The Early Days
Computational biology uses the power of computation to explore diverse biological questions and is becoming an indispensable part of biological research in the 21st century. The field has come of age in recent years and has earned the status of a scientific discipline in its own right. The International Society of Computational Biology (ISCB) was founded in response to emergence of computational biology as a field and the recognition that highly trained computational biologists make significant contributions to research, education, and service. Since its founding, ISCB has been dedicated to the advancement of scientific understanding of living systems through computation.
ISCB is a vibrant scientific society that includes over 3200 members to date and has grown significantly since its founding in 1997. The ISCB leadership, including Past Presidents Michael Gribskov and Burkhard Rost, made a substantial effort to expand the society on a global scale by increasing international membership and creating alliances with regional bioinformatics organizations worldwide. Gribskov said, “In the end, it is all about the science. The ISCB represents the opportunity for everyone involved in computational biology, throughout the world, to speak with a united voice and be heard. ISCB is and should be a forum for the best scientific meetings and publications.”
At present, computational biology and bioinformatics departments and centers are critical parts of universities and research institutions, and undergraduate and graduate training is widely available in these areas. This has been a major shift from the field’s beginnings in the 1980’s when computational approaches to sequence analysis were starting to emerge. In 1990, Temple Smith, a pioneer in computational biology, marked the state of the field in an article on the history of genetic databases in the journal Genomics. "There has been slow progress in exploiting the wealth of computer science and database management expertise available outside the biological community," he wrote.
ISCB founder, Larry Hunter, recalled what it was like to be one of the few people with an interest in applying computational approaches to biological investigation. He said, "It was really hard to find people who did this work in either computer science or molecular biology. No one cared about bioinformatics or had any idea of what it was or how to find people who did it." In the early days, the gap between the computer science and molecular biology disciplines was significant and was especially apparent at meetings like the 1990 and 1991 Spring Symposia on Artificial Intelligence and Molecular Biology.
"There was a lot of mutual education that went on back then—the biologists didn’t understand that much about computer science and the computer scientists didn't understand that much about biology," Hunter said. "The biologists thought that building a data warehouse was an overwhelming problem and the computer scientists would look at the problem and say, ‘This is no big deal, we can make a database that can hold this.’ Computer scientists would give talks about how to assemble sequence and the biologists would stand up and say, ‘Oh no! You're missing the hard part altogether.’
Hunter had a PhD in computer science with a background in artificial intelligence and started working at the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) in 1989 as one of its first computer scientists. He had generated a popular database of researchers interested in artificial intelligence and molecular biology from research papers and conference mailing lists. In 1992, he invited the researchers listed in his database to an NLM meeting held jointly with the National Science Foundation on the future of what was termed ‘artificial intelligence in molecular biology’. The following year, the meeting evolved into the first Intelligent Systems in Molecular Biology (ISMB) conference, held in Washington DC.
ISMB to ISCB
Early ISMB meetings were held at different universities in the US and UK and were organized by Hunter and others, including Russ Altman, Chris Rawlings, David Searls and Jude Shavlik. The early organizers felt compelled to organize a scientific society when faced with growing popularity of ISMB meetings and the logistical and financial challenges of organizing meetings at different institutions.
At the ISMB 1996 in St. Louis, Missouri, members of all of the previous years’ conference steering committees discussed the possibility of forming a special interest group affiliated with an existing society such as the Association for Computing Machinery or the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The committee members concluded that the interdisciplinary nature of computational biology demanded a separate organization with balanced links to the societies of all participating disciplines and encouraged the creation of the new and independent organization. In the committee’s first order of business, Hunter was elected president, Chris Rawlings at SmithKline Beecham as vice-president, Terry Gaasterland at the University of Chicago as secretary, and Rick Lathrop at the University of California at Irvine as treasurer. Most of the other committee members agreed to serve as the inaugural board of directors.
The Society was seen as a critical mechanism to house the funds for ISMB conferences. Money from ISMB had to be moved each year from host institution to host institution and became enough of a logistical burden to compel Hunter to establish a nonprofit corporation. In an email to the board discussing the incorporation of the Society, Hunter proposed the new name and pronunciation of its acronym, the "Society for Computational Biology," abbreviated SCB, which could be pronounced "scob" or "ess cee bee". The word “International” was added to the name in recognition of the nature of its intended membership, the pronunciation became "eye ess cee bee" or ISCB. Thus the Society was born.
