Broader Impacts

Virtual Reality, Real Science

A student wearing virtual reality goggles sits inside the exhibit titled "Unbecoming Carbon."

When Dr. Iris Meier develops the lab component of a research-focused biology class that she co-teaches each year, titled Art and Science, she knows what the students are expected to learn
. . . during the first half of the semester. The second half depends upon the students: How will they combine their diverse interests and talents to create an artistic experience capable of changing the way participants view biological processes?

Meier approaches each semester by structuring course content around her current NSF-funded proposal. The first few weeks of class introduce biology students and students from the Art and Technology track within the Department of Art at Ohio State University to biology by having them conduct simple experiments. Next, students design and conduct their own experiments. Then, equipped with a deeper appreciation for the topic, the class develops its final project.

In 2019, that project, “Unbecoming Carbon,” used virtual reality to allow participants to enter a leaf pore as a carbon dioxide molecule and then travel through the plant’s biochemical processes to observe how the plant eventually emits molecules of oxygen. The exhibit was funded as a broader impact activity included with her award, “Function and Mechanism of Action of Plant-specific LINC Complexes in Pollen Tube and Guard Cell Biology” (MCB- 1613501).

Meier’s lab studies the structure and function of the plant nuclear envelope, with a focus on understanding the function of the LINC complex. Meier maintains an ongoing collaboration with Amy Youngs, associate professor in the Department of Art, to support the broader impacts activities.

Each year, the exhibits take about five weeks to develop and are open to the public for about three weeks. Assessments are conducted via a survey once participants leave the exhibit. But do they really learn anything? Meier thinks so: “My favorite interview is the visitor who said, ‘This is so cool! I’ll remember [this experience] my whole life, but if you had told me about this, I would have forgotten it in two minutes!’”


*Photo/Video by Amy M. Youngs
*Artwork by Ellie Bartlett, Jacklyn Brickman, Ashley Browne, Amanda Buckeye, Diva Colter, Mona Gazala, Youji Han, Saba Hashemi Shahraki, Brice Jordan, Liam Manning, Iris Meier, Brooke Stanley, Lily Thompson, Zachary Upperman, Stephen White, Taylor Woodie, and Amy Youngs

#NSFSTORIES: GREGORY BOWMAN’S INITIATIVE TO UNDERSTAND COVID-19

One outcome of a CAREER award and supplement made to Dr. Gregory Bowman by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences was an enhanced computing infrastructure developed to better understand protein dynamics. The increased capabilities provided the technology needed to direct Bowman’s attention to COVID-19-related research questions. Bowman is addressing these questions via the Folding@home initiative, which has garnered the support of over 4.5 million citizen scientists. Read more about Bowman’s story on NSF’s beta website here.

MCB CONGRATULATES THREE 2020 PROTEIN SOCIETY AWARD RECIPIENTS

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) congratulates three MCB-funded researchers for recognition by The Protein Society. Catherine Drennan, Karen Fleming, and Martin Gruebele were among seven recipients of the 2020 Protein Society Awards announced March 12.

Head shot of Dr. Catherine Drennan, recipient of the Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin Award from The Protein Society, 2020.

Professor Catherine Drennan (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is the recipient of the Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin Award. The award recognizes “exceptional contributions in protein science” having a large impact on the scientific understanding of biology. The Society cites Dr. Drennan’s contribution to the understanding of the biology of metalloproteins as well as her advocacy for “inclusion and equity”in science and education.

Professor Karen Fleming (Johns Hopkins University) is the recipient of the Carl Brändén Award. The award was bestowed by The Protein Society.

Professor Karen Fleming (Johns Hopkins University) is the recipient of the Carl Brändén Award. The award honors an outstanding protein scientist who makes “exceptional contributions” in the areas of education or service. Dr. Fleming is cited for her work on thermodynamic measurements of membrane protein folding. She also received recognition for her service work with major scientific societies and her efforts to address gender biases.

Professor Martin Gruebele (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) has been awarded the Hans Neurath Award. The award recognizes researchers who have made notable contributions to basic protein research. Dr. Gruebele is cited for his work on the use of flash heating and ultrafast spectroscopy for studying protein folding and for studying flash folding in live cells.

MCB Workshop-based Webinars are Making a Difference

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences will host a series of workshop-based webinars on proposal writing for researchers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) this June. While most of the information presented is applicable to any potential proposal-writer, the webinars focus on the Research Initiation Awards (RIA) and the Excellence in Research (EiR) tracks of the HBCU-Undergraduate Programs (HBCU-UP) solicitation NSF 20-542. The goal of the webinars is to foster relationships with principal investigators (PIs) at HBCU institutions and to increase the number and competitiveness of proposals submitted to the EiR track of the HBCU-UP solicitation (NSF 20-542). An invitation to participate will be emailed to every HBCU that lists a life-sciences department contact on its website.

A total of 79 unique participants from 32 unique HBCU institutions have participated in the two previous webinars, held in 2018 and 2019. Participants gain a deeper understanding of the merit review process, participate in a mock proposal review, discuss tips for writing strong proposals, and interact with program directors from all divisions in the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO). 

Initially launched in 2018 by Dr. Casonya Johnson, a former program director in the Genetic Mechanisms cluster, the webinar has been well-received. Over 94% of the participants in last year’s workshop said they would recommend the workshop to a colleague. As a whole, the respondents agreed that they felt well prepared to develop a competitive proposal for submission to the National Science Foundation after completing the webinar. A preliminary analysis of proposal submissions from 2018 to 2019 finds that the percentage of proposals submitted by participating institutions rose from 7% in 2018 to 14% in 2019.

