Getting to Know MCB

MCB Welcomes Sonam Ahluwalia, Matthew Buechner, and Adrienne Cheng

Sonam Ahluwalia joined the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) as a program assistant in August 2020.

What is your educational background?

I have an undergraduate degree in biology and a minor in conservation studies. I enjoy teaching the relevance of biological mechanisms in sustainable agriculture, which led me to join the Peace Corps in Madagascar before joining NSF.

What was your first week in MCB like?

My first week was exciting meeting all the amazing staff members. The entire staff shared their warm welcomes and made it easier to onboard completely virtually.  

How has your relocation to the area gone?

This is an interesting question because I have not relocated since NSF staff will be working remotely until further notice. Starting a new position virtually has been an interesting journey! It is a little odd meeting coworkers two-dimensionally. However, it has been pleasant working from home without the stress of moving just yet.

Matthew Buechner joined MCB as a program officer in the Cellular Dynamics and Function (CDF) cluster in September 2020.

What were you doing before you came to NSF?

I am an associate professor at the University of Kansas in the beautiful historic college town of Lawrence, where I taught Microbiology and Cell & Developmental Biology. Micro is fun to teach; there’s a unique sound when 350 voices gasp in unison when you show a slide of some horrible infection, kind of like “the wave” in a stadium.

My research looks at how a single cell changes its shape from a round ball (more or less) to form long hollow tubes, by looking at the genes involved in the tiny (1 mm long) roundworm C. elegans. The results tell us how genes and proteins work together to move parts of the cell around (vesicles and cytoskeleton) to create the wide variety of cells in animals, including the tiny blood vessels and kidney tubules in our bodies.

What attracted you to work for NSF?  

After being on panels, I served at NSF as a Visiting Scientist, Engineer and Educator (VSEE) program officer in the Developmental Biology program in the division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) from 2015 to 2017, and it was a blast! The excitement of reading so many imaginative ideas was thrilling, and they invigorated my own lab’s research. It was also great to work as a team with so many dedicated staff members at all levels to fund as much of that thrilling research as we could.

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

Do it! You’ll learn a lot about your field and on writing grants, get to have fun while working with bright colleagues…and avoid the departmental squabbles over space, funding, and getting grad students, which are inherent to academia.  Running a panel is a thrill like little else:  exhausting, intellectually challenging, and rewarding.

Adrienne Cheng joined MCB as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow in September 2020.

What is your educational background?

I completed my bachelor’s in environmental studies and biology in 2011, followed by an MPH in environmental health sciences, and I received my PhD in nutritional sciences in 2019.

What was your first week in MCB like?

So far it has been great! I spent the majority of my first week in meetings as well as meeting people in the division.

What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?

Getting to know the office culture and learning all of the software in a virtual manner has been a little difficult, but everyone has been accommodating and understanding. It’s also going to take me a while to remember all of the acronyms….

How has your relocation to the area gone?

As good as it can be! Roads are a little busier than I’m used to, but other than that things couldn’t have gone smoother.

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO MYESHIA SHELBY AND DR. REYDA GONZALEZ-NIEVES

photo of Myeshia Shelby, summer intern

Myeshia Shelby joined the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) in June as an intern through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Summer Scholars Internship Program and the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network.

How did your time at NSF influence how you will go forward with your research?
This virtual experience at NSF has allowed me to demonstrate a flexibility in my productivity. The resources and contacts I obtained during my time here will be a part of my professional growth as I pursue my doctoral degree.

What did you learn from your position?
Initially, my position as a student intern was described as an opportunity to discover areas for professional development. As the program continued, I began to realize that my unique perspective as a student researcher could be pivotal in giving NSF staff an idea of how their funding decisions could possibly impact students, especially minorities at minority-serving institutions. 

What personal goals did you accomplish while at NSF?
In the beginning of the program, I constructed an Individual Development Plan that outlined the areas I wanted to grow in. Of those, the most important area where I experienced growth was in my networking abilities and my ability to succinctly communicate across multiple disciplines.

As a Summer Scholars Intern, what was your project and were there any challenges?
The title of my SSIP project is “NSF-Funded Discoveries and Innovations that Impact the Bioeconomy.” This project focused on principal investigators who received NSF funds for basic/fundamental research as well as application development awards through the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships (IIP). The biggest challenge for me was being able to capture the impact that research findings have had on the bioeconomy and on advancements in basic research.

Dr. Reyda Gonzalez-Nieves joined MCB as a biologist under the Presidential Management Fellows Program in April, 2014, and transitioned to the role of division operations manager in July, 2016. She now serves as directorate operations officer for the Directorate for Biological Sciences.

