MCB Welcomes Summer Intern Jamie Helberg

Each year the National Science Foundation hosts summer interns from across the United States. This summer, the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences staff is excited to welcome Jamie Helberg. Read below to learn more about Jamie and the project she’s undertaking for MCB.

Welcome Jamie Helberg

I grew up in Los Angeles, California and am the proud daughter of Cuban and Colombian immigrants. This fall, I will be entering my senior year at Pitzer College. Pitzer is a member of the Claremont Colleges-a unique consortium of five undergraduate colleges and two graduate institutions. I am majoring in Environmental Analysis with a Spanish minor. Following my bachelor’s degree, I aspire to attend graduate school to study agriculture and food security. This summer, I will be focusing on whether resilience and productivity of applicants to MCB awards correlates with demographics by evaluating resubmission rates. Overall, I hope to consolidate this data in a manner that coherently recognizes how NSF funding can lead to groundbreaking research while simultaneously diversifying our nation’s scientific discoverers. 

Teaching CRISPR in the classroom: a new tool for teachers

Photo Credit: Megan Beltran

While CRISPR has become one of the most talked about gene editing tools in the research community, easy-to-use educational activities that teach CRISPR and related molecular and synthetic biology concepts are limited. Michael Jewett and his team at Northwestern University have created a set of user-friendly educational kits to address just this issue, called BioBits kits. This tool was developed as a broader impacts activity in Dr. Jewett’s currently-funded research (NSF 1716766) , investigating and expanding the genetic code for synthetic applications such as producing non-natural polymers in biological systems, and with collaboration and funding from several other institutions.

BioBits kits contain materials to run hands-on lab activities designed to teach high school-aged students the basic concepts of synthetic and molecular biology through simple biological experiments. Students add the included DNA and water to pre-assembled individual freeze-dried cell-free (FD-CF) reactions. The results are noticeable when the individual FD-CF reactions fluoresce, release an odor, or form a hydrogel (depending on the experiment). For example, the BioBits Bright kit includes six different DNA templates, each of which encode for a protein which fluoresces a unique color under blue light, directly demonstrating how proteins differ based on initial DNA sequence. So far, three kits have been developed: BioBits Bright, Explorer, and Health, with activities covering topics from the central dogma of biology, to genetic circuits, antibiotic resistance, and CRISPR.

The visible (or smellable) outputs make the results interactive and intuitive, engaging students in a relatable experience. In addition to the FD-CF reactions and instructions, the kits contain example curriculum, such as one independent research-based activity that asks students to address ethical questions surrounding CRISPR, further engaging students in the topic and providing a deeper understanding of the technology.

Over 330 schools from around the world have requested kits so far. Find out more on the BioBits website or in recent open-access articles in Science Advances and ACS Synthetic Biology.

Cell Cycle: MCB Camaraderie

Twelve MCB members and three guests joined thousands of other bicyclists for a 20-mile ride through Washington, D.C. on May 18. The ride was part of DC Bike Ride 2019. A portion of the registration fees was allocated to raising awareness of biker safety in D.C., which was recognized last year as the largest city on the East Coast to receive the "Gold" bicycle friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists.

Front row, left-to right: Megan Lewis, David Rockcliffe, Basil Nikolau, Michael Weinreich, Kelly Parshall, Alexis Patullo, Ann Larrow, and Matthias Falk
Back row: Alias Smith, Dave Brougham (guest)

Twelve MCB members and three guests joined thousands of other bicyclists for a 20-mile ride through Washington, D.C. on May 18. The ride was part of DC Bike Ride 2019. A portion of the registration fees was allocated to raising awareness of biker safety in D.C., which was recognized last year as the largest city on the East Coast to receive the “Gold” designation as a Bicycle Friendly Community SM by the League of American Bicyclists.

“It was a great day to have the Division rally together and spend the time on ‘cycling the cell’ as a team,” said Dr. Bassilos Nikolau, Division Director for MCB. “Participating in events such as this is important because so many of us at MCB, NSF, and the wider federal workforce are bicycle commuters.”

