Getting to Know MCB

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO SONAM AHLUWALIA AND LOURDES HOLLOWAY

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

What was working at MCB like?

MCB is a unique division, where people are always looking to improve procedures, share creative ideas, and empower PIs. MCB is a place where any individual can uncover their talents, rise above challenges, and experience a true team environment. I was able to learn incredible skills during my time here and explore other career interests.

What was your first impression of NSF? How did that change over time?

My first impression of NSF was that it was just a government organization that funds science. However, over the years I have learned that NSF is beyond just a federal agency, but embodies forward-thinking, progression, efficiency, and love for all science.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about working at NSF?

Do it! There is much to learn and more to gain.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said about Ms. Ahluwalia, “Sonam was the first person to start in MCB during the pandemic.  There was so much uncertainty, but she just took it in stride.  She learned quickly, volunteered for just about everything, and was unafraid of any challenge.  I can’t wait to see what she does next in her career. “

Lourdes Holloway joined MCB as a Pathways summer student in 2015 and began working as a program assistant in 2018. She became a program specialist in 2019.

What is next for you after your time at MCB?

My next step in my career remains at NSF, moving from BIO/MCB to the Division of Graduate Education in the Education and Human Resources Directorate as a program analyst. In this new position, I will be primarily supporting the Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

What was working at MCB like?

Starting out as a summer student working on records retirement to a program specialist working closely with the operations manager on division finances/operations, it’s been an amazing experience! I am so glad to have started my professional career with MCB, largely due to my colleagues and leadership. MCB is full of dedicated, supportive, and talented staff, which made this experience more rewarding. I appreciate that MCB supports cross-training and development in areas outside of your normal duties. It has allowed me to grow tremendously and develop new skills across various subjects. 

Where can undergraduate or graduate students learn about training opportunities at the NSF?

I would highly recommend current students and recent graduates interested in working at the NSF to consider the Pathways Program. It’s a great way to get your foot into the federal workforce and NSF offers a variety of experiences and positions. I had a great experience and it put me on the path I am still on today. Broadly, there are an incredible amount of training opportunities supported by the NSF. That includes programs run by the Division of Undergraduate Education and by the Division of Graduate Education as well as NSF funding opportunities for undergraduate students and graduate students.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said of Ms. Holloway, “It was my privilege to work closely with Lourdes on a number of projects.  I got to see firsthand how talented she is.  It has been a pleasure to watch her grow in her skills and accomplishments.  I hope her new Division knows what a jewel they have in Lourdes.   We all wish her the best in her new position.“

WELCOME MCB’S NEW SCIENCE ASSISTANT – OLAF CORNING

Olaf Corning joined MCB as a science assistant in early March.

Photo of Olaf

What attracted you to work for the NSF?
The NSF had been a subtle but steady influence on my undergraduate education, funding the research around me and enabling friends to pursue PhDs, but it wasn’t until I was interning in Congress that the desire to work at the Foundation seized me.

In the wake of the NSF’s 70th anniversary, the Hill was embroiled with debate over the NSF’s future. As Congress discussed Vannevar Bush’s intent, the numerous successes of the agency, and the challenges it could still solve, I realized this was a place I wanted to work. The Foundation is filled with people fundamentally committed to the celebration of knowledge, expanded access to science, and acceleration of scientific innovation. I am tremendously excited to be able to participate in the NSF’s mission and learn about how it operates and can grow with the needs of the Nation.

How was your relocation?
As smooth as it gets: I was already here! I moved to DC in 2016 for my undergraduate degree at the George Washington University. I’ve come to love the city. Washington, D.C. is incredibly walkable, has beautiful architecture, fantastic local parks, and a tremendous variety of available activities. Having grown up in a rural area in Florida, I am particularly enamored with the Metro. The stations and trains are a great resource and are their own peculiar art form. People here are friendly and quick to make friends. DC sees a lot of turnover and people compensate for it. If you are considering relocating to DC, you are sure to feel welcome.