The Society’s original administrative structure was modeled as a combination of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the American Association for Anatomists. Hunter had previous experience in founding Vietnam Generation, Inc., which gave him some insight into the legal technicalities of establishing a nonprofit organization. In spite of having the legal and tax papers in order, Hunter found that banks in Maryland were wary of a scientist bearing a $30,000 check, a letter from the IRS granting the Society provisional non-profit status, and an official address that turned out to be Hunter’s cabin in the woods along the Potomac River. Hunter canvassed nearly every bank in Bethesda, searching for an institution that would allow him to open an account. "Eventually, we found a bank that didn't ask too many questions and would accept a deposit based on a driver’s license," said Hunter. "That was the beginning."
ISCB was legally incorporated in early 1997, although a press release announcing the new organization was not made public until 1998. At that year’s ISMB, held in Halkidiki, Greece, the Board met for a marathon session to decide the official direction and mission of the young organization. They gathered at a restaurant that had tables on the beach. Legend holds that at some point between dinner and an early morning boat ride back to their hotel, the group, fortified by Greek wine, agreed on ISCB’s current mission statement, "The International Society for Computational Biology is dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of living systems through computation; our emphasis is on the role of computing and informatics in advancing molecular biology." The focus on molecular biology has since been removed from the mission statement in recognition of the broad range of biology now served through computation, but the core of the original mission statement still serves as the driving force behind all Society activities.
Building the Computational Community
Even before ISCB was officially founded, the board recognized that a new scientific society representing computational biology had the duty to serve all researchers with an interest in using computational techniques to investigate problems of a biological nature. At the time, computational biology was divided into groups of scientists working in very different areas of computer science, and this was reflected by the separate conferences each group attended typically. ISMB grew from the field of artificial intelligence whereas the International Conference on Research in Computational Molecular Biology (RECOMB) originated from the areas of theoretical and algorithmic computational biology. These two groups had separate funding and sponsorship sources historically and had very perspectives.
Hunter said, "There used to be a certain amount of mutual disdain, intellectually. The RECOMB community thought ISMB folks weren't serious. They thought they were doing the rigorous, mathematical science, while ISMB people were noodling around doing heuristic this-and-that. On the other side, ISMB folks thought, 'Those RECOMB people do nothing but prove theorems and it'll never be any use to actual biologists. We're the ones actually making a difference in moving the biological science forward.' There was palpable tension."
The board felt the community of researchers was too small to be split up into separate groups and emphasized the importance of diversity within the community. In 1996, the speaker for the ISMB steering group, David States, contacted prominent researchers in the RECOMB community about the imminent formation of ISCB and invited them to join the board. He explained in an email to the potential members, "We feel that an organized international society could assist the entire field in many ways, and that such a society should represent as broadly as possible the diverse interests and approaches of our multidisciplinary community."
In recent years, these seemingly opposing ends of the field have begun to converge, particularly with new programs in graduate and postdoctoral training encompassing all aspects of computational biology. Now it is common for researchers to attend both conferences, and many also attend the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing (PSB), which is positioned between the two thematically. The ISCB board has made scientific diversity a priority by cross-promoting ISMB, RECOMB, and PSB, as well as the European Conference on Computational Biology (ECCB), which became a welcomed addition to the annual international bioinformatics conference calendar in 2002. For many years, ISCB has negotiated member discounts to each of these related conferences, and offered travel fellowships to student members as well.
Hunter served four one-year terms as ISCB president, excluding a four-month break in September 1997 - January 1998 when Chris Rawlings at SmithKline Beecham served as acting president. In 2000, the board elected Russ Altman of Stanford University as ISCB’s second president. Altman’s track record included salvaging the 1994 ISMB conference when it unexpectedly wound up moving from Seattle to Palo Alto and he campaigned with a two-sentence platform, "We need more members. Without members, it’s a waste of time." Altman noted his fortuitous timing saying, "With the field taking off, I barely had to do anything to have a lot of people join. The members found us." Nevertheless, he led an international campaign for new members that included sending letters to lab directors worldwide, and membership more than doubled in less than a year and a half.
During Altman’s tenure, the board instituted the initial legal and administrative scaffolding of the Society. The first part time administrator, Janice Cole was hired at University of Missouri, St. Louis, while David States was serving as Treasurer in 1997. Stanley Jacob at Stanford University succeeded Cole in 2000. In March of 2002, the Society offices were moved to the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego, and BJ Morrison McKay was hired as the Society’s first full-time administrator/executive officer.
Altman developed a mechanism for the election of officers rather than having the board make appointments. "Rank and file should choose the leadership," he said. The members held the first election in 2001. Former ISCB secretary Phil Bourne of the University of California, San Diego and the San Diego Supercomputer Center was elected president and assumed the office in January 2002. Altman remarked that Bourne now had the challenge of figuring out what to do with the rapidly expanding society. “Phil is the perfect next president. He’s going to now take the basic building blocks and push them in new directions.”