What was working at MCB like?
MCB opened the door for me to start my professional career. When I completed my Ph.D., I decided to pursue a non-academic career in science. I wanted to use the skills I gained in graduate school in a different way. More importantly, I wanted to still be involved in science and contribute to it. MCB offered the perfect place to fulfill my goal. The staff in MCB is simply amazing – everyone is warm, fun, smart, dedicated, loyal, respectful, and ambitious. They work diligently to move the mission of NSF forward. I can say without a doubt that MCB has been one of the greatest places I have ever worked. During my time in MCB, we worked hard to create an environment of camaraderie, mutual respect, and positivity. It has been of the best professional experiences in my life. My time in MCB showed me what teamwork looks like and shaped my professional career journey.

What personal goals did you accomplish while at the NSF?
I started my journey at NSF as a Presidential Management Fellow. My first job in MCB was serving as a biologist. My long-term goal was to utilize my skills at a larger scale. I wanted to create a culture in the office where staff felt comfortable and appreciated as well as serve as a resource for senior leadership. I wanted to supervise staff and help them grow in their professional career.

I transitioned from the biologist role to the operations manager (OM) in MCB. That gave me the opportunity to supervise a group of amazing administrative professionals and understand how to run the operations in a division. As the OM, I worked directly with MCB’s senior leadership and my counterparts in the other BIO divisions. It was a unique opportunity that helped me decide what I wanted to do next. After being in the role for a few years, I was ready to take the next step in my career. I am now the operations officer for the Directorate for Biological Sciences. My journey to this point was not easy, but it was well worth it. For everyone who is reading this: set a goal and work on it little by little every day. The goal can be short or long term. Even if it seems impossible, work on it. Seek advice and ask for help. More importantly, do what is right for you.

MCB thanks Myeshia Shelby and Dr. Reyda Gonzalez-Nieves for their service and wishes them all the best in their future endeavors.

MCB WELCOMES MYESHIA SHELBY AND BIDS FAREWELL TO ALIAS SMITH AND ALEXIS PATULLO

Myeshia Shelby – Myeshia joined MCB in June as an intern through the NSF Summer Scholars Internship Program and the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network.

What is your educational background?
I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in genetics and human genetics.

What were you doing before you came to NSF?
Before being accepted as a summer intern at NSF, I was completing the fall semester of my PhD program at Howard University where I am part of a translational neuroscience research team.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began?
I honestly had no idea what took place at NSF, to the point that I asked if research was conducted on premises. After orientation, it was made clear that NSF is a funding entity for research in science and engineering.

What personal goals would you like to accomplish while at NSF?
I plan to use this opportunity to make new professional connections and gain insight as to how NSF fulfills its mission to support scientific research.


Alias Smith – Alias joined MCB in August 2017 as a Fellow sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He transitioned to the role of science associate in April 2019.

What was the highlight of your time at NSF?
The highlight of working at NSF, specifically within MCB, was being able to work collaboratively with great colleagues on a wide array of projects. I have had the pleasure of working with MCB’s division leadership, program directors, and administrative staff, and in all cases I have learned a lot and had the opportunities to have a lasting impact at NSF and in the community we serve.

What is next for you after your time at NSF?
For the next chapter of my career I will remain at NSF, moving from BIO/MCB to the Emerging Frontiers and Multidisciplinary Activities (EFMA) office in the Directorate for Engineering, where I will serve as an associate program director.

What personal goals did you accomplish while at NSF?
My time at NSF began as an AAAS Fellow. At that time, I was exploring career options, primarily deciding whether to stay in academia or move on to federal or private sector work. After working as an AAAS Fellow and subsequently as a science associate in MCB, I decided that remaining in a federal agency would be best for me with respect to personal growth and the lasting impact I could have on the community. For example, I have been able to develop outreach methods that have the potential to reach a diverse set of faculty members from around the country, directly impacting their understanding of opportunities at NSF.

Would you have done anything differently looking back at you time at NSF?
Looking back at my time at NSF, the main thing I would do differently is reach out to more people across the Foundation to learn about their interests and projects. There is a wide range of expertise represented at NSF and I now know there are many mechanisms to tap into that collective consciousness. I am looking forward to the fact that I am remaining at NSF, and I plan to take full advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as I can from the people around me.


Alexis Patullo – Alexis started as a program assistant in June 2016; she transitioned to program specialist in 2017 and is now a management and program analyst.

What was working at MCB like?
MCB was my first “big kid” job right out of college and I could not have asked for a better place to start. Everyone was always supportive and continually challenged me to be the best I could be. MCB is great team environment and I am going to miss working there. I have learned a lot about NSF these past few years, and hope to use my skills as I transition to my new position.

What is next for you after your time at NSF?
I will be staying at NSF as a management and program analyst in the Directorate for Biological Sciences.

MCB Rotator Dr. Lostroh Wins Award for New Textbook

A textbook written by Dr. Phoebe Lostroh, program director (rotator) in the Genetic Mechanisms cluster in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, has been awarded a 2019 Taylor & Francis Outstanding Book and Digital Product Award in the Outstanding New Textbook Category.