Team members not pictured above are Theresa Good, Wilson Francisco, Rita Miller, Axel Azcue (guest) and Michael Hubbard (guest).

MCB congratulates the winners of the NSF Director’s Awards and the National Alliance for Broader Impacts Award

The NSF directors award winners are standing together holding their certificates and smiling
Left to right (front) Alexis Patullo, Reyda Gonzalez-Nieves, Bridget Johnson, Engin Serpersu, (back) Wilson Francisco, Charles Cunningham, and Jaroslaw Majewski.

On May 9, 2019 the National Science Foundation held its annual Director’s Award ceremony to recognize excellence in service and achievement by NSF employees. Eight MCB employees were honored this year. Reyda Gonzalez-Nieves received the NSF Director’s Award for Meritorious Service for her exceptional leadership. Charles Cunningham, Bridget Johnson, and Alexis Patullo received a Superior Accomplishment award for advancing one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, “Understanding the Rules of Life” through their work organizing the “Building a Synthetic Cell” ideas lab. Wilson Francisco, Jaroslaw Majewski, and Engin Serpersu also received a Superior Accomplishment award for their leadership in developing “Quantum Leap,” another of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas.

The National Alliance for Broader Impacts held its annual summit April 30-May 2 and honored Karen Cone and David Rockcliffe for their significant contributions to advancing the societal impacts of research and for leadership in supporting the National Alliance for Broader Impacts.

MCB congratulates all our awardees and thanks them for their hard work and commitment to fulfilling NSF’s mission to promote the progress of science.

Expanded Funding Opportunities for Collaborations between NSF BIO and UK Researchers

a colorful abstract picture on a black background

NSF BIO researchers can now submit collaborative proposals with British institutions in four new topic areas, Bioinformatics, Microbiome, Quantum Biology, and Synthetic Biology/Synthetic Cell. This opportunity to submit collaborative projects that are reviewed only once, either at NSF BIO or BBSRC, is highlighted in the Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) NSF 19-058, which explains the process for preparation of the letter of intent and proposal submission to this funding opportunity. 

There is a 2-stage application process: a letter of intent (due July 2, 2019) after which full proposals will be invited to their appropriate programs in both the UKRI/BBSRC (due 2nd October 2019) and NSF/BIO (full proposals accepted anytime).

Projects must be a collaboration between at least one investigator in the US and one in the UK and must address the priorities of both UKRI/BBSRC and appropriate NSF/BIO Divisions. Additionally, proposers must provide a clear rationale for the need for a US-UK collaboration, including the unique expertise and synergy that the collaborating groups will bring to the project.

For full details on submission guidelines, program priorities, and contact information see DCL NSF 19-058.

Opportunity and Intention: Never Say Never

Dr. Adrienne Cooper, Vice President at Florida Memorial University, Miami Gardens, FL

Dr. Adrienne Cooper, recently appointed to the role of provost and executive vice president at Florida Memorial University, began her academic career as a pre-engineering student, then earning a B.S. in chemical engineering before completing a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. During this time, she had two “nevers” in mind: It was never her intention to teach, and if she did teach, she would never end up in administration. The story of her career path from STEM student to teacher and researcher (which includes funding from NSF) to university administrator is posted on the MCB blog as part of MCB’s commitment to familiarizing the STEM community with non-academic career development.

What is your educational background?
I had good role models. Both my parents were academics, earning their advanced degrees while I was an undergrad. My father was a physicist, and I was a daddy’s girl, and, so I went to work with him often. By the time I reached high school, I realized that I wanted to help people. I considered becoming a medical doctor, but I didn’t feel that I had the necessary compassion. When a representative from Arkansas Power and Light visited our class and told us that engineers use math and science to make life better for people, I realized that I could help people, and without the yucky stuff!

After taking pre-engineering courses at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, and graduating with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I worked as an engineer at the DuPont Corporation (Delaware). I felt as though I needed to know more about “work,” and my parents’ examples of attaining their degrees later in life helped free me of the idea that my education must be completed on a timetable. I worked at DuPont for eight years before returning to school.

