Professor David C Hooper, MD, President, American Society for Microbiology

 

Boasting more than 39,000 members worldwide – representing 26 disciplines along with a division dedicated to microbiology educators – ASM is a major actor in microbiological sciences. Professor David C Hooper MD, President of the Society, highlights the breadth of their influence

 

Could you outline the circumstances that brought about the formation of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM)?

ASM was established in 1899 as the Society of American Bacteriologists and today is the umbrella organisation for the broad field of microbiology. In 100 years, ASM has expanded to include many subdivisions of the science, ranging from bacteriology to immunology, virology, mycology and parasitology.

The first meeting, held at Yale University Medical School on 27-29 December 1899, attracted 59 attendees and 26 paper presentations. From the standpoint of medical and much practical bacteriology, the programme of that inaugural gathering was surprisingly comprehensive. It embraced nomenclature and systematics; sterilisation and antiseptics; sewage treatment; dairy bacteriology; the testing of water, milk, and canned food; investigations on the organisms of plague, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and actinomycosis; ‘the so-called fermentation of tobacco’; and even a new pathogenic fungus. The individual achievements of the three founding members include the establishment of the first graduate course in public health in the U.S.; pioneering work in dairy bacteriology, including the use of pure cultures for making dairy products; and research publications on water purification, sewage disposal, food poisoning, pasteurisation of milk, and the bacteriology of typhoid fever. The name was changed to the American Society for Microbiology by vote of the membership in 1960.

What does ASM consider to be its main mission and goal?

At its inception, the Society’s science was focussed on improving public health, and ASM’s mission still retains that aim among its goals. As now formally stated, the Society’s mission is ‘to advance the microbiological sciences worldwide as a vehicle for understanding basic life processes and to promote the application and sustainability of the knowledge gained for improved health and economic and environmental wellbeing’.

We see ASM as a vibrant and progressive organisation which provides leadership in the life sciences and to the worldwide community of microbiologists. ASM represents and serves life scientists. Members participate actively in the Society’s volunteer programmes and governance. The Society provides forums both domestically and internationally for the exchange of microbiological information.

Among its key roles are:

• Ensuring a healthy research enterprise. Discoveries in the microbiological sciences contribute to the improvement of human health, the quality of life, and the environment

• Fostering life science education at all levels

• Providing an effective voice for the microbiological sciences in the formulation and development of informed science and technology policies

Why do you think microbiology has such wide-ranging application in the biological sciences?

Simply put, microbes enable all life on Earth. Without microbes, the world as we know it could not exist. The microorganisms that inhabit all living things represent a vast library encompassing 3.8 billion years of knowledge. The most conservative estimates by microbiologists indicate that there are tens of millions of microbial species alone. A teaspoon of soil contains more than 10,000 species of bacteria. Microbes represent the largest and most diverse branch of the tree of life. Public attention tends to focus on disease-causing microorganisms, and microbiology has been a crucial discipline in the progress we have made against infectious diseases. We also emphasise, however, that the vast majority of microbes are beneficial.

ASM focuses on conveying the following messages:

• We can use microorganisms to understand the majority of life processes

• Microorganisms were the first life form on Earth. All living things evolved from them and consequently share fundamental biologic properties with them

• Microorganisms are the smallest life forms, but together they represent the single largest mass of life on Earth. Their characteristics – small size, rapid reproduction, mobility and facility in exchanging genetic information – allow them to adapt rapidly to external influences

• Microorganisms have the greatest diversity of all living creatures, using biological and chemical processes that exist nowhere else in nature. We can look to the microbial world for a vast, mostly untapped resource of biotechnological potential

• Microorganisms create, maintain and restore balance in virtually all ecosystems. We rely upon the activities of the microbial world to sustain our planet

• All life on Earth is inextricably intertwined with microorganisms. We are dependent upon them for nutrient, mineral and energy recycling. Without microorganisms all other life forms would cease to exist

• There are both beneficial and harmful microbes. Beneficial microbes are critical to maintaining the health of all organisms. Harmful microbes or pathogens can cause disease when they infect susceptible hosts

In your role as the organisation’s President, what activities are most necessary to its success? How central to the Society’s approach are its members?

ASM leadership has established an organisational structure wherein major programmes such as journals, books, meetings, education, membership, international affairs and public policy act to fulfil the Society’s mission and goals through a mix of products and services. Each programme area is led by volunteers and supported by a complementary staff department.

