Getting to Know MCB

MCB WELCOMES DR. MICHAEL WEINREICH, PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR THE GENETIC MECHANISMS CLUSTER

I headshot style photo of Michael, he is smiling into the camera. He is wearing a blue shirt and glasses and is siting in a library with shelves, a computer, and students strudying in the background.

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I was an associate professor in the Laboratory of Genome Integrity and Tumorigenesis at the Van Andel Research Institute in Michigan for 16 years, having joined the Institute at its founding in 2000. After moving to Boston for my wife’s Palliative Care Fellowship at Harvard Medical School, I closed down my lab and joined Phil Sharp’s lab at MIT as a visiting scientist.

What attracted you to work for the NSF?

I was funded by the NSF some years ago and saw the immense impact that it had on my ability to complete meaningful research. In my work as panelist, I came to know more about NSF and to appreciate its vital role for supporting basic science and education in the US. All my interactions with the staff and scientists here were very positive, so that led me to have an even higher opinion and appreciation for the mission of the NSF.

What was your first impression of the NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

While serving as a panelist, I saw NSF as an efficient and effective organization, and my first impressions after joining as a rotator confirmed these views. Although the steep learning curve of joining MCB in the middle of the grant review cycle was a bit overwhelming, my overall thoughts on NSF have not changed.

What personal goals would you like to accomplish while at the NSF?

I would like to support NSF’s mission, “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”¸ by making funding decisions that have a positive impact on science in the MCB community, and hopefully positive effects throughout the country. I also want to learn more about the history of the NSF and the breadth of its activities to promote science and the public good.

What has surprised you most about working at the NSF?

What surprised me is that I could walk down to the 3rd floor with my laptop and someone would help me fix the problem immediately! The IT staff is great.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

While BIO/MCB may seem relatively small, NSF is a mid-level federal agency with over a 1,000 employees, which means there are a wide range of projects in many different areas of science. One challenge has been learning about and keeping track of all the directorates, divisions, and wide range of opportunities at NSF.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at the NSF?

Please consider it seriously. Serving as a Program Director allows researchers to gain more insight into the breadth of scientific research (even within your own field) and also how to write a better grant proposal.

When friends or colleagues find out that you work at the NSF, what do they say or ask?

They think my new role poses both unique challenges and opportunities and that it will be a great experience.

MCB WELCOMES DR. EJ CRANE, PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR THE SYSTEMS AND SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY CLUSTER

EJ is sitting on the ground in front of a laptop, several open books and papers, as well as boxes and electrical equiptment. He is sitting in sand near a large log and has electrodes connected to wires several feet away in an expanse of smoldering ash.

Photo Credit: Fotios Kafantaris

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am a Professor in the Department of Biology at Pomona College in southern California, and teach biochemistry, microbial ecology, and cell biology courses. My research team and I study the microbiology and biochemistry of sulfur-based respiration in natural environments, such as sediment from the deep sea and mud volcanoes from hot springs.

What attracted you to work for the NSF?

I enjoyed serving as a panelist on merit review panels. As a panelist, I saw so much new science and the intensity of going over proposals in detail in a relatively short period of time appealed to me. Also, it seemed like being a program officer would be a real challenge. It is so different from the experience that one has as a professor – where you can still feel very isolated even though you are interacting with your research group and a lot of students.

What was your first impression of the NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

My first impression after serving on merit review panels was positive; it hasn’t changed. Coming to NSF as a rotator was a pretty big move for me, so I researched the position. I asked questions when I visited the NSF and talked to former program officers that I know – everyone said that it’s a hard job, but that it’s worth doing due to the amount you learn and the ability to impact the direction that science takes.

What personal goals would you like to accomplish while at the NSF?

In the past, I tended to focus on scientific areas directly related to my research, so I’m hoping to learn to think much more broadly about where the natural and physical sciences are going and how different disciplines collaborate and complement each other. I’d also like to think more about where science could be going in the future.

What has surprised you most about working at the NSF?

What surprised me is the amazing efficiency of NSF. From the staff handling the logistics of the proposals and review panels, to the person running the office, to the IT staff – anytime you have a question or problem it gets dealt with immediately and correctly. It makes it much easier for program directors to focus on science.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

I think the biggest challenge so far is not having my research lab right next door where I can go and be a part of my students’ daily lives and work when I get tired of being in my office. For me, much of the fun of science is working in the lab, so I miss not having cultures to look at in the microscope, not being able to spend a few hours with my students constructing and troubleshooting an experiment, or even the excitement of viewing new results such as looking through sequencing data to see what kinds of new microbes we may have discovered.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at the NSF?

I’d tell them that if they’ve had experience with the merit review process as a panelist or reviewer and enjoyed it, they would most likely be a good fit at NSF. Having experience writing proposals is also important – if a person does not enjoy writing proposals, they’re probably not going to enjoy looking at them all day long!