Although Dr. Lostroh wrote the book, titled “Molecular and Cellular Biology of Viruses,” for an audience of upper level undergraduates and beginning graduate students, she’s been surprised to observe purchases by academics from other disciplines.

“I wrote this book because, as a reviewer of other books on virology, I felt that there was a gap in books at this level focusing across the molecular and cellular scale,” says Dr. Lostroh. As to why she thinks the book is a success, Dr. Lostroh says that she worked hard to write the book in a very readable style and to include diagrams targeted to reach today’s students. “I tried to convey how virologists know things instead of just what they know,” she says.

Her next project? Dr. Lostroh has just agreed to write “The Pocket Guide to SARS-CoV-2.” Expected to be released this fall, the goal of this book is to convey basic information to a college-educated audience with citations for more experienced readers.

MCB WELCOMES ANTHONY GARZA AND MARIAM TAHIR, BIDS FAREWELL TO VALERIE MAIZEL

Anthony GarzaAnthony served as an expert in the Genetic Mechanisms cluster, joining the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) in 2013. He is now a permanent program director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster.

Head shot of Dr. Anthony Garza, program  director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster.

What is your educational background?
I received a Ph.D. in microbiology from Texas A&M University, although my primary training was in molecular biology. I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Davis, and Stanford University. While in Dale Kaiser’s laboratory at Stanford, I studied the gene regulatory networks associated with bacterial biofilm formation. As an independent researcher, I continued studying bacterial gene regulatory networks using systems-level approaches and started new projects on bacterial natural products (secondary metabolites).

What attracted you to work for NSF?
I have been working in MCB for seven years as an expert. What originally attracted me to NSF was the recommendation of my Syracuse University colleague, who had just completed a two-year rotation with MCB. Since starting in MCB, I have been a program director in the Genetic Mechanisms cluster and the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster. I enjoyed learning about a variety of research areas, funding exciting science, interacting with the research community and interacting with my colleagues in MCB. I would say that all these things attracted me to the permanent program director position in Systems and Synthetic Biology.

When friends or colleagues find out that you work at NSF, what do they say or ask?
For the most part, my colleagues ask about the funding process at NSF and whether they should contact a program director. Of course, the answer to this question is always yes.

How has your relocation to the area gone?
I haven’t relocated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I’m looking forward to it. 


Mariam TahirMariam joined MCB as a program assistant in March.

Head shot of Mariam Tahir, who recently joined the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences as program assistant.

What were you doing before you came to NSF?
I returned from Peace Corps service in June 2019. I served in Costa Rica for two years as a Community Economic Development volunteer. Some of my projects included working in the local high school giving STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) courses to an empowerment group for girls, and running workshops in art and creative critical thinking painting murals for community service after school (which was a blast!). I also worked at the local bean factory training my host sister in bookkeeping, taught several English classes, and started a bird-watching club in the area. I miss my beautiful community and its people. Pura Vida!

Since I’ve returned to the US, I worked part time at Junior Achievement, teaching financial literacy and professional development to elementary school and high school students.

What has surprised you most about working at the NSF?
The culture! I was a little hesitant about how my background would fit, but the NSF and MCB culture has made me feel super welcome and shown me that everyone is very open to always learning different ways of doing things. The culture is super inclusive, academic, and full of healthy competition. It’s a perfect blend. Our team is always willing to help me learn but also find new ways of doing something new/better.

How has your relocation to the area gone?
DC is SO lovely – I am happy being here in this new adventure. I get to indulge in hiking, a great salsa dancing scene, awesome food and incredible history. I cannot wait to check out the museums when they reopen. Although I do miss living 30 minutes from the Jersey Shore, my family, and being super close to NYC, I know I can always visit on the weekends.


Valerie MaizelValerie joined MCB in 2011 as an administrative support assistant. She started her new role as program specialist in the Division of Chemistry in April.

Head shot of Valerie Maizel, former administrative support assistant in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.

What are you most looking forward to next?
In my job, I worked hard and learned new skills that helped me to qualify for a detail as a program specialist in MPS/CHE (the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences’ Division of Chemistry). I was very pleased to be selected to become an official program specialist. I look forward to working with my new team and working with their exciting programs.

What was working at MCB like?
The staff was very positive and caring. I felt welcome there and everyone was receptive to my ideas.

What did you learn from your position?
I acquired new skills in the financial aspect of NSF.

