Recombinant DNA is created when at least two strands of DNA are combined to form an entirely new strand. It’s a fundamental technique of microbiology, and also the animating principle behind ASM Microbe, the brand-new annual conference that the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) built from strands of two other annual conferences: its General Meeting and its Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC).
Over the last year, Convene has been following the planning process for ASM Microbe, regularly interviewing Kirsten Olean, CMP, CAE, ASM’s director of meetings, as she and her team spliced together the General Meeting and ICAAC. Would they be giving birth to a vital new program for the entire microbiology community, or unleashing a Frankenstein that nobody wanted? ASM had no idea.
But they needn’t have worried. We were there for ASM Microbe’s debut at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) on June 16–20, and found a busy, robust experience that seemed to captivate attendees. “I think the best compliment that I heard was someone who said, ‘If I didn’t know that this was the first time you were putting these two meetings together, I wouldn’t have known it,’” Olean said. “That to me was a great compliment, because it meant that we had smoothly merged the two together.”
It’s impossible to convey the full breadth and scope of ASM Microbe. But from touring the conference with Olean on site, doing a follow-up interview with her a little more than a month later, and wandering the entirety of the show at the BCEC, we’ve prepared five cultures that encapsulate what Olean and her team were trying to achieve.
ATTENDANCE: Right on Target
Held every May, ASM’s General Meeting drew 7,000 to 8,000 attendees — 83 percent domestic, 17 percent international — most of them from the organization’s 40,000 members. ICAAC was focused on infectious diseases and held in September, with around 6,000 attendees — 40 percent international, and many of them not ASM members. ASM decided to merge the two conferences because attendance and sponsorship at ICAAC had been falling for several years.
The goal for ASM Microbe 2016 was 10,000 to 12,000 attendees, drawn as evenly as possible from the General Meeting and ICAAC communities. The final total: 11,762 attendees, with 75 percent domestic and 25 percent international. “It fell closer to the General Meeting, but you can see the ICAAC influence,” Olean said. “It was the same with member versus non-member, too. It skewed closer to General Meeting, but showed the ICAAC influence.”
But not enough for some attendees. While evaluations and anecdotal feedback have been overwhelmingly positive, “we hear it more from the ICAAC side than from the General Meeting side — there is some dissatisfaction with the amount of content for some audiences,” Olean said. “We do need to pay attention to those audiences, and we need to make sure that we have a good balance of content. It’s challenging, [because] microbiology is such a broad field. We really do have a very, very diverse constituency, and the challenge of any annual meeting is trying to be all things to all people.”
OPENING KEYNOTE: Meet Bill Gates
Everything Olean was trying to do with ASM Microbe could be summed up in the program’s opening keynote speaker: Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing health care and eliminating poverty around the world. Traditionally, ASM’s speakers have come from within the microbiology community and addressed scientific topics. But Olean wanted to start the meeting on a higher-profile note, with a big-name speaker who still had a relevant message for the audience. Gates fit that description — one of the most famous people in the world, now focused on global health issues to which ASM attendees contribute research and clinical solutions every day. Indeed, his presentation was called “Bringing the Frontiers of Science to the Front Lines of Development.”
Attendees certainly seemed ready for him. An hour before the doors opened for the 5 p.m. session, a line had formed outside Hall C at the BCEC. The 162,000-square-foot space had been set for 7,000 people, and ended up with more than 6,100. “There were people very excited to start the meeting that way,” Olean said. “We opened the doors in that session and people ran — literally ran — to be in the front rows.”
Gates was introduced by ASM President Lynn Enquist, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at Princeton University, who said: “Having Bill Gates here underlines the importance of our work as microbiologists.” Onstage, Gates was interviewed by Richard Besser, M.D., ABC News’ chief health and medical editor, who began by mentioning that he used to attend ASM conferences during the 13 years he spent working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besser walked Gates through a brisk mix of science and policy questions, such as: Does it make sense to continue to spend so much money to eliminate polio when it’s only found in two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan? Should we eradicate the mosquito that spreads malaria? Does the Gates Foundation’s sweeping work in global health let governments off the hook?
