Broader Impacts

BROADER IMPACTS: WHAT ARE THEY AND HOW ARE THEY REVIEWED?

All NSF proposals are evaluated based on two criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Intellectual Merit is reviewed on the value of the science, the potential for the planned investigation to result in impactful outcomes that advance knowledge, and the ability to assess success. But how does Broader Impacts work?

Occasionally, NSF Program Directors will see reviews of Broader impacts that say “The PI plans to do X, Y and Z broader impacts activities. This is a strength of the proposal.”  

We know this isn’t helpful for the PIs, and they aren’t helpful to the Program Director, so we ask reviewers to think about why Broader Impact efforts are a strength, how they benefit society or expand the reach of the science, and/or how they build capacity – either for the individual, their lab, or the institution.

We also want to know whether what the PI has laid out as a plan to accomplish those goals is doable and sufficiently resourced. Thoughtful evaluation of broader impacts will help the PI in carrying out their work, help NSF, and lead to better broader impacts activities with more benefit to society. MCB encourages reviewers to provide reviews that they themselves would find useful as PIs – constructive evaluations highlighting aspects of the proposed activity that were done “just right” as well as aspects that could be improved.  Good reviews help PIs improve not just their proposals, but also the works that eventually gets funded. 

In writing the Broader Impacts statement, we encourage the PI to be thoughtful in what they want to accomplish and how they will accomplish it. Is the activity something that interests them and has measurable outcomes? Are funds requested to support the activity or to help with assessment. Examples of Broader Impact efforts can include teaching, training, and learning; broadening participation of underrepresented groups; building or enhancing partnerships (including across multiple sectors); broad dissemination of the science or technological understanding; enhancements to infrastructure both at your home institution and in developing countries; and/or local impacts like policy or land use.

What are some resources to help think about Broader Impacts (and evaluate them if you are a reviewer)?

NSF provides PIs and reviewers with information about both merit review criteria in the Proposal and Award Policy and Procedure Guide (link).  Additional information on Broader Impacts activities can be found in this document or at this blog post. You can also view the recording and slides of MCB’s Broader Impacts Virtual Office Hour.

The NSF funded Center for Advancing Research Impacts in Society provides helpful guidance on how to evaluate broader impacts in this brochure.

And, of course, the MCB blog has posted about Broader Impacts – including some examples – in the past. You can read all the posts tagged as “Broader Impacts” at https://mcbblog.nsfbio.com/tag/broader-impacts/.

Making Epistasis Fun

With some basic ingredients – including common yeast, a few test tubes, and notebooks – Dr. Maitreya Dunham’s broader impacts project has not only created research experiences for high school students – the work has also yielded new findings on specific interactions between genes (epistasis) that influence yeast resistance to azoles. Azoles are a class of synthetic anti-fungal compounds that inhibit the growth of yeasts and fungi, including those that affect foods and health.

The student-run experiments are a component of a collaborative project between Dunham and co-investigator Dr. Paul Rowley (“Collaborative Research: Eukaryotic virus-host interaction and evolution in Saccharomyces yeasts” (NSF award #1817816)). The students grow common yeast (S. cerevisiae) in a media containing an azole known to inhibit yeast growth. Successive generations of the most successful yeast are transferred to media with increasingly greater levels of azole. Students track the progression and return the final yeast cultures to Dr. Dunham’s lab for genetic sequencing. After the yeast’s genomes are sequenced, Dunham and her team return the results to the school and students research the mutations as part of their classwork.

The research enables students to observe how mutations in specific genes interact, and how correlated mutations lead to different changes in azole resistance. When the interactions are not additive, but are either greater or less than expected, it’s known as epistasis.

Pigmented yeast makes the research competitive and the experiments more visually exciting. In “yeast fights,” students observe the growth of differently colored yeasts to track which strains are more drug resistant. The colored yeasts come from the lab of Dr. Jef Boeke, also an MCB-funded researcher, and are developed by research assistants “playing” with yeast in their spare time. Some high school students call these colonies their “yeast babies” and, Dunham says, the students are excited to learn what genetic mutations are present in the final yeast colony.

The project itself has evolved, enabling the experiments to persist despite school closings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. yEvo.org includes a step-by-step protocol and a form for requesting more information on how to participate.

Other collaborators include Dr. Ryan Skophammer, a biology teacher at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, CA, who initiated the idea by asking Dunham for a “real” science project for his class; Dr. Bryce Taylor, a yeast geneticist in Dunham’s lab who provides the genetic sequencing; and three undergraduate students. Rowley, the project’s co-investigator, runs yEvo labs in schools local to him in Idaho. “I feel like this is what a real scientist does,” wrote one student in response to a survey question. And indeed, it is just what real scientists do.

Hacking is a Broader Impact Activity

Members of Team Supergene, one of the winning teams, discussed their process in a virtual meeting with hackathon organizers. Clockwise from top left: Sherif Negm (team captain, junior); Dr. John Sproul (postdoc); Dr. Lucas Hemmer (postdoc); Xiaolu Wei (graduate student).

Advances in basic biological research methods have generated large amounts of data scattered across divergent datasets and disciplines.

Recognizing this, MCB-funded CAREER-awardee Dr. Amanda Larracuente (MCB-1844693) has developed a broader impact activity to build data literacy, organizing  week-long hackathons open to contestants of any skill level.