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO DR. PHOEBE LOSTROH

Phoebe Lostroh joined MCB in July 2019 as a rotating program director and served in the Genetic Mechanisms (GM) cluster and the Systems and Synthetic Biology (SSB) cluster.

Photo of Dr. Phoebe Lostroh

What was the highlight of your time at NSF?
The highlight of my time at NSF was working on the CARES Act COVID-19 RAPID queries on behalf of MCB. Because of that work, I met so many other NSF people across the whole Foundation and I got to contribute to an urgent national need. Even when it was sometimes exhausting, it always felt great because we were all pulling together to lead the national basic science response to the crisis.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at the NSF? Working as a program director at NSF is a great opportunity for anyone who is looking to expand their administrative skills and scientific breadth. There are new things to learn literally every day, and the Foundation is very thoughtful about how to bring rotators on board and train us. MCB, in particular, is strongly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as to great science. It has been an honor to serve with everyone in MCB.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said about Dr. Lostroh, “Phoebe contributed to MCB in so many ways beyond Program Management.  I would routinely get emails from people from the community telling me how grateful they were that she talked to them at their senior citizen center or helped their community set up their COVID testing.  One of her greatest talents is being able to communicate science to anyone, and even make some of us laugh about it.  You’ll have to ask Phoebe directly where to see her perform science comedy in Colorado Springs.  We’ll miss her passion, her dedication, and her humor.  But I am sure that Colorado College is happy to have her back.”

Welcome to MCB Cliff Weil!

Cliff Weil joined MCB in July 2021 as a program director in the Genetic Mechanisms cluster.

What is your educational background?

I have a B.S. in Genetics from the University of California, Davis and a Ph.D. in Genetics and Development from Cornell University.

What were you doing before you came to NSF?

Before joining MCB in July 2021, I was a professor at Purdue University focused on genetics, molecular biology, and genomics of plants, particularly maize and sorghum. I have a special fondness for transposable elements, which were first described in maize, and their interactions with the DNA repair machinery. I’ve also worked on microtubules and as a part of groups trying to interface engineering with biology. From 2017-2020, I was a program director in the NSF Plant Genome Research Program in the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS).

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I’m really excited about being able to facilitate getting the best science supported and about helping develop new directions for Molecular and Cellular Biology.. It is a great group of colleagues in MCB, and I really like the dedication to the work that everyone shares and the free flow of ideas. These are crazy times with the pandemic, but NSF has barely skipped a beat and there remains incredible opportunity to develop new ideas and to broaden the community of scientists. I’m thrilled to be a part of that.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director (*or applying to a position) at NSF?

Definitely do it! It’s a lot of work but totally worth it, interesting (sometimes in unexpected directions), and a lot of fun. You will learn a TON. I really like living in the DC area, so if you can do that, you should, but the remote working has been amazingly seamless.

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

“Can you get me some money!?” I always tell them to send me a one-pager… I think my kids were least impressed with that answer.

Welcome to FY22 – Recap of MCB funding opportunities and priorities

Greetings from all of us in Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the National Science Foundation! 
The new federal fiscal year FY 2022 is underway and we are looking forward to all the exciting science you will propose and accomplish in the coming year.

Stay Informed on News and Updates by Following the MCB Blog
Watch this space, where we will announce funding opportunities and tell you about virtual and in-person venues to talk with MCB program officers. The blog is also where we share information about the MCB portfolio and announce new funding opportunities. Look here, too, if you are interested in rotating or permanent employment opportunities in MCB. 

Keep up to Date on Upcoming and Past Virtual Office Hours
We use the linked Virtual Office Hours site to share an archive of advice from program directors to applicants. The recorded sessions and files walk through a variety of topics from how to prepare a budget, tips for developing broader impacts activities, and how to submit a proposal to suggestions for writing effective, constructive reviews.

