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Catherine Costello on Growing ASMS and Bringing in the Biologists


At A Glance

Name: Catherine Costello

Position: Director, Mass Spectrometry Resource, Boston University School of Medicine.

Professor of biochemistry and biophysics, BUSM.

Director, Cardiovascular Proteomics Center, BUSM

President, American Society for Mass Spectrometry, since 2002.

Background: Post-doc in mass spectrometry with Klaus Biemann, MIT.

PhD studying NMR and organic reaction mechanisms with Charles Hammer, Georgetown University, 1970.


Catherine Costello is a busy scientist. Not only is she a professor at Boston University, she directs two centers there — a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute-funded proteomics center and the university’s mass spec core — and for the past two years has served as president of ASMS. So where did she find the time to organize the 5,300-strong ASMS conference in Nashville last week, complete with 500 posters and 12 oral sessions a day, as well as 112 exhibitors?

“People are very willing to give their time,” Costello told a small gathering of reporters and company representatives at last week’s conference, crediting ASMS conference committee members and a Santa Fe, NM-based management company that has also helped out with gatherings such as the Association of Biomolecular Research Facilities meeting in Portland. “But it was a lot of work.”

Last week’s conference was a far cry from the group of 500 that used to gather back in the early 1970s, when Costello attended her first meeting. “We all fit in one hotel,” she said. Thirty years later, the conference — and ASMS itself — is growing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent a year, with no signs of slowing down, she said. And much of that growth comes squarely from the explosion of proteomics. “Five years ago, [ASMS] took off as the proteomics field took off … this gave us a big jump,” she said. The result was that, “at a time when many scientific societies are shrinking, we have a lot of growth.” And as the proteomics boom begins to level off, rapidly growing interest in metabolomics will keep the growth up, she predicted.

But while the rise of new disciplines is bringing biologists into the mass spectrometry fold, she said, the growth of the society is not only about proteomics. “The growth of attendees [at the meeting] is closely following the growth of ASMS membership,” she said. The significance of this is that “people are engaged — people feel that membership is key to research.”

Also notable, she said, is the appeal that ASMS appears to hold for women. Costello, who entered the field at a time when women in mass spectrometry were few and far between, proudly noted that in 2004, 30 percent of the membership in ASMS, 18 of the meeting’s session chairs, and the present and future president of the society were all women. Barbara Larsen of DuPont will replace Costello this year as president. “We are one of the few [scientific organizations] where women’s contributions are sufficiently integrated that we don’t need a separate women’s society,” she said.

In addition, “we’re becoming a family business,” she said, noting that she had seen many “second-generation mass spectrometrists” at the meeting. The preponderance of young people at the meeting was partly due to the comp registration offered to 300 students, who were allowed to attend the meeting for free in exchange for manning the registration booths and patrolling the exhibit halls (those students in red shirts holding up the “no cell phone” signs in the exhibit hall were some of these comp recipients).

The large numbers of students and the increasing ranks of biologists who have never formally studied mass spectrometry have filled the pre-conference workshops and short courses that ASMS now offers the weekend before the big conference. “This wouldn’t be a good meeting for some beginners, so we do outreach … to bring people up to speed,” she said of the short courses. She said that 50 percent of conference attendees came early for workshops or short courses this year.

Costello said that this atmosphere of learning, and not big instrumentation displays or hospitality suite parties, is at the heart of the ASMS conference — despite criticism that some mass spectrometrists have made to the contrary (see PM 9-5-03). “You see that there are no big instrumentation displays as such,” she said, referring to the sparse exhibit hall that gave equal-sized, small, square booths to each exhibitor. “Pittcon does exist when people want to look at hardware,” she added. In contrast, at ASMS, “they enjoy participating in science.”

Being a trained mass spectrometrist who picked up the biology later, Costello is an increasingly rare breed More and more of those joining ASMS in recent years — or at least attending ASMS meetings — are biologists trying to pick up mass spectrometry. Costello expressed some concern that these biologists were diving straight into a complex technology without really understanding it. “This is a powerful tool, and we want to be as sure as possible that it is being used as appropriately as possible, while still allowing people to gain entry,” she said. The meeting organizers tried to remedy the problem of insufficient technical experience among the newcomers by offering tutorials that “teach them about what is happening inside the instrument so that they can interpret data more effectively.”

Costello noted the significance of the inventions of Koichi Tanaka and John Fenn — both of whom were honored at last year’s ASMS (see PM 6-13-03) — in opening up mass spectrometry to those who haven’t ever studied it. MALDI and ESI “brought a range of instruments able to be boxed up and put in labs [of those who have] not necessarily studied mass spectrometry,” Costello said. As companies scramble to develop software that will do more of the interpretation process for the scientist, there is a danger that those scientists might rely too much on the software results without questioning how the computer arrived at them. Computers are not infallible, she emphasized. “It would be better if [the scientist] understands what are the numbers which you can trust, and which need to be checked,” she said. “We want to assist [people] as much as possible to look critically at the data, and to be skeptical.”

This does not mean that biologists with no mass spec experience shouldn’t venture into mass spectrometry, nor does it mean that software is not an important and useful tool, she said. But having a healthy amount of skepticism “becomes more important as we get into the area of diagnostics,” she said. “People’s health depends on the results.”

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