As Hilary Lappin-Scott’s term as FEMS President comes to an end, we reflect on all that happened along the way. Starting her presidency just after FEMS2019 in Glasgow, she was elected at the FEMS Council Meeting in Milan during September 2019. By Winter 2019, soon after having just taken up the role, the SARS-CoV-2 virus had started its spread across the world. Within the first quarter of 2020, while full of hopes to meet so many members of the microbiology community, she was suddenly acting as FEMS President from her home office and meeting with colleagues online and through a screen. But, as the saying goes, with great change comes great opportunities, as Hilary Lappin-Scott discusses this final article from her time as FEMS President. Accompanying this article is the latest episode of our Microbes and Us podcast featuring an interview with Hilary Lappin-Scott as she rounds off her time as FEMS President.
As FEMS approaches its 50th anniversary, there was a realisation that we could not continue just ‘turning the handle’ and doing things the way they had always been done. Because as we all know, if you keep doing the same, then you get what you’ve always got, and that wouldn’t work forever. Additionally, the world went through unprecedented times throughout the last few years, with COVID-19, the implications of Brexit, and then the invasion of Ukraine to mention a few. To respond to this changing world, FEMS had to bring in massive adjustments and effectively reinvent itself. It is still going through this process.
The aftermath of COVID-19 led to new challenges. Firstly, we could get back to meeting each other in person and preparations for many microbiologists to meet and share their research at FEMS Belgrade 2022 were underway. However, the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 led to a second series of world changing events. As a broad coalition of Member Societies from over 40 societies across Europe, we had a huge range of diverse opinions and strong views from our delegates in Member Societies about how to respond.
Secondly, FEMS had been keeping a ‘watching brief’ on the need to move our journals to Open Access and it was obvious that the move to Open Access was essential. In 2020, we launched two brand new Open Access journals: microLife and FEMS Microbes, signalling the way forward for our Publications. Since then, these journals have gone from strength to strength thanks to the enthusiasm and commitment of the teams and scientists involved with these journals.
The start of 2023 and my final year as FEMS President, began with several big initiatives. At last, the first full-sized FEMS Congress since I started as President, FEMS2023, would be taking place during July in Hamburg. Secondly, we brought on board our new highly experienced Executive Director, Elise Kuurstra, to lead the FEMS Office. Thirdly, the work was underway to prepare all but one of the remaining FEMS Journals to transition to Open Access by the end of this year.
Learning Through Leadership
In roles like this, there is always a lot to learn and we soon saw that if we did not take big, bold steps then FEMS would be effectively ‘standing still on a downward escalator’.
Working in times of huge change it was vital to take a culturally diverse Board with me and ‘win hearts and minds’ for change. All whilst remembering that all are volunteers and have busy ‘day jobs’ too. It is essential to listen to others and take on board their opinions, while accepting that sometimes people may not be happy with every decision made.
I observed throughout my time as President that good governance is very important for an organization like FEMS. We saw the need to add value to FEMS and its Member Societies, to be transparent and tackle the challenges rather than ignoring them.
There is still a great deal more to do, as FEMS works to ensure a sustainable future to support its 50+ Member Societies. Much of this will now fall to the new President, Antonio Ventosa, as I step back. I wish him all my best as he takes up the Presidency from January 2024!
Nevertheless, the role of President provides a lot of opportunities. I was able to use this as a platform to push forwards the things that are important to members of the FEMS community: supporting women in microbiology careers; supporting under-represented groups to have a voice; and championing for Early Career Researchers to be part of the FEMS community too.
Moreover, I had the privilege of working with the dedicated and hard-working FEMS Board. We counted round the table in our last Board meeting and there were 8 different first languages! I have met so many people in this role and many are now very good friends that I would never have met otherwise.
There were also many thrilling moments: like introducing Rita Colwell (my personal microbiology hero, see here) as the Plenary Lecturer for FEMS2023 in Hamburg, like standing on the FEMS2023 stage in front of approximately 2000 people and opening and closing the Congress; like seeing one of the organising team being so proud of what we had achieved that they cried; and like opening the first ever World Microbe Forum in 2021 with the ASM President and then introducing Nobel Prize winner, Emmanuelle Charpentier as a speaker!
During September 2022, I was honoured to act as Co-Director for the Summer School for Postdocs alongside Max Haggblom, our Editor-in-Chief for FEMS Microbiology Ecology. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching and mentoring the 19 talented postdocs that joined us to study Microbiology For A Sustainable Future. I still keep in contact with many of the postdocs and seeing them progress and grow really makes this aspect of the role feel worthwhile.
My Scholarly Society Story
I wanted to end this piece by sharing my story with scholarly societies. I hope it might resonate with others and encourage them to join. I worked in a small lab for my PhD with little encouragement to join scholarly societies or see beyond our own projects. In my third year, the university hosted the Society for General Microbiology (now the Microbiology Society) meeting. I heard about this and decided to join the society, and later my abstract was accepted to give a talk.
That changed everything for me. I saw and realised that I was part of a big community that went beyond the converted toilet block that was my shared lab! I saw that others were experiencing the same as me and that mine was not an isolated experience. I saw that there may be a way forward for me to progress in academic research after my PhD. So, I changed my plans and embarked on post-doctoral research instead!
Soon after, I went alone to my first ISME conference, to present research but primarily to look for my next job. I met Bill Costerton, just by accident in Heathrow Airport, and had a job offer before the flight took off! So, just by getting involved with two societies, both massively impacted my decisions for my future and my career ever after.
Scholarly societies have always played a massive part of my career, for exactly these reasons. I’ve always gained a great deal from my participation. I volunteered and played roles in many societies. I was on the International Committee and Divisional Chair of the American Society of Microbiology (ASM). I was as a Trustee of the Society for Applied Microbiology (now Applied Microbiology International (AMI)). I was a Meetings Officer and then President of the Microbiology Society. And I have been General Secretary and later President of ISME. Each of these roles gave me massive opportunities while I learnt from others and from the task in hand too.
Rounding off this story (for now!) is my time as FEMS President. I hope you can see that this led me to ever new challenges and many thrilling moments, all while I was able to broaden my international experience and network. I’d like to mention that it was always so enjoyable working with others through these roles and a lot of fun along the way! So, thank you to everyone.
A Final Message To The Community
I want to emphasize two things that I’ve touched upon so far. The first message is that we need to support the journals of scholarly organisations. By publishing your research here, we keep this money within the microbiology community, we keep it invested in the next generation of scientists, and we keep it out of the hands of the shareholders of the for-profit publishers.
The second message is the importance of being part of scholarly societies. They create for scientists a sense of true cohesion, community, and belonging – we don’t have to work as isolated researchers in a lab! There are so many likeminded individuals to learn from, work with, and have fun with! So please do join the scholarly society for you. They helped create opportunities in my career that are irreplaceable.
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