Bourne fortified the administration and established a new home for the Society in San Diego. He supported the formation of a regional affiliates outreach program, as well as development of the Society’s special interest groups. "These programs need to be enacted, since this is where the society could have a major impact in promoting the society in less scientifically developed regions and in new areas of science," Bourne proclaimed.
According to Bourne, the Society was at a point in its development when it needed to establish itself as a body that represented the collective voice of a diverse group of scientists that can have a greater international impact on scientific, societal and governmental issues. That voice would advance the professionalism of the field and give it credibility on par with other major scientific societies.
Bioinformatics was the official journal of ISCB from 1998-2004, and became an official journal of the Society again in 2009. The ISMB Proceedings have been published in Bioinformatics since 2001.
In 2005, ISCB announced a partnership with the Public Library of Science in the launch of a new open access journal, PLOS Computational Biology. Phil Bourne, both past president and past publications committee chair, served as the founding editor-in-chief of the new publication, which aimed to publish computational studies with real biological outcomes that could be appreciated by experimentalists. The first issue of the new journal coincided with the opening day of ISMB 2005, held in Detroit, Michigan.
Global Growth and FASEB Membership
Michael Gribskov of Purdue University was elected as the fourth ISCB president in 2002, which coincided with a period of unprecedented international expansion for ISCB and the growth of computational biology worldwide. In taking the helm from Bourne in January 2003, Gribskov wrote, “We face great challenges in building a truly international society—one that brings together scientists from around the world, not just from the U.S. and Europe.”
ISCB vice president Anna Tramontano had initiated the Affiliated Regional Groups program to promote relationship building among bioinformatics groups worldwide earlier that year. The program provides a structure for mutual recognition and exchange between ISCB and other bioinformatics groups, such as the cross-promotion of news and events. Between 2003 and 2005, the number of ISCB Affiliated Regional Groups more than doubled from 13 to 30 groups, with many in developing countries.
ISCB extended its participation in conferences around the globe. The first European Conference on Computational Biology (ECCB) was held in Saarbrücken, Germany in 2002 and drew 459 attendees from 30 countries, including heavy participation by ISCB members and leadership. ISMB 2003 was held in Brisbane, Australia, which marked the first time the meeting was held outside of North America or Europe. In 2004, ISMB, ECCB and Genes, Proteins and Computers VIII (GPCVIII) partnered for a joint conference in Glasgow, Scotland. ISMB/ECCB 2004 proved to be the largest bioinformatics conference ever held at the time. The success of this partnership set the stage for the 2007 ISMB/ECCB held in Vienna, Austria.
ISCB hosted a pilot regional conference in the US to gauge interest in smaller local meetings. In December 2003, the Rocky Mountain Regional Bioinformatics conference, “Rocky 1,” was launched in Aspen, Colorado. Approximately 70 attendees, mostly from Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Alberta, presented short talks and posters. A survey taken after the conference showed that 80% of respondents expected new collaborations to arise from the meeting, and 90% would attend next year if the meeting were held again. Rocky has grown into one of ISCB’s most successful small meetings.
ISCB strengthened its public affairs credentials by becoming a member society of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an organization comprised of 21 scientific societies with more than 60,000 members. According to Barbara Bryant, the ISCB secretary at the time, the ISCB board had been interested in a number of public policy issues, including open source software, open access to scientific journals, government funding for bioinformatics, and better functioning of grant review bodies. ISCB was particularly interested in joining with groups that would give the Society greater access to government, particularly by having a means to access and communicate with policymakers, by becoming better informed about government affairs, and by tracking policy issues relevant to ISCB members. The FASEB Board of Directors unanimously approved ISCB’s application for associate membership in FASEB in December 2002, and Bryant was appointed as the ISCB representative to the FASEB Board of Directors. “This is a perfect match and we really look forward to working with the ISCB folks,” said FASEB’s Executive Director at the time, Sidney Golub.
ISCB ended its FASEB membership in 2018 to pursue other affiliations.