When friends or colleagues find out that you work at the NSF, what do they say or ask?

I was kind of surprised at their responses. Almost everyone asks, “So what is your average day like? What do you actually do all day?”

A Word from Dr. Theresa Good, Acting Division Director

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As many of you may know, our Division Director, Dr. Linda Hyman, recently returned to her previous position as Associate Provost for the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences at Boston University. Linda led MCB through some difficult times: the death of a dear friend and colleague, Dr. Kamal Shukla; the retirement of a dedicated colleague and advocate for the synthetic biology community, Dr. Susanne Von Bodman; and the transition of a number of staff members into different roles within the Foundation and elsewhere in federal service. From all of us at MCB, thank you Linda, for the time you took away from your role at Boston University to lead us and for your year and a half of service to the Foundation. Good luck as you return back to Boston University.

As I now take on the role of Acting Division Director, I am thankful to have the support of talented program directors, staff, and colleagues, like Dr. Gregory Warr, who have previously served in this role.  All are dedicated to the NSF mission of transforming the frontiers of science and engineering, and stimulating innovation to address societal needs through research and education. While change is occasionally uncomfortable, it often brings about opportunities. We are excited to have a number of new program directors who you will meet over the coming months (Dr. E.J. Crane, Dr. Michael Weinreich, and Dr. Jarek Majewski), new staff members (Grace Malato), and the expert leadership of a new Operations Manager (Dr. Reyda Gonzalez-Nieves). Two of our dedicated program directors, first Dr. Michelle Elekonich, and then Dr. Karen Cone, will serve as the acting Deputy Division Director in two respective 120 day rotations. Michelle and Karen both have experience in division leadership and will work with me to ensure the efficient operations and attention to science vision for which MCB is known.

In addition, a new solicitation will be issued and some new workshops are being developed to catalyze conversations about the future directions of MCB science. Within MCB, we are poised to do our part to invest in science, engineering, and education for the nation’s future.

We look forward to engaging the scientific community during panels, meetings, and outreach visits about how to best serve science and the needs of the nation. We ask you to continue to work with us by: submitting your best ideas in proposals, continuing to participate in peer review, serving on panels, meeting with us at NSF workshops or at other scientific meetings, serving as rotating program directors, continuing to do outstanding research and broader impacts activities, and communicating the results of those efforts to the broader community.

As always, MCB welcomes your questions and input on how we can better serve the scientific community. You should always feel free to give us feedback or reach out to a program director with questions.

 

Best wishes,

 

Dr. Theresa Good

Acting Division Director

WELCOME TO MCB GRACE MALATO!

Grace is looking into the camera and smiling. There are tropical trees in the background and she is wearing a gray tshirt and holding a green sive full of Rhoadsia altipinna, a small western Ecuadorian Tetra fish which appear rainbow.

Hear from MCB biologist Grace Malato.

What is your educational background?

I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Biology with an emphasis in Aquatics from the University of Montana, Missoula. I then received my Master of Science degree in Biology from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

What is your position? When did you start working in MCB?

I started as a Biologist for MCB in January 2017, just after the New Year. I am here as a Presidential Management STEM Fellow (PMF STEM), which is a program that we previously featured on the MCB blog.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of research settings that combine molecular tools with ecological concern; I love the excitement that comes with discovery. After seeing how important but challenging interdisciplinary research can be, I was curious about the bigger picture. I am excited to work at NSF to contribute to the scientific community at large and to be a part of an organization providing critical funding for innovative research.

What have you learned so far from your position?

I have learned, in my short time at NSF, so much about the inner workings of the merit review process as well as how funding and research priorities are set. I have learned just how much work goes into reviewing proposals as well as how decisions on funding influence the future of science.

MCB WELCOMES DR. DEVAKI BHAYA, PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR THE SYSTEMS AND SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY CLUSTER

This is a headshot style photograph of Dr. Devaki Bhaya smiling at the camera with glasses on her head. Wearing silver jewelry and a black shirt, she is standing in front of forest covered mountains.

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Department of Plant Biology, which is a full-time research position, and I have a courtesy appointment as a Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. I mentor both graduate and undergraduate students, collaborate with several faculty, and teach a range of courses.

What attracted you to work for the NSF?

Well, a number of things. I have been funded for most of my career by the NSF. NSF support allowed me to get back into research (after several years in India) and to develop several interdisciplinary projects. I felt this was a good time in my career to use my experience to help identify the most innovative science. Being a rotator allows me to explore the complex funding landscape, which may help me better develop future research projects. I also think strong interactions between scientists and funding agencies can bring in new ideas.

What was your first impression of the NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

I came in the day before the start of a panel, which was a bit overwhelming, but prepared me for what lies ahead. I was struck by the collegiality among the Program Directors and the professionalism of the staff. If anything, I am now even more impressed because I realize that everyone is trying to do their best, under sometimes challenging circumstances.

