Stephen DiFazio joined the Genetic Mechanisms cluster in January, beginning a one-year term as a temporary program director (“rotator”) in the Visiting Scientist, Engineer and Educator (VSEE) program.
What were you doing before you came to NSF? I am a professor of biology at West Virginia University. My research program focuses on woody plants in the Salicaceae family (cottonwood, aspen, willow). I work on a wide variety of topics, but most recently my interests have centered on the molecular basis of sex expression and biotic interactions, with particular focus on identifying and characterizing the genes responsible for sex dimorphism and sexually antagonistic loci.
What attracted you to work for NSF?
I have served on the Genetic Mechanisms panels three times, and greatly enjoyed the experience. The best part was learning about the cutting-edge science and exciting ideas laid out in the proposals. But beyond that, I was fascinated by the highly choreographed process, and the efficiency with which we thoroughly considered dozens of complex proposals over the course of just a couple of days. I really wanted to see behind the scenes and learn about the up-front work and the systems in place to facilitate things.
What have you learned so far from your position?
It appears that impact of the transition to the no-deadline policy will take years to fully manifest, but I think that most signs point toward an overall improvement in both the process as well as the quality of advancements resulting from the funded research.
How has your relocation to the area gone?
I’m really happy with my relocation thus far. I’m enjoying Alexandria and environs, and I’ve got a good living situation. Plus, the biking is really great, so I will have plenty of opportunities to indulge in my favorite pastime. Once the novelty wears off, I’m sure I’ll be missing my wife more, but Morgantown, my home, is close enough that I expect we’ll be spending many weekends together. I’ve also left my research lab in a good place, so I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to return to my former life once this stage of the adventure concludes.
Matthias Falk recently completed a two-year term as a rotating program director in the Cellular Dynamics and Function cluster, joining the group under the VSEE program in December, 2017.
What is next for you after your time at NSF?
I have several ideas I want to pursue, including crowdfunding organized by my university. I am exploring how to fulfill one of my dreams of combining science with arts by organizing an evening of science, music, and body expression here at Lehigh University. I am also looking at developing an outreach program aimed at high school students in Pennsylvania, using my knowledge of microscopy to spark excitement and interest in the biological sciences.
What was the highlight of your time at NSF?
Calling young investigators (assistant professors) to let them know that their investigator-initiated or CAREER proposal would be recommended for funding was the highlight of my tenure. To be able to have such an important influence on the scientific career of such gifted researchers was an amazing experience, and to hear and feel the excitement my phone call unleashed is something I will never forget!
What did you learn from your position?
I see grant and proposal writing with a different set of eyes now that I have seen firsthand how many factors beyond good science influence the review process and funding decisions.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at NSF?
Becoming a rotating program director is a great way to give back to the scientific community and an amazing opportunity to capture the breadth of science. To be immersed in that day after day and to participate in executing and shaping this endeavor is very exciting. It’s particularly opportune to engage in such a position and build on one’s past career accomplishments, and help guide the future scientific endeavor based upon one’s own significant footprint in science.