Dr. Elebeoba May joined MCB in November 2017 as a program director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology (SSB) cluster and ended her almost four year term as a rotator under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) in June.
What was the highlight of your time at NSF?
Hands down the people I worked with, and second, the new cross-cutting initiatives I had a chance to help develop were the highlights of my experience. From walking into the building and seeing the NSF mural to exiting the elevator (sometimes unsure which way to turn) and seeing the giant paper snowflakes the MCB staff hung as holiday decor, it was always clear that people – my colleagues – are the heartbeat of NSF and they were the greatest thing about being at NSF.
Every day that I had the chance to interact with my MCB colleagues in the halls of NSF (pre-COVID) or on Zoom was a highlight for me. I could always count on having impromptu scientific discussions sometimes after being startled in the hallway (you know who you are), or following my perfectly timed but unintended interruption of a colleague’s lunch (sorry), or even as I wandered the halls searching for chocolate or KIND bars (we all do it). It was even more rewarding when those discussions turned into a nugget of an idea and eventually into a new initiative in the form of a DCL or solicitation. I’ve had the chance to be a part of the process of growing such new ideas into an initiative a couple of times and that was extremely fulfilling and something I had no expectation of when I first joined MCB. It’s a real testament to our MCB and BIO leadership that as rotating PDs, we have the opportunity and are encouraged to not only think outside of the box but to build programs across disciplinary boundaries and boxes. In sum, through the people and programs at NSF, I gained unique perspectives and a greater appreciation for the vastness and interconnectedness of science and the importance of the people who do the science.
What was your first impression of the NSF? How did that change over time?
My encounters with NSF started as a graduate student and later with my first review panel, which was for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Those two experiences and service on many other review panels that followed made me think of NSF as a group of people that cared about science and the groups of people doing the science. Not much has changed in my original impression of the Foundation, but I think that my experiences have repeatedly affirmed those initial thoughts and made me realize that my first impression was just the tip of the iceberg of the integrated Intellectual Merit and Broadening Participation charge that NSF stewards and champions. I found that this dual focus on excellent science and inclusive science are woven into the DNA of MCB and BIO. But one part of my impression that did change, or was a bit revised, was how NSF goes about realizing these goals. I originally saw NSF mainly as unilaterally establishing programs or guidance to which we, the community, would respond. However, I now understand NSF is a steward of these areas, but the community of basic science, engineering, mathematics researchers and educators have to be engaged and partner with NSF to realize these goals. This change in perspective will undoubtedly influence how I view and realize my responsibility to continue to engage with NSF post my tenure as a program director.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at the NSF?
Do it! And, perhaps it’s not so bad to do it when you’re mid-career. My experience was so much more than I expected. I learned a lot of what I would categorize as “behind the curtain” stuff, such as how the Foundation sets priorities and how to differentiate those seemingly (from the outside) blurry lines between programs. One rather rewarding aspect of my experience was the ability to see the tangible impact of the programs we managed and developed on my community. It was fulfilling to have the occasion to shine a light on areas and communities that have the potential to be highly impactful but have not received much attention or investment. The ability to be part of the conversation, engage new voices in the community, and make a difference broadly on the trajectory of individual investigators has been a uniquely rewarding experience. My time in MCB is something I am grateful for and will carry with me for the rest of my career.