Gates’ answers were wonky but straightforward, buttressed with statistics and casually dispensed terms like “horizontal transfer,” “orphan diseases,” and “Anopheles vector.” He ended with a simple testimonial for his audience: “There’s such a need to solve these mysteries…. The opportunity to understand the microbiome, the opportunity to have really deep diagnoses — the kind of skills represented here and the innovation in these areas will be absolutely critical to achieving our goals.”
People used the hubs, but I’m not sure they used them the way we intended — to be a place where people could gather with like-minded people in their same track. They just used them as a place to gather.
The applause started slow, rolling up from the back of the room and crashing onto the stage. ASM Microbe was off to a strong start. Olean had felt that before Gates even opened his mouth. “Being backstage when our president introduced him and he went up onstage, it was for me a pretty emotional moment,” Olean said. “I thought, Wow, we’re here. We’ve been planning this meeting for two years and we’re here and it’s awesome, and Bill Gates is on our stage. I felt a little overwhelmed in the moment, because it was a very big deal for the society.”
The only sour note: Gates’ security team limited the size of bags that people could carry into the session, and despite the fact that ASM let attendees know about that numerous times in the months leading up to the conference, many people still weren’t prepared for the bag check set up outside Hall C. That created a choke point leading into the session. “That was probably the only thing that was really a failure,” Olean said. “I guess the only thing we could have done was, if we had known what the volume [of people checking bags] was going to be, we could have stacked up more stations or structured it differently. I think we were too optimistic about people reading and listening to the instructions in advance.”
TRACK HUBS: Community Times 7
With a goal of providing programming content for everyone — General Meeting and ICAAC attendees alike — ASM offered six scientific tracks: Applied and Environmental Science, Clinical Science and Epidemiology, Ecological and Evolutionary Science, Host-Microbe Biology, Molecular Biology and Physiology, and Therapeutics and Prevention. And there was a seventh, non-scientific track, newly created for ASM Microbe: Profession of Microbiology, dedicated to professional development and career advancement.
There’s nothing new about education tracks at an ASM conference, but at ASM Microbe, for the first time each track also had a hub — a dedicated area at the BCEC that offered track-specific programming, work space, and coffee and other refreshments. As it turned out, attendees liked the hubs even if they didn’t pay attention to how they were organized. “People used the hubs, but I’m not sure they used them the way that we intended,” Olean said. “They were intended to be a place where people could gather with like-minded people in their same track, but I’m not sure they necessarily used them by track. They just used them as a place to gather and get coffee.”
Boy, did they get coffee. “They killed us on the first day with the coffee,” Olean said. “Once they figured out there was coffee available to them, we did have to make some adjustments to when we made it available, just so we didn’t completely blow our budget by the end of the meeting.”
The most prominent com-plaint in the evaluation was about the campus and the fact that sessions were in more than one building. Our people like to hop around during a session time period. That was the biggest challenge.
Another adjustment with the hubs is bigger and longer-term: At ASM Microbe 2017, slated for New Orleans on June 1–5, all of them will be located in the exhibit hall, which already is home to the conference’s thousands of posters. “The way that our CEO describes it is, that’s the focal point for the village,” Olean said. “If it’s the Clinical Science and Epidemiology [CSE] track, then that hub is the center of their village, so we’re designing the show floor [in 2017] so that we have all the CSE posters in that area of the hall and the hub is in the middle of it.”
This year, the show floor also had a Speaker Connection Zone and a Peer-to-Peer Exchange Zone — where attendees could delve more deeply into topics with speakers and with each other. Both were well received, but in 2017, those components will be broken out by track and located within each hub. “So rather than going to a central place where all the Peer-to-Peer is happening,” Olean said, “if it’s a Peer-to-Peer topic that is in that particular track, then it’ll happen in that track.”
CONFERENCE CAMPUS: All Over the Place
ASM Microbe was a big program — so big that it took up all of the BCEC, in Boston’s Seaport district, plus meeting space at three nearby hotels: the Westin Boston Waterfront, the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, and the Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center. Everything was within a few blocks’ walk, but some of that was across several lanes of traffic, and out a pier into Boston Harbor. One of Olean’s priorities was to create a cohesive event campus, with a pocket-sized Campus Map distributed to attendees, and ASM Microbe–branded flagpole banners and sidewalk peels marking the physical boundaries of the program.
