The first ASP meeting I attended was in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1984. If you can find pictures from that meeting’s final banquet (and I fear that Barry O’Keefe already has), you might see an eager graduate student with a long, dark ponytail, possibly wearing a lobster bib. I sported that ponytail with a great deal of pride for over 4 years, and then one day, I cut it off, essentially shaving my head. Later that day, there was a parade of sorts coming by the labs at Purdue, all to see ”the new Nick,” so to speak. My boss, Dr. Jerry McLaughlin, a former associate editor of the Journal of Natural Products and president of the ASP in 1982-1983 (aka the six of clubs in the ASP deck of cards), came by and said: “You know, Nick, there is only one constant in life, and that’s change.”
His comment has always stuck with me, and in the waning days of the summer of 2020, they could not be more resonant. Like many of you, I am trying to figure out how to lead my students via Zoom as well as how to teach a class in the short term while wearing a mask, and quite likely, if the world closes again, also from Zoom. We are setting up our house with more computer horse power, so that my kids can go to high school via Zoom; and several nights a week, my wife and I go on campus tours with our daughter, who is trying to figure out where to apply for college, also in a virtual manner via Zoom. We have all had to change and do so rapidly, and likely every one of you is doing something similar. Thankfully, our health is perfectly fine, and I hope the same is true for all of you.
As I sit here, penning this address, I keep seeing in my mind’s eye the way I wanted to deliver it. If you bear with me for a moment, I hope you can envision all of us sitting at the final banquet in San Francisco, not only surrounded by our long-time friends and colleagues in this Society, but also with new friends and colleagues from around the world. We would have passed along our gratitude to the organizers of the annual meeting, our president, our business manager, the speakers and presenters, our colleagues in sister societies, and all of you for attending. Tradition would have it, then, that I would have asked active members of the society to stand and be recognized, and, in turn, this would have included: the past presidents, fellows and honorary members, editors of the J. Nat. Prod., members of the Executive Committee and the ASP Foundation, and the chairs and members of the >30 separate committees of the Society.
After a hearty round of deafening applause, I would pause (glance down at my saddle oxfords) and then make the following observations and call to action. At present, we have just over 700 members. If you counted all those who were just standing, you would come up with about 70 to 100 people, depending on who made it to the annual meeting. That means that just over 10% of the membership are actively involved in the Society. While 10% may seem shocking, I think it is fairly consistent across numerous organizations. For example, with about 400 families in my children’s school, only about 40 volunteered for most PTA duties. I have played on an adult soccer team for decades, and with approximately 20 players on the roster, about two to three of those could be counted on to organize the season and games. Certainly, you can come up with examples from your own lives, be it at schools, civic organizations, religious organizations, sports teams, etc.
You could quibble about the numbers. You could point out that the membership would be even higher if we had an annual meeting, because many would join the ASP to enjoy a discounted registration. You could observe that many people serve on more than one committee or that they have been on the same committee for years if not decades. Regardless, on balance, I stand by those calculations. There are 700 plus members and 70 plus involved in the duties of the Society.
The call to action, then, is both to increase the membership, and more importantly, to increase participation in the Society. I see no reason why we cannot have 1,000 members consistently, with at least 25% of them (if not many more) having an active role. There are countless active roles that all of us can consider. As your president, I see it as my duty to help you find your place, your niche, your role, your responsibility, and your opportunity to grow with the Society.
Here are just a few ideas of opportunities for involvement in the Society and advocating for the natural products sciences, in general:
Is there a committee you would like to learn more about or join? All committees will be meeting, periodically, throughout the year, and I can easily help to get you involved, perhaps in an ad hoc way at first with an opportunity to join in the future. Every year, people roll on and off committees, making plenty of room for new members.
Is there a new idea or committee you would like to initiate? There are many things we do today that started as new ideas only a few years ago. The Younger Members had their first meeting, as an ice cream social with about a dozen people, at the annual meeting in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2001. Today, the Younger Members are extremely vibrant, even holding their own virtual meeting. A group of people approached me at the end of the meeting last year about a committee focused on members at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions, and as you will read in this Newsletter, Amy Lane and her committee are off to a great start, with loads of ideas to share with you at the 2021 meeting. Those are only two of many examples, and I encourage you to bring forward ideas and suggestions. Working together, we’ll start building the foundations needed to make them a reality.
Do you regularly attend the ASP meeting, and do you encourage your students to do so? Some of us come nearly every year. Some of us come when we have funds to do so. Some come only if they are invited. Please know that if you are a member of the ASP, you are ALWAYS invited to attend and contribute to the annual meeting, and you are ALWAYS encouraged to bring your students and postdocs. Please bring some of your colleagues too, even if they are in ancillary fields, as we would love to hear about their science and share ours as well. If funding is a challenge, please pay attention to the due dates for the various travel awards and look for opportunities to share costs with colleagues. I believe in the adage that where there is a will, there is a way.
What is your relationship to the Journal of Natural Products? Are you submitting your best papers there? Are you encouraging your students, postdocs, friends, and colleagues to peruse its content regularly? Do you accept invitations to review manuscripts? Do you cite the most relevant papers from the Journal? The Journal of Natural Products is our organ for disseminating science to the world, and I encourage you to contribute to its growth, vitality, and stewardship.
Do you contribute to the American Society of Pharmacognosy Foundation? Have you or one of your students received a travel award in the past? Have you contributed to the annual campaign or thought about raising funds to honor a colleague? Have you thought about including the ASP Foundation in your will? Even modest donations, over time, build and grow and allow us to carry out many of the benevolent goals of the Society. Throughout the coming year, you will hear more about the ASP Foundation in the Newsletter, and I encourage you to use it as a vehicle to help pay forward to the next generation of scientists.
Do you review grants for the NIH, NSF, USDA, etc.? If you poll most grant-funded investigators in the ASP, I predict that a common concern is that, often, grant applications are not reviewed by experts in the natural products sciences. The NIH has started a program to identify a greater number of qualified reviewers, and as Dr. Susan Mooberry reports in an article in this issue of the Newsletter, the ASP has formed a committee to help recommend people for such a role. Regardless, we need more people sitting on those review panels, speaking up for the natural products sciences, thwarting the all too common critique of this research being “a fishing expedition.” In the times that I have served on various panels, I am often shocked at how few of us there are on the panel. While it is work, service on review panels is a way to effect positive change in this regard.
Returning to thoughts of previous meetings, in 2000 when I was a postdoctoral chemist, I had to make a pitch to Dr. Monroe Wall to support my travel to the annual meeting in Seattle, WA. Although Research Triangle Institute (our employer) was a not-for-profit, it was also a not-for-loss, and it was going to cost a great deal to fly across the country and attend the meeting. He agreed to the trip after I showed him the data that I wanted to present, but he had the following two caveats. First, he told me not to hide behind my poster and instead get out there and “talk about my science.” While many of you may know Dr. Wall as the co-discoverer of taxol, which happened in 1971, he was always keen on new ideas and was always encouraging his team to think about ways to improve our science. Secondly, he told me to get involved, promising me that whatever I “invested” in the Society, it would be returned to me in “dividends.”
I learned a great deal from all my mentors over the years, and as I sit here planning for 365 days at the helm of the ASP, thoughts of what Dr. Wall said are bouncing around in my head. People join the ASP and come to meetings for various reasons, and in the beginning, that is likely both to showcase their own science as well as to pick up new ideas. However, they stick around for years, if not decades, because of the relationships that are formed. We all need you in the Society. We need your ideas, we need your energy, we need your enthusiasm, and we need your creativity, so that we can all continue to explore and discover nature’s molecular potential.
It is an honor to serve as your president.