How did you end up in university administration?
After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Florida, I was an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina for five years before moving to Temple University for another three years of teaching and research. Seven proposals that I submitted to NSF were funded, my research career was underway, and at my next position with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University I served as program coordinator. My next move was a total leap of faith: I was invited to apply to South Carolina State University to serve as the associate vice president of research.

Early on in my academic life an advisor told me I should consider administration, as did a trusted mentor later on. At this point, I had 14 years’ experience as a teacher, which I’d been sure would never be my career path, and now I had been invited to an administrative role, which I’d also been sure I would never do. However, I believe in taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. My next move was to Bethune-Cookman University, where I served as associate provost. I have served at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) for about 10 years. Today, I am passionate about the opportunity to help HBCU institutions stay culturally relevant while meeting the needs of their student populations.

What do you hope to achieve in your current role?
Florida Memorial is building on a rich tradition of nurturing our students while preparing them to succeed in the global environment. Our president has an incredible vision that includes increasing enrollment and connecting with business, community, and other academic institutions in the area. My experiences as an engineer, an academic, a researcher, and an administrator give me the perspective to play a key role in our growth.

Words of advice for current STEM students?
I have two pieces of advice: Learn deeply, and be open minded, generous of heart. By learning deeply, I mean to know what you know, but also be willing to hear what people have to say – and to dismiss what’s not helpful. Being generous of heart is especially important for under-represented minorities. Meet people where they are – be kind and generous – you’ll get a lot further.

MCB Welcomes Rita Miller and Marcia Newcomer and Bids Farewell to EJ Crane

Welcome Rita Miller

Rita Miller is a Program Director in the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster and comes to us as a VSEE rotator from Oklahoma State University where she studies the cytoskeleton and positioning of the mitotic spindle.

Rita is smiling to camera

What is your educational background?

I have been a biology nerd since my youngest days.  As a kid, I used to sit for hours and watch my older brother dissect his high school frog, dogfish shark, and pig.  I wanted to see how those organ systems worked, so I majored in physiology in college at Michigan State University.  I loved working in the lab as an undergraduate, so I went to Northwestern University for graduate school.  I studied cell biology there with Robert Goldman, using some of the early confocal microscopes to study keratin intermediate filaments. Those studies taught me a lot about protein purification and microscopy, but I wanted to know more about genetics and molecular biology.  So, I went to Princeton University and worked with Mark Rose as a Postdoctoral Fellow.  He taught me a massive amount about yeast genetics and cell biology.  I had my first daughter there in New Jersey and Mark always had great advice on raising daughters too!

When did you start working in MCB and what was your first week like?

I started at NSF the Tuesday after Labor Day, so early September 2018.  The first week was two days of training.  After a couple days of getting oriented to the computer system and then it was straight into helping manage a CAREER panel, followed by writing the acceptances and declination letters.  It was the fastest week ever!

What have you learned so far from your position? 

That NSF invests in people not just projects.

What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?

I think that it can be a challenge to Skype often enough with my graduate students back in Oklahoma.  Some students are more comfortable with Skype than others. But I have given them the “golden ticket” to call me whenever even evenings or weekends, so after some adjusting we have worked out a schedule that works for everyone.

Welcome Marcia Newcomer

Marcia Newcomer is a Program Director in the Molecular Biophysics Cluster and comes to us as an IPA rotator from Louisiana State University where she studies cell responses to environmental conditions and metabolic pathways.

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Louisiana State University, where I have a research program that focuses on the enzymatic production of lipid mediators of the inflammatory response. We are a group of structural biologists trying to define the molecular mechanisms these enzymes use to acquire their membrane-embedded substrates.  As a professor, I teach Introductory Biology for biology majors. This is a very surprising fate for someone who did all she could to avoid biology as an undergraduate chemistry major.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I see my position at NSF as a chance to be involved with an agency I consider essential to our ability to discover ways to improve the world in which we live. 

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began?

Although I knew that the National Science Foundation funds more than the biological and physical sciences, I did not appreciate just how expansive its profile is until I started working here.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at NSF?