Check out a Quick recap of MCB Highlights to Kick Off the New Funding Year

Engage with MCB Virtually
For the time being, MCB will continue to have virtual review panels and program directors will visit scientific meetings virtually, too. If your conference, department, or institution would like a virtual visit, don’t hesitate to contact a program director to see what can be arranged. All of us at MCB look forward to serving you in the year ahead.

MCB WELCOMES SPENCER SWANSEN

Spencer Swansen recently joined the division in June as a program assistant.

Photo of Spencer Swansen.

What is your educational background?

I attended Seattle Pacific University during undergrad, with degrees in Biology (BS) and Ecology (BS). I was fortunate to be a part of an NSF-funded REU over the summer of 2014 at UC-Riverside, studying fungal interactions at the Center for Plant Cell Biology. Afterwards, I started a Peace Corps Masters International in Forest Resource Management at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. For my Peace Corps service, I was a Youth in Development volunteer in northern Thailand, teaching life skills and English. For my Masters research, I surveyed the community on their perspectives toward land use and potential land conversions. After two amazing years, I closed service two weeks before Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated around the globe in response to the pandemic.

What has surprised you most about working at the NSF?

One thing that has surprised me about NSF is the intention behind the funding. I will admit that as a student (especially in forestry classes) I grew tired of academia and felt it was an echo chamber with self-perpetuating systems and structures. I have been very pleasantly surprised since starting work at the NSF, though. Not only is there a focus on funding transformational research, whether high risk or otherwise, but there is also a focus on broadening participation and giving more people the opportunity to pursue a passion for science and research. In just a few weeks, I have come to learn that everyone working at NSF shares these intentions. In my role I will be supporting those who make decisions on funding, organizing panels and processing awards and more. I will also get to be exposed to amazing research, and I can already tell that my love for science is being rekindled (sounds cheesy, but it’s true!).

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO DR. ELEBEOBA MAY

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.

Photo of Dr. Elebeoba May

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.

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO DR. KAREN CONE

Dr. Karen Cone joined the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) in January 2009 as a program director in what was known then as the Genes and Genome Systems Cluster, now known as Genetic Mechanisms. She now serves as science advisor for the Directorate for Biological Sciences.

“Karen has been an extraordinary colleague and mentor to new PIs in the community and to new Program Directors in MCB and across NSF,” says her former division director in MCB, Theresa Good. “We in MCB will all miss her scientific vision, her willingness to take risks to support new activities in both science and broader impacts, and her ability to clearly communicate to PIs, her peers, and NSF leadership about all aspects of NSF operations. We, however, know she will have an opportunity to contribute to a larger organization in her new role.” 

What was the highlight of your time in MCB?
Working in a friendly, supportive team environment has been a delight. Having the opportunity to interact with talented staff and fellow program directors to review and fund exciting science has been a rewarding experience. Another highlight has been the opportunity to engage with countless members of the scientific community.
One of the things I loved about my job as a faculty member was mentoring and advising, and I have loved having the opportunity to continue that work by talking with investigators about their research ideas and coaching them on how to get funded by NSF.

What has surprised you most about working at NSF?
When I first came to NSF, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about the agency. I thought my many years of NSF experience—as a PI and a panelist—had provided me with unique insights. However, when I arrived, I discovered I knew very little about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into reviewing and making funding decisions on grant proposals. I was immensely grateful for the formal and informal training that helped me learn the ropes. I learned (again and again) that there is an answer for every question and a process for every eventuality. I also learned what an amazingly nimble agency NSF is; we have a huge array of mechanisms to fund good science. I tell prospective investigators all the time that if you can imagine an innovative scientific advance, we can probably figure out how to fund it!

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?
I would say do it! For me, this has been an amazing growth experience. I arrived as a well-trained geneticist with a background in microbiology, biochemistry, plant genetics, and genomics. Thanks to the many opportunities I have been given to engage with colleagues in programs at division, directorate and foundation levels, I am leaving MCB with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the breadth of science funded across NSF. The experience has definitely made me a better scientist.

