Blog

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.



2021 HBCU-EIR INFORMATIONAL WEBINARS: VIDEO RECORDING AND SLIDES AVAILABLE

This month, the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) held informational webinars reviewing relevant highlights of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research (HBCU-EiR) solicitation (20-542). The webinars provided an overview of the solicitation, best practices for submitting competitive proposals, and an introduction to the four divisions of NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO).

To watch the webinar recording, click here (access passcode: wyc^Jh9F).

To view the slides from the presentation, click here:

Additionally, in June 2021, MCB will provide webinar-based, interactive workshops on proposal-writing and the merit review process to HBCU faculty and staff who have registered for the workshop and submitted required pre-work. Since 2018, MCB has provided these workshops to HBCU institutions. Preliminary data indicates that participants who attend the webinar-based workshop tend to submit stronger proposals that are funded at higher rates than non-participants.

If you work at an HBCU and are interested in participating in the June workshops, request a registration form via email at MCBwebreg@nsf.govRegistration deadline is Thursday, May 6, 2021. Please share this information with appropriate faculty and staff.

JOB ANNOUNCEMENT: DEPUTY DIVISION DIRECTOR FOR MCB

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences is accepting applications for the role of Deputy Division Director (DDD). The DDD works in partnership with the Division Director in providing leadership and direction to the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.  The DDD collaborates with the Division Director in the areas of strategic planning and management, human capital management, budget preparation, and proposal processing. The DDD also fosters relationships with both internal and external stakeholders. For more information and to apply, visit USAJobs before April 29, 2021.

New DCL: Tool Development for Cell Biology (Tools4Cells)

A new Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) was issued by the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) on the development of new tools and methods to advance our understanding of cells. Tool Development for Cell Biology, or Tools4Cells (NSF 21-057), seeks to expand our knowledge of cells using interdisciplinary approaches that can leverage advances in other fields and apply them to cell biology. Some examples of these advances include gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 applied to probe gene localization, and the application of cryo-EM and x-ray free electron lasers to the study of protein structure and dynamics.

Read more about the DCL criteria and proposal submission details here.

HBCU – EiR Informational Webinars: April 14 and 22

HBCU-Excellence in Research informational webinars will be held April 14 , 10-11 am EST, and April 22, 2-3 pm EST.

In April, the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) will offer an informational webinar reviewing relevant highlights of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research (HBCU – EiR) solicitation (NSF 20-542). The webinar will introduce program directors from MCB, provide an overview of the solicitation, and provide tips and best practices for submitting competitive proposals. The webinar will also include an introduction to each of the four divisions of NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO):

  • MCB – Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences
  • DBI – Division of Biological Infrastructure
  • DEB – Division of Environmental Biology
  • IOS – Integrative and Organismal Systems

Faculty from eligible institutions are encouraged to attend the webinar. Registration is required; to register, click on the link that corresponds to the date you plan to attend.


In June, MCB will provide webinar-based, interactive workshops featuring the merit review process. The workshops are open to faculty and staff at HBCU institutions who have completed a required pre-work assignment and registered to participate.

***Data indicates that participants who attend the webinar-based workshop tend to submit stronger proposals that are funded at higher rates than non-participants.***

A series of emails about the June workshops is currently being sent to department chairs or grants offices at HBCUs. If you work at an HBCU and wish to receive these emails directly, send your request to MCBwebreg@nsf.gov. Please share this information with appropriate faculty and staff.

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

Hacking is a Broader Impact Activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadening Participation: New Funding Opportunity

The Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) has released a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) to facilitate cultural changes in the biological sciences to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion: “LEAding cultural change through Professional Societies (LEAPS) of Biology.”

The DCL encourages professional societies to submit proposals to facilitate changes that lead to broader participation at all levels of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce in biology. Such changes are expected to lead to a community of biologists, including those in positions of authority, that more fully reflects the demographic constitution of the US population.

Applicants may submit conference proposals, planning proposals, or proposals to develop a Research Coordination Network (RCN). See the announcement for submission details.

Proposals submitted by May 14, 2021, may be funded during FY 21; proposals submitted after May 14 will be considered for funding in FY 22.

Additionally NSF is offering a webinar for the LEAPS program on March 24th at 2 p.m. EST.  We encourage representatives from societies across the biological sciences and those societies focused on broadening participation (SACNAS, AISES, ABRCMS) and/or from the NSF INCLUDES National Network to participate. Individuals from Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other organizations/institutions serving diverse populations are also encouraged to attend.

If interested, please register in advance at:

https://nsf.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_fMuNjibLT4OZeAq4VLQNCg. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.