What personal goals would you like to accomplish while at the NSF?

I am deeply immersed in my own research, but I have become more curious about how all the pieces of the foundation fit together and how policies and directions are decided.  That’s hard to see from the “outside”, and I have already been able to get a better sense by attending seminars, retreats, and meeting people. I also felt this experience would allow me to decide whether or not I could make a difference and be happy in a longer term position at the NSF or one of the other funding agencies in the latter part of my career.

What has surprised you most about working at the NSF?

What surprised me most are the various opportunities that exist at the NSF if you can take time out of a busy schedule. I’ve been able to meet academics and Program Directors from different fields, talk to young scientists about their career goals, and attend several talks – all in the first few months! I have also been surprised at how much organizational flux there is with new people joining and others leaving; yet all the programs still run efficiently.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

So far, the challenge has been learning the ropes (software, processes, etc.). In the future, I see the bigger challenge to make the best funding decisions. But in both cases, the fact that there are several experienced Program Directors who are always willing to answer questions and discuss issues is a huge help. This role is very different from being an established academic where one is familiar with the territory.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at the NSF?

Serving as a Program Director is a unique opportunity to witness firsthand how much thought, complexity, and effort lies behind funding decisions. I would recommend early or mid-career scientists serve if they can afford to take the time. I’d especially encourage those who like challenges, are curious, and like to cross both social and scientific boundaries. To use an analogy – doing one’s own research is like focusing on a single star; at the NSF, you realize there are whole galaxies out there and enjoy the “big picture.”

When friends or colleagues find out that you work at the NSF, what do they say or ask?

For most of my scientist friends, working at the NSF represents the daunting challenge of using scarce resources to promote excellence in basic science and build diversity. There are some who say I must be a risk-taker who likes a challenge, but others who think I have a great opportunity to contribute to and strengthen the science community. Frankly, I think it’s a bit of both and I am eager to see how my perspectives change over the next few months.

2016 Top 6: Our Most Popular Blog Posts of the Year

We greatly appreciate your continued support of the MCB Blog! In 2016, we were very pleased to see MORE visitors, an INCREASE in views per post and total blog views, and 104 NEW followers who read our blog weekly!

Meet the Editors who craft and edit MCB blog posts. Read our blog policies. Share Your Science with our readers. Tell us what you like to read most and provide feedback on how we can continue to improve. You can also contact us online or reach out to program staff from MCB at Your Meeting.

Here is a quick look at our top 6 most popular blog posts of 2016.

(1) IN HONOR OF DR. KAMAL SHUKLA

This grouping of photographs shows Dr. Kamal Shukla smiling with NSF and MCB staff during work events.

(2) EXPLORING NON-ACADEMIC SCIENCE CAREERS: ASSISTANT DEAN FOR DIVERSITY INITATIVES IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES IN PRINCETON UNIVERSITY

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(3) EXPLORING NON-ACADEMIC SCIENCE CAREERS: SUPPLEMENTAL FUNDING FOR CAREER DEVELOPMENT

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(4) MEET THE SUMMER 2016 INTERNS AT MCB!

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(5) EXPLORING NON-ACADEMIC SCIENCE CAREERS: PRESIDENTIAL MANAGEMENT FELLOWSHIP

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(6) NSF FACULTY EARLY CAREER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM

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A photo of Alexis Patullo in her graduation gown for George Mason University. Alexis is standing in front of a fountain and holding green and yellow pom-poms.

WELCOME TO MCB ALEXIS PATULLO!

Hear from Program Assistant Alexis Patullo.

What is your educational background?

I recently graduated from George Mason University with a bachelor’s degree in Forensic Science and a minor in Biology.

What is your position? When did you start working in MCB?

I started working at NSF in September 2015 as a Pathways Student in the Office of the Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences. Later that year, I transitioned to a detail position, which is a short term preview of another role that develops new skills, within the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB). Upon graduation, I was eligible for a Program Assistant position in MCB, and I applied because I thoroughly enjoyed my detail in the Division. As a Program Assistant, I support the Genetic Mechanisms (GM) and Systems and Synthetic Biology (SSB) programs.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I often walked through the NSF atrium on my way to another job. Every time I thought, I should stop in to see what NSF is all about. As I looked for student internships on USAJOBS.gov, I came across a Pathways position at NSF. After reading more about what NSF does and finding out that several of my professors were either awarded NSF funding or served as NSF Program Directors, I decided to apply. It seemed like a great opportunity to put the skills I have to good use while taking classes and continuing to learn about science.

What have you learned so far from your position?

I think one of the most important things I have learned is the importance of teamwork and effective communication as most tasks involve several people and moving parts. Learning new technologies and procedural changes that reflect updated policies or regulations means that most days I feel like I learn something new in my position.