People didn’t really like that. “The most prominent complaint in the evaluation was about the campus and the fact that sessions were in more than one building,” Olean said. “Our people like to hop around during a session time period. If the symposium’s two-and-a-half hours, they might want to go to one talk in one symposium and a different talk in another symposium, and those are literally back-to-back because those talks run every 30 minutes. That was the biggest challenge for people with the campus — it wasn’t so much that it was so far away, it was that the time to get from Point A to Point B was farther than usual.”
That shouldn’t be as much of a problem moving forward, because future ASM Microbe programs will be confined to one building, such as the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO) next year. Although, Olean noted, MCCNO is such a long building that “it’s still going to take people just as long to go from one end of the center to the other end as it took them to go to the Seaport or the Renaissance. But perception-wise, all the walking is under one roof.”
DESIGN: Looking Good
From the beginning of the planning process, Olean challenged ASM’s contractor, Freeman, to design something entirely new. During a walking tour of the BCEC the morning after Gates’ keynote, it was clear that Olean was pleased with the results. She was visibly excited as she pointed out one element after another, from the ASM Microbe logo decals adorning the long, floor-to-ceiling glass wall that overlooked the show floor (“probably my favorite thing”), to a striking, custom-built “History of Microbiology” display down the hall from the registration area (“I purchased it as an asset, so I can write off the depreciation each year”), to a “Bling Your Badge” station at registration where attendees could add various pins to their name badges (“I hate badge ribbons”).
Down in the exhibit hall — 354,000 square feet, with 254 exhibitors and 3,300 posters — Olean explained the layout: There was a line of posters on each side of the floor, plus a wide boulevard of them straight down the center. Four information stations were located throughout the space, “because it’s a big hall,” Olean said, “and we want people to be able to find things.”
She said that during our tour on site, but in a later interview, it was the basis of a key takeaway: ASM needs to do a better job of helping attendees navigate the conference, both physically and topically — especially when it comes to poster sessions. “The tracks are too broad to be used by themselves, and we have to get more granular in order for people to find their science within the track,” Olean said. “It’s a big program, there’s a lot going on, and there wasn’t enough of an identification for them to be able to find their science, particularly on the ICAAC side.”
It’s the perfect time to be thinking about these things, because Olean and her team are already deep into planning for ASM Microbe 2017. They’ve gone over the evaluations from this year’s conference, and the first program committee meeting is scheduled for this month. ASM has overhauled its committee structure, merging 2016’s three program committees — one each for the General Meeting, ICAAC, and Profession of Microbiology — into one. Members are now divided into groups based on the conference tracks, each of which has a chair and a co-chair who sit on ASM Microbe’s overall steering committee. “It’s a very big group,” Olean said. “In the long run, they need to have a smaller committee.”
But you can’t argue with that approach when you consider what it achieved with ASM Microbe 2016. You might even call it recombinant.
SIDEBAR: Walking and Talking
During ASM Microbe 2016, ASM’s Kirsten Olean, CMP, CAE, led a tour for representatives from convention bureaus and hotels that are interested in hosting the new conference. She explains how that came about.
We started getting inquiries from different cities, and it was the majority of the cities that are either hosting us in the future or hoping to host us in the future. We are in an active bid process for our future years, so they started asking whether they could come [to ASM Microbe 2016], and the more people that asked I thought, This is a lot of people. And they’re going to have questions, and they’re all going to want to say hello to me while I’m there. If I could get everybody to come in at the same time, then I could do a tour and have a chance to answer questions in the moment, and then I could get that face time with all of them at one time.
I think there’s more value in them having this guided tour, where I can explain the why behind where we did things, and how we’re thinking it might translate to the future. Then those who are already hosting or looking to host can say, “Here’s what I saw that you did, and here’s how I see that translating to my building.”
For me, it was a way to corral all of these people who were coming, make sure they got face time with me, and make sure that they saw all the aspects of the show that I thought were important for them to see. There seemed to be value in it for people. They seemed to appreciate that time.