MCB continues to seek opportunities to help faculty and staff at under-represented institutions to increase the competitiveness of proposal submissions for all solicitations offered by MCB. Interested faculty are encouraged to contact their respective department chairs for registration details if they have not received information by April 8 or email mcbwebreg@nsf.gov. Details and registration information will also be posted here on the MCB blog.

Resources for Broader Impacts: The Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society

The Center for Advancing the Societal Impacts of Research (ARIS) provides resources to support broader impact (BI) activities. The center sponsors trainings, provides fellowships, hosts online resources, and disperses information for scientists who are interested in strengthening their BI activities. ARIS also hosts an annual planning summit; the 2020 summit is April 28-30 in Durham, North Carolina. Learn more and register on their website.

ARIS, headquartered at the University of Missouri-Columbia, works closely with national and international researchers to “build capacity, advance scholarship, grow partnerships and provide resources to help [scientists] engage with and demonstrate the impact of research in their communities and society”. To learn more about the Center and how to put ARIS resources to use for your broader impacts activities, check out the ARIS resources page.

ARIS builds from and leverages the success of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI), a project previously supported by the Biological Sciences and Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorates at NSF (MCB-1408736). Now funded as a Center out of the Office of Integrative Activities (OIA-1810732), ARIS has expanded its size and scope to examine how “all research — including social science, art and humanities research — impacts society, and how society impacts the research enterprise.”

Reintegrating Biology: Last Chance

This is the logo for Reintegrating Biology.

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences wants to hear what you think!


Although registration for participating in one of two Virtual Town Halls will soon close, there’s still time to make your voice heard in the discussion about the directions you’d like to see funded by the National Science Foundation.  

For more information, read the post, “Integrating Biology” at BioBuzz, the blog of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, Office of the Assistant Director.

Reintegrating Biology: Register Now

What research directions do you think the biological research community should be exploring? What research directions do your peers value?

This is the logo for Reintegrating Biology.

Make sure your ideas are part of the conversation by registering to participate in either of two Virtual Town Hall events on Sept 17 and 18. The events will include some (very) brief inspiring talks, a few details, small break-out groups to brain storm, and report-outs from the small groups.

Register now at reintegratingbiology.org. For more information, visit Integrating Biology.

Reintegrating Biology: Tell Us What You Think

This is the logo for Reintegrating Biology.

What is the most compelling question in the life sciences you would tackle by integrating disparate sub-disciplines of biology?  

NSF wants your thoughts on the question—and you may wish to hear the thoughts of your peers. Join the conversation by registering for one of two Virtual Town Hall meetings to be held Sept. 17 and 18. Participants must register. Go to reintegratingbiology.org to register. Registration is limited.

For more information, read the post, “Integrating Biology” at BioBuzz, the blog of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, Office of the Assistant Director.

BROADER IMPACTS — IF IT WORKS, KEEP DOING IT

Broader Impacts are activities which advance societal goals through either the research itself or through complimentary efforts that advance the larger enterprise of science. Broader Impact activities don’t have to be original, one-of-a-kind ideas. However, they should clearly address a need, be well-planned and documented, and include both a thoughtful budget and a thorough assessment plan. Principle Investigator Allyson O’Donnell uses near-peer mentoring to pair high school students from under-represented minorities with undergraduates in the O’Donnell lab at the University of Pittsburgh, and assesses the outcomes to identify impact.

High school student Hanna Barsouk (Taylor Allderdice High School) and undergraduate student Ceara McAtee (University of Pittsburgh) work on a project in the O’Donnell Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.

Goals of the Broader Impact activity: “The near-peer program focuses on bringing underrepresented minority high school students into the lab and providing an opportunity for them to develop their passion for science. Undergraduates who serve as mentors have measurably stronger engagement with their work in the lab.”

Recruitment: “The high school students volunteer in the lab during the school year and then can apply to participate in more research-intensive activities during the summer. The summer internships are paid, and this is currently funded through an REU supplement as part of my CAREER award.” (NSF award 1902859)

How it works: “I pair the high school students with an undergraduate mentor so that there is a near-peer mentor connection with someone closer in age than a grad student or post doc. We have found that this gives the undergraduate a stronger sense of engagement and ownership in their research project. Plus, based on our assessments, this mentoring experience makes it more likely that the undergraduates will participate in outreach activities in the future. From the high school students’ perspectives, they have someone they are more comfortable asking questions of and who can help give them advice on navigating the application process for universities. Of course, this is in addition to having myself and other team members as mentors.”

How do you measure impact? “We have used the Grinnell College SURE survey [Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences] and other reflective assessments of this approach and find that both the undergraduate and high school students report significantly enhanced learning experiences. Specifically, the high school students show higher learning gains in understanding the research process and how to think like a scientist, while the undergraduate students gain more knowledge about science literacy and confidence in their ability to engage the community in science.”

High school students Sara Liang (left) and Hannah Barsouk proudly display a box of plasmids they created to support their research project at the O’Donnell lab. The two attend Taylor Allderdice High School.

Future plans? “We first used this system of pairing high school students with undergraduate mentors while the O’Donnell lab was located at Duquesne University. We worked with eight students in 2017 and six students in 2018 and we expanded to other labs in the Department of Biological Sciences. We hope to expand the program here at the University of Pittsburgh as well, where it will also be supported by our fantastic outreach team.”