MCB’s New Program Director: Manju Hingorani

MH_011315What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am a Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts university in Connecticut whose claim to fame (in addition to Joss Whedon) is a small, vibrant PhD program (mainly) in the sciences. I have a research laboratory with two post-doctoral associates, three PhD and three undergraduate students who study the kinetic mechanisms of DNA replication and repair proteins. I also teach introductory molecular biology, upper-level biochemistry, and graduate level enzymology courses. Of course, I’m not teaching courses right now during my rotation at NSF.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I think it was destined since my first year as an independent PI when I received that most exciting phone call about my proposal from MCB program director Patrick Dennis. I felt overwhelming gratitude to the NSF for trusting me as a scientist, and with that came the desire to give back. A few weeks after that call, I was asked to serve as a reviewer and that turned out to be a wonderful experience of course. I think that NSF’s policy of inviting members of the science community to manage grant funding on a rotating basis is just brilliant. The chance to experience finding and funding good science was too exciting to pass up.

Also, I am a big city girl from Bombay, India, and Washington DC is very alluring.

Plus, my pharmacologist spouse and I have engaged in the two-body…let’s not call it a “problem”, let’s call it the two-body “minuet” over decades across Ohio, Mississippi, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and, most recently, Switzerland. He works in Maryland now, so the chance for me to work for NSF at the same time is almost too good to be true.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

It’s surprising that coming to NSF has felt more like coming home than a new and unusual experience. Everyone has been welcoming and so good about sharing information in detail—before I even know what I need to know—my impression of the community has been very positive. The fundamental culture is dedicated to serving science and scientists, and everyone I meet is pulling toward this goal. This shared trait makes working with so many different personalities comfortable and fun.

Perhaps it helped that I arrived right after the CAREER proposals came in this summer. The workload is relatively less intense during this period, and starting off by reading the best ideas of young PIs was a rather uplifting experience.

What were the personal goals you most wanted to accomplish while at NSF?

I don’t have any particular personal goals to accomplish while at the NSF. I look forward to advancing science from this very different and much broader perspective than usual. And it would be nice to become a more effective advocate for basic research and science education after this experience.

What surprised you most about working at NSF?

How easy, albeit exhausting, it is to maintain a well-functioning laboratory back home while working at NSF. Between Skype and FaceTime and Google Hangouts and instant messaging and even a phone call now and then, my group members keep in touch with me more effectively than when I’m on campus. Happily, their independent thinking, writing and presentation skills are showing steady improvement.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

Getting a handle on all the opportunities available to fund research scattered all over the building.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

If I were writing a Personal Ad on behalf of the NSF, it would be:

“Sixty four-something entity with a well-rounded appetite for adventures in science seeking persons deeply interested in research and education to help spend money well. George Clooney looks not necessary.”

When your friends/colleagues find out that you work at NSF, what do they say or ask?

I started at NSF a couple of months ago, so my colleagues recognize that I am only just finding my way around the organization, and haven’t asked too many specific questions about funding opportunities yet. I expect that will change soon. However, as a successful professor and woman in academia, I’ve been called to dispense advice since the beginning of my career, and I continue to do that. But now I think they think I’ve become more sage, pretty much instantaneously (I promise to use my new powers responsibly.)

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Yes. I urge everyone to take the KTtSOTA pledge.

(Keep Trying to Spell Out Those Acronyms)

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