The first hackathon, held this past August, was a team effort between Larracuente, Matthew McCall, and Andrew McDavid, her co-chairs on the working group on Life and Biomedical Data Science at the University of Rochester’s Goergen Institute for Data Science. The challenge was to make predictions about a high-dimensional genomic dataset. “For this challenge, it helped to have teams with diverse experiences in computer programming, statistics, and some biology background. It was great to see participants with different backgrounds forming teams!” says Larracuente. Competitors entered the contest either solo or in self-assembled teams of four. Lone entrants who wanted a team experience were assigned to teams based on their self-assessed skills in statistics, programming, and GitHub. Participation was open to anyone enrolled at the University of Rochester, Larracuente’s home institution, and all skill levels and educational background were welcome.

In all, 44 contestants comprised 17 teams, including eight teams of undergraduates. Each day during the five-day contest, teams submitted their predictions to GitHub (a cloud-based hosting service for managing data repositories) and received feedback from the organizers. One important lesson learned, observes Larracuente, is to take advantage of existing campus outreach efforts to broaden recruitment efforts.

Her efforts are motived by her passion for increasing the participation of women and other populations traditionally underrepresented in the field of computational biology. “I really want to help students build confidence in their computational skillset,” says Larracuente.

 She may be succeeding. Khoa Hoang, an undergraduate majoring in microbiology and data science observed, “This has been a cool and beneficial learning experience for many of us…[the hackathon] motivated me a lot to take more data science courses. This is our first time analyzing high dimensional data and it has been a very interesting journey.”

*The division of Molecular and Cellular Bioscience (MCB) recently released a Dear Colleague Letter inviting proposals for conferences focusing on ways to both collate distributed information and synthesize data to advance research. Follow this link for more information on “Conferences to Prepare for the Transformation of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Research through Information Synthesis and Integration” (NSF 21-017).

Coloring Outside the Lines with Broader Impacts

This is a depiction of the cover of the coloring book.

While collaboration in science is essential, the good news is that potential collaborators aren’t required to be in the form of other principal investigators. In fact, collaborators from outside one’s field often have skills and perspectives that can bring broader impact ideas to life.


Dr. Ahna Skop’s (MCB 1716298) recently published book, “Genetic Reflections: A coloring book” is the result of such a collaboration – involving Dr. Skop and two undergraduates, Elif Kurt and Caitlin Marks. Kurt and Marks developed the illustrations for the coloring book as part of their independent project for a Life Sciences Communication class. The coloring book is an extension of an earlier broader impact activity achieved through a collaboration with artist Angela Johnson. That project, also titled “Genetic Reflections,” is a 40-foot-long science art installation on display at the Biotech Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is open to the public.

The aim of the coloring book is to inspire children and other members of the public as they discover the natural beauty of science and genetics. Within the coloring book are 26 illustrations of basic biological concepts – one for every letter of the alphabet. For example, the letter A goes with the illustration Arabidopsis thaliana (pictured below), a small flowering plant frequently used as a model organism in plant biology studies.

Nearly 400 copies of the book have been sold since its release in October 2020. A preview of the book is available online at the Skop Lab’s web page. The preview page has proven popular, receiving almost 1,500 unique visits since its inception. 

The broader impacts do not stop at the book itself; it has also spawned a variety of other outreach events. Most recently, Skop’s team introduced the book to a Girl Scout troop in Madison, Wisconsin to introduce troop members to the beauty of science and genetics.

Working on the coloring book has given Kurt a great appreciation for how science communication can be used in her career. As a future doctor, she has a passion for bridging the communication barrier between health care providers and their patients and believes that her experiences working on this book will help her to “bring a human touch back to medicine.”

Image for coloring, titled "A is for Arabidopsis thaliana"

Some of the proceeds of the book are donated to charities and programs that support historically marginalized students and programs in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM).


Sewage Sampling Offers Promising Method for Early Detection of COVID Outbreaks

One of the challenges facing researchers responding to the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic is the ability to identify and track infection early. Predicting the spread of illness can help communities and governments know where to concentrate resources, focus outreach efforts, and how to alter policy.

One way that researchers have been able to detect early increases in cases is by sampling sewer systems. Because everyone flushes their toilet, sewer samples represent the health of the entire neighborhood on any given day. Researchers can detect a SARS-CoV-2 signal in the sewer before hospitals see an uptick in patients. The samples collected would track the rise and fall of infections in the community.

Dr. Julius Lucks (MCB-2028651) and his lab at Northwestern University in Chicago have made this kind of wide-scale sewer sampling possible by utilizing CRISPR Isothermal Amplification (CIA).  This approach allows samples to be processed in a single reaction at room temperature, making it a faster, cheaper, and a more scalable assay. The ability to have a point-of-contact test that takes less than an hour, costs less than a dollar, and is more accurate than a PCR-based method could change the way researchers approach SARS-CoV-2 tracking. Read more in the Chicago Tribune.

Adding Impact to your Broader Impacts: Office Hours with ARIS

Join program officers from the Directorate for Biological Sciences in a discussion of Broader Impacts with guest speaker Susan Renoe from the NSF-supported Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS).

ARIS works with scientists to help them engage in activities that have meaningful and long-term impact in their communities and society. The center offers strategies for building capacity, growing partnerships, and leveraging existing resources to enhance the impact of individual and institutional efforts to benefit society.

Topic: How to Ensure That Your Broader Impact and Broadening Participation Plans Have IMPACT

Guest Speaker: Dr. Susan Renoe, Executive Director, ARIS (NSF award 1810732).

Time: Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2 pm – 3pm EST.

Registration is required: Click here and select the November 18, 2020 option from the drop-down selection for “Time.”

Visit the Office Hours page of this blog for access to presentations from previous office hours.

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.