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO BRIDGET JOHNSON

Bridget Johnson joined MCB in March 2018 as a program assistant. She became a program specialist in July 2019.

Former NSF employee, Bridget Johnson, standing in front of a National Science Foundation banner.

What is next for you after your time at NSF?

I have accepted a position as a life scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in northern California. I will also continue to work part-time on my Master of Natural Resources degree from Virginia Tech. Although it’s sad to be leaving NSF, I’m grateful for the experience and look forward to this next step in my career.

What was working at MCB like?

MCB has been a great place to work. It’s a very collaborative, congenial environment with a dedicated staff. During these difficult times, the team has been particularly supportive of each other while adeptly continuing the agency’s mission. Another benefit of working in MCB is the snacks! When we were working physically in the office, there were always goodies shared at staff meetings and potlucks. I can only hope my future workplaces are as welcoming of sweet tooths.

What did you learn from your position?

I’m thankful that MCB gave me the chance to work at NSF, which has provided me a great transition into federal service. I gained experience in administration, event coordination, finance, and data analysis. I had the chance to work on a number of interesting projects, including the Synthetic Cell Ideas Lab, the webinar series for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research (HBCU – EiR) program, and NSF’s research collaboration with the United Kingdom Research Institute (NSF/BIO – UKRI/BBSRC). This year in particular has driven home the vital importance of funding science, and it was an honor to play a small role in support of that goal. I’m especially grateful for the professional relationships and friendships that I developed with NSF colleagues over the years.

Proposal submissions, Step One: Call a Program Officer and … say What?

Many researchers report that they are intimidated by the thought of calling a program officer (PO) to discuss their project proposal because they don’t how to initiate the conversation or what questions to ask. Program officers in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) recommend that principal investigators start by conducting background research on their project idea and send a one-page summary (see pp 10-13) before scheduling a call with a PO. An early conversation can help a researcher identify the most appropriate program and PO for a proposal. Below are some considerations for each step.

Some items you may wish to research before a phone call:

  • The current research portfolio of the program
  • Abstracts of funded projects related to yours
  • Award size, duration, and limitations of the solicitation
  • Any program specific requirements of the solicitation

A one-page summary should include: (be prepared to discuss these topics in depth during a phone call)

  • Your questions and specific aims
  • The big picture of your research area and knowledge gaps you are addressing
  • Key preliminary data and rationale
  • Overall intellectual merits and broader impacts
  • Any visuals that may be helpful

Possible topics and questions to bring up in a phone call:
Program fit:

  • Does my project fit this program?
  • What other programs or solicitations may be appropriate for my project?

Broader impacts:

  • Do my broader impacts fit NSF expectations?
  • What is the difference between broader impacts and broadening participation?
  • Do broader impacts and intellectual merits need to be integrated? Are mine sufficiently integrated?
  • Should I structure broader impacts and intellectual merit plans in the same way?

Specifics of proposal preparation:

  • Are my preliminary data in line with what the program expects?
  • To what extent should I describe results from prior support?
  • What kinds of equipment costs can be requested?
  • How much salary can I ask for myself, postdoc, or graduate student?
  • Do I have to include undergraduates in participant support costs?
  • What is the best way to fund a collaboration?
  • Can I submit the same proposal to another funding agency?
  • How long does the review process take?
  • Can I be funded by the same NSF program for two different projects?
  • What kinds of direct costs are allowable in budget line G6 Other?

NSF’s review process:

  • When is a good time to submit a proposal, given that there is no deadline?
  • Will the reviewers be experts in my field?
  • When should I expect a decision?
  • What are my options if my proposal is declined?
  • Will my declined proposal be evaluated by the same reviewers in the next round?

Did you know?

MCB holds virtual office hours on topics specific to the MCB research community once each month. Visit this page to register for upcoming events and to access past presentations. For more information on working with Program Officers, read this NSF 101 post on NSF’s Science Matters blog.