ISCB made student membership and involvement a key priority during this time. In late 2003, Manuel Corpas Lopez, a bioinformatics student at the University of Manchester, put forth a proposal to the board of directors to form an official ISCB Student Council (SC) to address issues of importance to student and postdoctoral researchers. The SC was welcomed as an official segment of the ISCB at the ISMB/ECCB 2004 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and inaugural SC members organized an introductory meeting, social events, and a member recruitment campaign. The SC has held student-specific events at ISMB conferences ever since and established a successful Student Council Symposium series, which was unveiled at ECCB 2005 in Madrid, Spain. The event attracted nearly 100 participants and included a program of invited keynote speakers, and peer-reviewed presentations selected from abstract submissions
The Society’s leadership developed a formal strategic plan to focus ISCB’s mission and vision in 2003, which ensured the maintenance of ISCB as a fiscally sound professional society. The plan included the goals of setting the priorities of the Society’s staff and leadership activities, expanding ISCB’s circle of influence as an organized body on behalf of its science, and outlining a plan to diversify revenues beyond membership dues and the annual ISMB conference. The Board of Directors approved the three-year plan at their annual meeting in 2003.
"The plan will help keep us focused on strategic priorities so the ISCB can continue to grow as an international organization and enable our members to network, build collaborations and affiliations, stay informed of advances and opportunities in the field, and share in a common voice toward advancing the worldwide understanding of computational biology," said Gribskov.
The Rost Era
Burkhard Rost of the Technical University of Munich was elected as the fifth ISCB president in 2006 and served in this position for eight years from January 2007 to January 2015. At the beginning of his term, he focused on boosting stagnating membership and improving of the long-term financial survival of the Society. He attributed the success of his presidential initiatives to his executive committee (EC), who he described as skeptical scientists “open to discussion, respectful, and motivated to serve ISCB without self-interest.” With the support of the EC, Rost oversaw significant improvements to ISCB, reflected in quantitative terms by the growth of its membership from ~1200 in 2007 to >3200 members to date.
Rost has also witnessed a change in perception of ISCB among scientists as it is now considered a “society that leads.” He said, “Groups want the scientific acknowledgement, ‘the stamp’ of the Society” on major issues such as open access to scientific publications, open source software, and government funding for research. Rost contends that the ISCB Senior Scientist Award reflects ISCB’s rising prominence. Winners include founders and major leaders in the field of computational biology, and they consistently list the ISCB Senior Scientist Award among other prestigious achievements.
At the beginning of Rost’s term, ISCB leaders and members were primarily from the United States and Western Europe, and men held almost all of the leadership positions. Rost focused on getting more women involved in the EC because he believed diversity is essential for the success of “how important decisions are made.” Now women comprise almost half of the EC and play leading roles on other ISCB committees.
Rost improved the “international” aspect of ISCB. The Society now supports and partners with several international meetings, including ISCB Africa, ISCB Latin America, and ISCB Asia, thus facilitating access to world-class computational biology meetings for scientists typically limited in their ability to travel to U.S. or European conferences. ISCB has continued to support an active affiliates program that fosters connections between ISCB and regional groups, institutes, and organizations around the world.
Rost and the EC focused on developing novel approaches to foster community among ISCB scientists. The Communities of Special Interest (COSIs) were launched by ISCB in 2014 as self-organized communities with shared interests (www.iscb.org/iscb-cosis). Several of these COSIs originated from special interest group (SIG) programs at ISMB and have become thriving communities that organize events, either in person or in virtual environments, throughout the year.
Rost’s tenure left ISCB on a strong foundation and ready to adapt to the changes ahead in the era of “Big Data.”
Valencia at the Helm
Alfonso Valencia of the Spanish National Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid, Spain succeeded Rost as the 6th ISCB president in January 2015. Valencia considers ISCB a vital organization that brings together and supports the computational biology community, especially at a time when members of the community are experiencing unprecedented demand for their unique expertise. Valencia has long been involved in building and developing ISCB; he has served as a founding Board member, Vice President, Outreach Chair, Awards Chair, Fellows Chair, and was selected as an ISCB Fellow in 2010.
As President, he wants to build on the healthy growth of ISCB by focusing on three areas: 1. To make ISCB not only a successful scientific society but also a society able to represent the professional interests of its members, reflecting the increasing role of bioinformatics and computational biology in industry, 2. To improve relations with ISCB’s affiliated groups by providing them support for their activities, and 3. To provide support for high quality activities, in particular those promoted by our junior PIs. Such activities with intrinsic value will contribute to the positive perception of the science and technology developed by ISCB.
ISCB is poised to have a productive and influential future under the leadership of Valencia and the dedicated members of the Executive Committee and Board of Directors.
This history was written by Cassie Ferguson of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, with edits and updates provided by BJ Morrison McKay, past ISCB executive officer (2001 - 2012). Updated history prepared by Christiana Fogg, PhD (June 2015).
 Smith, T.F. (1990) The history of the genetic sequence databases. Genomics, V6(N4), 701-707.