of us felt jolted awake by a bright light suddenly shining on our collective acceptance of systemic White supremacy throughout this country, within the academic institutions that we have helped to build, and even buried deep within the synaptic connections of our own minds.

Although equity and inclusion were already priorities at GSA, we realized that we needed to do more. We committed to moving faster and more effectively to address racism. We recruited more diverse candidates than ever for our election. The Equity and Inclusion Committee sprang into action and developed a concrete anti-racism action plan. I’m particularly grateful for their work this year, as they also struggled with the consequences of the pandemic, and for the Board of Directors whose thoughtful discussions make everything we do better.

We launched an important program, the Presidential Membership Initiative, the goal of which is to give early career scientists from historically excluded populations access to the benefits of membership in the Society. Through this initiative, we plan to support and develop a thriving new generation of diverse leaders.

2020 has also been marked by a reckoning with the true scale of the gulf between scientists and the public. With so much miscommunication, misunderstanding, and rampant misinformation, we must take a more active role in reaching out. But many of us don’t feel qualified or prepared to launch into discussions about complex and sometimes controversial topics with ethical and social dimensions. This is where scientific societies like GSA are critically important. We are here to help our community learn how to engage in such conversations in an open and inclusive way.

Fortunately we do not have to start from scratch. We’re thrilled to be able to collaborate with pgEd, an organization that has been developing these skills for more than a decade. Together, pgEd and GSA are creating a series of online workshops, free of charge for the GSA community, on public engagement for scientists. We are also planning to raise funds to support public engagement internships and fellowships. Importantly, the program will have a special emphasis on opening discussions with the public to those who have been marginalized, economically disadvantaged, or otherwise excluded from conversations about science.

Another remarkable highlight of this year has been seeing how the grad students and postdocs in our Early Career Leadership Program made lemon meringue pie from the lemons they were handed. Although their carefully laid plans for many TAGC events and workshops were disrupted, they quickly switched to online formats and then expanded their offerings. I’d like to acknowledge these individuals and all the wonderful things they do for our community, including writing articles, publishing interviews, organizing career workshops and seminars, creating a weekly—that’s right, weekly—e-newsletter. They also find time to help the staff and leadership, give us feedback, ideas, suggestions, and occasionally some carefully considered criticisms.

Of course, in the midst of all of this disruption and change, the Society did not stop its regular work! GSA kept publishing research, organizing conferences, holding elections, awarding Society and “travel” awards, training peer reviewers, publishing blog posts, and much more unseen work that is needed to keep the GSA running smoothly and serving our many constituents.

On that note, I strongly encourage you to support GSA in particular and scientific societies in general. There are so many ways you can help. Please encourage your colleagues of all career stages to join! Please volunteer to serve on a committee doing work you are passionate about. You can make a difference in the world. Send us an email at society@genetics-gsa.org if you want to help. Donations to the Society also help us sustain our important programs. Send us suggestions, congratulations, complaints. You are the GSA!

So as we bid farewell (finally!) to 2020, I find myself again preoccupied with figuring out how to teach my large class — this time via Zoom and with far more attention to inclusivity. I am more excited than ever about our research projects in all stages of maturation, and more worried than ever about the lab’s bottom line. More importantly, I worry about the impacts this pandemic year will have on our graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty. I am grateful that science is coming to the rescue in the form of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and COVID treatments. I am grateful that GSA has had a large role to play in keeping us connected and moving nimbly forward. I am hopeful that Mother Nature will be more forgiving this year, and we will be kinder and more just to one another. And so, I wish everyone a happy, healthy, safe, and productive 2021!

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