One of the joys of life in academia is that you are constantly challenged to learn more. Serving as a program director exposes you to even more new fields and helps you enjoy the “big “picture” of scientific advances from a different perspective. It is a great experience.

Farewell to EJ Crane

EJ Crane served as a VSEE rotator for two years as a Program Director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology Cluster and returns to Pomona College where he studies microbiology and biochemistry of sulfur-based respiration.

EJ is smiling into the camera with sunglasses, he is holding a large metal stick with a sampling bottle attached and a hot spring is steaming in the background

How did your time at NSF influence how you will go forward with your research?

I had been doing interdisciplinary science before my time at NSF; however, my experiences there made appreciate interdisciplinary approaches even more.

What is next for you after your time at NSF?

I’ll be back at Pomona College, refocusing on my lab and courses. Based on what I learned during my time at NSF, the emphasis of my lab will change somewhat, and I will spend much more time focusing on trying to find connections in the many datasets that have been generated for microbial communities in a wide range of environments. My lab will continue to be experimental, but we’ll be taking better advantage of all the data on microbial communities that has already been obtained by others.

What personal goals did you accomplish while at NSF?

One personal goal was just being able to manage the workload as a program manager. I have been in academics for my entire career, so it was reassuring to know that I’m able to work effectively outside of the relatively isolated environment of my own laboratory and my experience at NSF showed me that I can translate these skills to other contexts.

What did you learn from your position?

I learned about several new areas of the molecular and cellular biosciences from the proposal review process, meetings, and my colleagues at NSF. I have a much better understanding of what the important and exciting questions are across the broad field, as well as in biology as a whole.

Dear Colleague Letter: Models for Uncovering Rules and Unexpected Phenomena in Biological Systems (MODULUS)

Funding opportunities are available in fiscal years FY 2019 and FY 2020 to provide support for proposals from interdisciplinary teams comprised of mathematical, computational, and biological scientists to develop MODels for Uncovering Rules and Unexpected Phenomena in Biological Systems (MODULUS). The divisions of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) and Mathematical Sciences (DMS) are seeking to cultivate innovative modes of collaboration among researchers working at the interface of mathematics and molecular and cellular biology. The MODULUS DCL encourages the formation of nascent collaborative teams that use novel mechanistic mathematical models to guide systems-scale exploration and discovery of new biological phenomena, rules, and theories that govern molecular interactions and emergent behaviors in living systems.

Proposals in response to this DCL may be submitted to the current core solicitations, either in DMS via the Mathematical Biology Program Description, PD 18-7334, or the MCB solicitation NSF 18-585 and directed to the Systems and Synthetic Biology program. Full details on program priorities, submission requirements, and important dates are available via the DCL 19-054.

Notice: New Email Validation System May Block NSF Email Communications

NSF has applied a mandated global email policy change that may be interfering with NSF communications to and from external email recipients. All email activities may be impacted… 

For more information, please link to this blog posted on BIO Buzz.

Updated Funding Opportunity – Science and Technology Centers: Integrative Partnerships

The Science and Technology Centers (STC): Integrative Partnershipsprogram has released an updated solicitation calling for preliminary proposals that would ultimately lead to the awarding of five new research STCs. Science and Technology Centers support innovative, potentially transformative, complex research and education projects that require large-scale, long-term awards. They provide a means to undertake potentially groundbreaking investigations at the interfaces of disciplines and/or highly innovative approaches within disciplines. These centers can cover research in any topic that is funded by NSF including all areas of biology, and education. They usually include partnerships among academic institutions, national laboratories, industrial organizations, and/or other public/private entities, and international collaborations, as appropriate, to accomplish their research. More information on eligibility and other program specifics can be found in the solicitation 19-567.

Some important details:

  • Submissions of preliminary proposals are limited to 3 proposals per institution
  • Submissions limited to 1 proposal per PI or co-PI
  • Preliminary Proposal Due June 25, 2019
  • Full Proposal Due January 27, 2020

Questions can be answered by reaching out to the cognizant program officer. All proposals submitted in response to this STC solicitation should be submitted in accordance with the revised NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) (NSF 19-1), which is effective for proposals submitted, or due, on or after February 25, 2019.