Getting to Know MCB

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.



WELCOME AND FAREWELL: DIVISION LEADERSHIP CHANGES

The division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) welcomes Dr. Theresa Good as its new, permanent, division director. Dr. Good replaces Dr. Basil Nikolau, who ended a three-year term as a rotating division director on March 28. Dr. Brent Miller will serve a three-month term as MCB’s deputy division director.

Dr. Theresa Good, Division Director, completed a doctoral degree in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She began her career as an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, where she was tenured. She then worked as a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research focus was on using bioengineering tools to understand the role of protein aggregation in disease.

Dr. Good began her service with the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a program director in the Directorate for Engineering from 2010-2012 and then in MCB from 2012-2015, where she managed programs in biotechnology, biochemical engineering, and systems and synthetic biology. In 2015, she assumed the role of deputy division director. In this role she managed all aspects of division performance, including both operations and the division’s role in funding the leading edges of fundamental research in biology.

Asked what she hopes to focus on in her first year as MCB division director, Dr. Good said “I’d like to see us find a way to encourage more bold science in the submissions MCB receives from the science community. I want to see us working on opportunities to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. I think there is a need for more two-way communication between MCB and the science community.”

Dr. Brent Miller, acting division director, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences

Dr. Brent Miller, Acting Deputy Division Director, earned a doctoral degree in cell and developmental biology at the University of California, Davis. He served as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow at NSF through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 2006-2008 before working as a science advisor at Wellcome Trust, where he managed the human physiology portfolio.

After Wellcome, Brent worked as a research staff member at IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, where he worked with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop the Obama administration’s National Bioeconomy Blueprint. He worked most recently as a health science policy analyst at the National Institute of Mental Health leading the effort to develop the institution’s strategic plan. He returned to NSF/BIO in 2015 to work as a science advisor in the Office of the Assistant Director, where he developed the directorate’s capabilities in strategic portfolio analysis. 

Dr. Miller’s experience in developing science vision and strategic planning, as well as his expertise in data analytics, will help ensure MCB’s contribution to NSF’s mission of building the future via investments in discovery and innovation.

Dr. Basil Nikolau, former division director for the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences

Dr. Basil Nikolau, outgoing Division Director, joined MCB as a division director in 2018, ably leading MCB during his three-year term. His love of science was a hallmark of his leadership, as well as his empathy and compassion for others. These qualities helped Dr. Nikolau keep morale high during both the 2019 lapse in appropriations and the current pandemic. He helped channel the division’s energy and concern during periods of social unrest into development of new diversity, equity, and inclusion activities. Dr. Nikolau’s commitment to both science and people was unwavering; as a result, MCB has thrived. MCB wishes Dr. Nikolau a warm farewell and wishes him much success in his next adventure

Top Five: Most Viewed Posts Published in 2020

Since the launch of the MCB blog in 2015, the total number of annual views has increased by nearly 60%. Readership has been driven by continued promotion as well as the addition of two new pages useful to the research community. The Funding Opportunities page, with over 1,100 views, highlights MCB-specific funding opportunities; the Office Hours page (nearly 1,900 views) provides links to past presentations and registration links to upcoming events

1. HBCU-EIR WEBINARS: VIDEO RECORDING AND SLIDES AVAILABLE

This post provided a link to a slide presentation on NSF 20-542 (Historically Black Colleges and Universities-Excellence in Research (HBCU-EiR).
Published June 22

2. LETTERS OF COLLABORATION AND SUPPORT: KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Details on the differences between the two, along with a table of comparison.
Published April 30

3. LIFE AFTER PROPOSAL DECLINE: CALL YOUR PROGRAM DIRECTOR

Dr. Karl Thompson discusses the benefits of talking to a program director — especially if your proposal has been declined.
Published Dec 16


4. IMPORTANT UPDATES TO THE CAREER SOLICITATION

Synopsis of changes to NSF-525 (Faculty Early Career Development Program) (CAREER) solicitation.
Published Mar 12

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

Human interest update on staff changes.
Published June 25

MCB Welcomes Rosetta Rhine and Bianca Garner

Rosetta Rhine became the operations manager of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) in September 2020. Previously, she served as the program support manager in the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS).

What is your educational background?

I’m currently a student at the University of Maryland Global Campus pursuing a Master of Science degree in human resources management, expecting to graduate next month.   

What were you doing before you came to NSF? 

This is my 32nd year of federal service. I worked for the Department of the Navy and the National Institutes of Health before arriving at NSF 11 years ago.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began? 

My first impression of NSF was about how collaborative the environment was ; I had never worked in an organization where all levels interacted so much, where everyone seemed to have a seat at the table. The impression is still the same. There is a true learning culture in BIO, and the agency does a lot to support employee development. 

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

Getting acclimated to a new position in a virtual world. It helps that I’m not new to BIO, but I definitely would prefer to be onsite with the entire team.

Bianca Garner joined MCB as a program director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster in October 2020.

What is your educational background?

I received a BS degree in chemistry from Xavier University of Louisiana, a MS degree in microbiology from the University of South Florida, and a PhD in microbiology from the University of Mississippi Medical Center. I have postgraduate training in infectious diseases, translational research, and higher education leadership.

What were you doing before you came to NSF?

I am a full professor of biology at Tougaloo College. A small liberal arts HBCU in Mississippi, Tougaloo has produced a large percentage of the medical doctors and teachers in Mississippi. As a biology professor, I teach numerous classes, including biochemistry, genetics, and microbiology. I serve as the pre-medical advisor for the early identification programs with Brown University, Boston University, University of Buffalo, and Mississippi State University. I have the pleasure of working with some incredible Hispanic and African-American students, many of whom enter into the STEM workforce. In addition, I serve as the principal investigator of the institution’s Career Pathways grant from the United Negro College Fund. This grant works to address the underemployment of students by ensuring career readiness is integrated into the liberal arts curriculum. Finally, I have an undergraduate research laboratory that examines microbial physiology in response to environmental conditions.

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

I began work during the pandemic, so onboarding has been virtual. This process has actually been very efficient, and I am very comfortable with the technological tools used by NSF. I do, however, consider connectivity to be one of the great mysteries of life, as you never know when you will be dropped from Zoom.

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

Working at NSF is an incredible opportunity. You will gain insight into scientific and workforce advancement from a national perspective. I encourage individuals to review the NSF website and reach out to program directors to learn more about the various directorates within the agency. In addition, I direct interested individuals to the NSF Beta website for employment opportunities. I have several colleagues who are being reviewed for program director positions using this process and I wish them the best of luck!

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

The most common question that I receive is always, do I like working for the Federal Government? I tell everyone, emphatically, yes! I enjoy the collaborative nature, the procedures used to ensure a fair and effective system, and the comradery that creates a good working environment.  

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.