Volunteers must be knowledgeable about the science, recognised as a respected expert in the field and be willing to devote a substantial amount of time to the activity. Reviewers of manuscripts, authors of books, programme committees which organise the meetings and conferences, fellowships and awards, workshops, colloquia, certifying boards, and committees that establish public policy based on scientific and technical knowledge are composed of volunteers with specific scientific expertise. More than 2,500 members serve in these roles.

Could you expand upon ASM’s award and incentive scheme? How do you hope this is encouraging microbiologists and future researchers?

The leadership of ASM is continuously engaged in an assessment of what are the value-added elements of a scientific society. We believe our Society has the capacity to offer the following:

• Share a common vision with its members

• Hold a uniquely enduring role as an authoritative source of peer-reviewed scientific content

• Act as facilitator for direct exchanges between and among both members and organisations in the worldwide microbiology community

• Provide its members with the opportunity to make a personal contribution to the advancement of the Society and the science

• Provide a route for personal career advancement

• Offer the highest quality products and services at deep discounts to dues-paying members

The American Academy of Microbiology is the honorific leadership group within the ASM. The mission of the Academy is to recognise scientists for outstanding contributions to microbiology and provide microbiological expertise in the service of science and the public. The Academy annually elects as Fellows scientists who have made distinguished contributions to microbiology. It also administers ASM’s substantial Awards Program that recognises achievement in the many subspecialties of microbiology, including biotechnology, clinical microbiology, environmental microbiology, antimicrobial chemotherapy, immunology, and virology, as well as in education and service to the profession. ASM has also established several awards to encourage students and young investigators.

What publications do you support, and are they available to your members?

One of the principal ways in which ASM disseminates information is through an active, prolific publications programme. The Society began publishing the Journal of Bacteriology in 1916 as a joint venture with the Williams & Wilkins Company and now publishes 11 peer-reviewed journals as well as the monthly periodical Microbe. Sent to all members, Microbe contains information on a broad range of scientific and policy issues of interest to the worldwide community of microbiologists, as well as news about ASM activities. All the Society’s journal publications are available online.

In the 1920s, the Society published a loose-leaf Manual of Methods for the Pure Culture of Bacteria, followed by the first edition of Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology, and established a monograph series. The current ASM Press (formerly the Books Division) now has more than 240 titles on its backlist and expects to publish over 15 books in 2012.

Plans are underway to further move the Society’s revenue-generating book and journal programmes in an increasingly digital direction. ASM will refocus its publishing portfolio on its original and core mission for its scholarly publishing enterprise: the authoritative publishing of ASM’s journals and books. This strategic move will allow the Society to allocate its resources more effectively – to publish the very best research in life sciences, deliver greater value to ASM stakeholders, and serve the life sciences community worldwide.

The journals programme is on track to fully transition to a digital-only publication model within the next few years, eg, online subscriptions with article-level pay-per-view, mobile apps, and a print-on-demand option. The ASM Press Advisory Committee has released its strategic plan for the future of the Press, which will emphasise digital offerings.

Finally, what are the main challenges that face education in the microbiological sciences?

Many challenges are faced by microbiology educators. First, there continues to be an explosive growth in new knowledge. Microbiology educators must be kept abreast of new concepts as well as sophisticated new research techniques.

Second, there is a move to a more unified and streamlined curriculum in graduate programmes across the U.S. This trend necessarily is forcing educators to reduce the material that they cover in individual microbiology courses such as general microbiology, virology, pathogenic microbiology, microbial genetics, microbial physiology, immunology, mycology, and parasitology.

Third, there is a move to a more problem-based learning curriculum in medical schools. Because this trend places more emphasis on student-directed learning, it will inevitably reduce the amount of time devoted to presenting information about microorganisms. An important challenge for microbiology educators will be to ensure that the problem-based learning curriculum does not ignore medically relevant details of microbes.

There will be many new issues in education and research over the next few years. Identifying and promoting core values in graduate education, working with public policy leaders to maintain microbiology as a funded discipline, and keeping microbiology competitive in academic settings will continue to be important, as will faculty development in grantsmanship, ethics, networking, and teaching. Increasing the overall quality of training and professional prospects of future microbiologists pursuing careers in academics will benefit everyone. With U.S. demographics rapidly changing, it is vital to bring more individuals from under-represented minorities into research fields such as microbiology. An increasing number of underrepresented minorities and women are also needed in this work force to help meet the challenges of the future. Therefore, we must encourage entry of such individuals at an earlier stage in the pipeline.

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