Process Story – Planning Plant Biology 2020

“The people I have met have been extraordinarily qualified. Their intent is good. Their commitment is true.” – The West Wing

The Washington monument spears the blue fall sky; the Jefferson memorial, covered in spiky scaffolding, looks like a hedgehog; the Capitol rotunda peeks between office buildings.  Traffic backs up at an intersection near the Lincoln memorial, and then my cab breaks free and deposits me a few miles up the Potomac River at the Wardman Park Marriott, site of Plant Biology 2020.  It’s the first weekend in November when said Marriott instead hosts hundreds of costumed attendees for Anime USA.

Two weeks earlier, I had received an email welcoming me as the early career researcher (ECR) representative on ASPB’s program committee, which is responsible for planning and executing the annual meeting, and now, I’m on-site in Washington DC for their 36-hour fall planning marathon.  I’ve attended exactly two Plant Biology meetings in my life: PB18 (Montreal) and PB19 (San Jose).  I am not published, I am not a leader in my field, and I am now representing the undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs who make up 40-50% of Plant Bio attendees each year.

(So no pressure.)

A process story, as I learned from the political drama The West Wing, tells how something happens: how fictional president Jed Bartlet gets reelected, how the sausage gets made.  To ASPB members, especially young members like me, the annual meeting arises from a black box: we input abstracts, we get out a four-day science and networking binge.  Introduce a scientist to a black box, and we want to crack it open, examine it, make sense of it.

The program committee consists of professional scientists, ASPB and conference staff, and ASPB leadership.  The professional scientists — drawn from academia and industry — are experts in a dizzying variety of fields.  ASPB staff members Jean Rosenberg and Maddie Grant and Conference Managers’ Erica Platner coordinate the site, the budget, the app, the marketing, and all the million overlooked details that make the meeting come to life.  ASPB President-Elect Maureen McCann and CEO Crispin Taylor connect the committee to ASPB’s broader mission.  I first meet everyone in the hotel lobby, picking them out from Anime USA attendees by a lack of costumes.  Introducing myself requires battling back imposter syndrome, but I shouldn’t have been anxious: my welcome is immediate, enthusiastic, and tinged with relief.  “We’ve needed an early career person for so long,” I’m told, “and now we’ve got one!”

Over the course of nine straight hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday, we turn an outline sketched out in San Jose into the vasculature for the upcoming meeting.  We firm up topics and organizers for plenary symposia (major symposia, renamed), we review workshop proposals, we begin the herculean task of crafting concurrent symposia.  Feedback from PB19 feeds forward into the plan for PB20: we pore over the survey, and we rehash discussions from the Town Hall.  For instance, the survey gave mixed endorsement to the e-posters debuted in San Jose.  E-posters were a necessary experiment with a developing presentation format and, it turns out, a practical way to fit posters into the San Jose Convention Center in a cost-efficient manner.  At PB20, we won’t have the same e-poster software or physical stations, but we don’t want to skip the format entirely as it’s still strategically important.

“Could we just get a bunch of iPads?”

“Maybe a few stations.”

“A handful of bigger screens?”

Ideas ricochet around the U-shaped conference table, refining down to (1) an opt-in online poster gallery and (2) a vehicle for 2-3 minute oral poster presentations for ECRs in hour-long sessions, housed in a designated area with a nice big screen.

1It takes time to find my footing within this torrent of planning, but Jean and fellow committee member Phil Taylor keep an eye on my facial expression and draw me into the conversation.  (When you meet me at PB20, you’ll rapidly discover that my face always gives me away when I have a thought to express.)  And then, when someone mentions that the dinner meet-up sign is a great way for first-time attendees to make those nebulous but crucial evening networking connections, I can’t help but interject.  In Montreal, I stood by that sign, watching large groups of people head out to dinner, debating whether or not I still had the extrovert energy to force my way into a group of strangers that clearly already had a plan, and deciding that no, no way, that was far too intimidating.  That story prompts discussion of more structured ways to facilitate first-time attendees’ evening networking, building on PB19’s efforts to nurture that attendee cohort from the moment they arrive on site.

We spend more than an hour Sunday morning testing the abstract submission system, which is the same system used for PB18.  It has an aggravating inability to port your information from your abstract presenter profile to your registration attendee profile.  However, this system does not — knock on wood — crash and delete your data the way PB19’s did.  (There is a reason we’re switching back to the 2018 vendor.)  We streamline the form as much as possible, with my contributions filtered through the lens of, “What information would I never be able to find when submitting this at 11:30 the night before the deadline?”  To continuing ongoing efforts to combat bias and ensure balance among each symposium’s speakers, the submission will collect demographic data about gender and ethnicity and ask if the research comes from a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI).  The definition of a PUI on PB19’s form engendered confusion, so to clarify, the ASPB PUI Section leadership rephrases it thus: PUIs are US institutions that grant baccalaureate degrees and award fewer than 10 PhD degrees per year in all NSF-supported disciplines.

1In fact, ensuring that PB20 content will represent the entire ASPB community in all its diversity is an ever-present consideration.  We need organizers for plenary symposia, and twelve of thirty concurrent symposia have invited chairs who help recruit talks in topic areas of special interest.  While committee members toss out names that I recognize from my Hall of Fame of guest seminar speakers, Plant Cell authors, and plant biology rock stars, Maureen McCann unobtrusively suggests solely female and international scientists.  Every person in the room issues a reminder at some point to us and to pass along to the plenary symposium organizers to feature early- and mid-career scientists.  The overall mission for the annual meeting, paraphrased somewhere around hour five on Saturday, is to inspire through featuring the best cutting-edge science and to nurture the development of our members.

The White House is two Metro stops and two blocks away from the conference site, as we discover by accident after dinner.  It’s lit up not only by its own lighting but by the glowing signs of enthusiastic protesters singing re-written Bruno Mars lyrics.  The workshops, panels, and symposia about science policy planned for PB20 take as much advantage of the setting as we do in our moment as tourists.  In hour eleven, we get sidetracked from discussing these policy features to travel down an alliterative rabbit hole:

“Plants, people, and policy.”

“Or maybe, ‘Policy, people, and plants’?”

“Plants, policy, and people.  Plants are what bring us together, policy is what we’re featuring, and people — this is our home base, professionally, it’s where our people are.”

In just nine short months, 1,500 plant biologists will descend upon DC.  Bringing our plant people together requires an astounding amount of work, and it is a process that I feel privileged to witness from the inside, let alone participate in.  As the months pass and the meeting takes shape, I will keep you up to date on the process story so that when PB20 arrives on July 25, 2020, it will still be your favorite, yearly four-day science and networking binge…and hopefully just a little bit less of a black box.

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