CONGRATULATIONS TO MCB RECIPIENTS OF NSF DIRECTOR’S AWARDS

Photo collage congratulating six MCB awardees.
Top row: Karen Cone (left); Alias Smith; Ann Larrow.
Bottom row: Richard Cyr (left); Wilson Francisco; Manju Hingorani
Top row: Karen Cone (left); Alias Smith; Ann Larrow
Bottom row: Richard Cyr (left); Wilson Francisco; Manju Hingorani

The National Science Foundation (NSF) held its annual Director’s Awards ceremony on May 7, 2020. The event recognizes excellence in services and achievements of NSF employees. The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) is proud to have six recipients celebrated this year. Alias Smith (Science Associate) and Ann Larrow (Program Analyst) received the NSF Director’s Superior Accomplishment Award for their “extraordinary efforts in developing the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research (HBCU-EiR) proposal webinar series which is contributing to the diversity efforts across the Foundation.” To learn about the HBCU-EiR webinar series and the upcoming interactive workshop in June, read more in this post.

Program directors Wilson Francisco, Karen Cone, Richard Cyr, and Manju Hingorani also received the Director’s Superior Accomplishment Award for “extraordinary intellectual leadership and vision in defining the biggest challenges in Biology through sustained community-wide engagement and integration across fields of science.”

MCB congratulates all awardees and thanks them for their exceptional work in fulfilling NSF’s mission of promoting the progress of science.

MCB: Still Open for Business

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) would like to assure the scientific community that the Division is still fully operational. MCB is committed to supporting the community and accomplishing the mission of the National Science Foundation (NSF). While Program directors and staff are working virtually during this time, MCB continues to welcome your proposal submissions, participation in MCB’s virtual Office Hours, virtual panel service, and general communications.

The Division understands the immense impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on research, institutional closures, and personal life. If you find yourself struggling to meet a deadline for proposal or award report submissions, please contact your MCB program director. In accordance with NSF Implementation of OMB Memorandum M-20-17, MCB is flexible in considering extensions.

Stay in the loop by regularly checking the NSF coronavirus information page, NSF Twitter page, the BIO Buzz blog for the Directorate for Biological Sciences, and of course subscribe to the MCB Blog.

Please review the Dear Colleague Letter on COVID-19 inviting submissions of Rapid Response Research (RAPID) awards related to the virus. For specific questions or comments, please reach out to an MCB program director.

Welcome and Farewells

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.

A picture of Dr. Stephen DiFazio

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.

Dr. Matthias Falk

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.


A photo of Dr. Devaki Bhaya

Devaki Bhaya served as a rotating program director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster, joining the group under an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignment in December, 2016. She returned to her home institution (Carnegie Institution for Science) this past January.

TOP FIVE OF 2019: MOST POPULAR POSTS OF THE YEAR

From broadening participation to increasing diversity and inclusion, MCB’s five most-viewed posts published in 2019 showcase our most read topics. Looking for ideas on how to improve your broader impacts? Read about Dr. Jewett’s BioBits kits. Interested in transitioning to a non-academic STEM career field? Dr. Cooper discusses how she ended up in university administration after a career as a researcher. New to NSF or interested in brushing up your reviewing skills? Read tips from MCB program directors on writing effective reviews.

In 2020, the MCB blog team looks forward to sharing information about exciting outreach efforts, funding opportunities, and more! Subscribe to notifications (on the right side of this page) to be the first to know what’s on MCB’s mind.

1. TEACHING CRISPR IN THE CLASSROOM: A NEW TOOL FOR TEACHERS

Students using BioBits kits.

Dr. Jewett developed a new method of teaching CRISPR – a gene editing tool – using BioBits kits. (Published June 7)

2. OPPORTUNITY AND INTENTION: NEVER SAY NEVER

Dr. Adrienne Cooper from Florida Memorial University.

Dr. Adrienne Cooper’s transition from STEM student to researcher to university administrator. (Published April 19)

3. HBCU-UP EIR: WEBINAR ON WRITING COMPETITIVE PROPOSALS

HBCU EiR Program graphic describing the solicitation.

MCB hosted a webinar on writing competitive proposals for faculty at HBCU institutions in March. (Published March 8)

4. BROADER IMPACTS — IF IT WORKS, KEEP DOING IT

High school and undergraduate student working together in O'Donnell Laboratory.

Dr. Allyson O’Donnell’s broader impact activity – “near peer mentoring” – pairs high school students from under-represented minorities with undergraduates in her lab. (Published June 27)

5. TIPS FOR WRITING EFFECTIVE REVIEWS

Tips for writing effective reviews infographic.

MCB Program Directors provide their top five tips for writing useful and informative reviews. (Published February 20)

NSF BIO 2020 Distinguished Lecture Series

The first of four lectures hosted by the Directorate of Biological Sciences 2020 Distinguished Lecture Series will be held January 22, 2020, 11-12 PM Eastern Standard Time. Dr. Michael Lynch, Arizona State University, will present his talk, titled “Evolutionary Origin of Cell Biology’s Scaling Laws.”

Attendees may attend in person or virtually; in either case, registration in advance is required. Please visit the BIO BUZZ blog for details on registration or visit the  lecture series event page.