10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investment

This infographic shows a black background with a white and blue title reading "10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investment." The following text says, "The mission of the National Science Foundation is "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperty, and welfare; to secure the national defense..." NSF's 10 Big Ideas "to position our Nation at the cutting edge of global science and engineering leadership, and to invest in basic research that advances the United States' prosperity, security, health, and well-being" include:..." followed by an image accompanying each of the titles of the 10 big ideas. An image of a chess board says "Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype." An image of data with ones and zeros says "The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution." "Windows on the Universe: The Era of Multi-messenger Astrophysics" with an image of a nebula An image of data streaming says "Harnessing the Data Revolution." An image of circuits leading to a brain says "Work at the Human Technology Fronteir: Shaping the Future." An image of buildings in the night sky says "Mid-scale infrastructure." An image of a glacier breaking apart into the ocean says "Navigating the New Artic." An image of a lightbulb with a sapling says "NSF 2026: Seeding Innovation." An image of three arrows converging on a blue background says "Growing Convergent Research at NSF." An image of people doing research, communicating, a pencil drawing, representing diversity in science says "INCLUDES." The text on the bottom says, "Learn More at https//go.usa.gov/xNd5m" next to the NSF logo in black and white.

Shutterstock.com images credited in order of appearance: ANDROMACHI; Mmaxer; NASA images; GarryKillian; Sergey Tarasov; Panimoni; Netta Arobas; Somchaij; Satenik Guzhanina. NSF INCLUDES available at https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=132360.

New Funding Opportunity: MathBioSys

The infographic shows a new funding opportunity. The title in yellow with a blue background at the top says New Funding Opportunity: MathBioSys. The rest of the image is grey with white angled lines and white or yellow text. A drawing of a light bulb on top of math layered with biological drawings and the words MathBioSys is the middle of the image. The text reads, "To faciliate collaborations among mathematicians, statisticians, and biologists, the NSF Directorates for Biological Sciences (BIO) and Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) and the Simons Foundation Divisions of Mathematics and Physical Sciences and Life Sciences will jointly sponsor up to... 3 New Research Centers. The NSF-Simons Research Centers for Mathematics of Complex Biological Systems (MathBioSys) soliciation calls for 5-year proposals with innovative collaborative research new interdisciplinary connections, and education and workforce training at the intersection between mathematics and molecular, cellular, and organismal biology. Letter of Intent Due Date: August 10, 2017. Full Proposal Due Date: September 29, 2017. For more details, go to https://go.usa.gov/xN9f to read program soliciation: NSF 17-560. Questions? Contact: Dr. Arcady Mushegian, Program Director BIO/MCB, amushi@nsf.gov. For all other NSF Divisions, refer to the Agency Contacts section of program soliciation NSF 17-560 to find the appropriate point of contact, or direct your email messages to the Program Directors on the MathBioSys Working Group at mathbiosys@nsf.gov. The bottom of the image shows the NSF and Simons Foundation logos.

Photo Credit: Adapted from Juliann/Shutterstock.com 

NSF-Simons Research Centers for Mathematics of Complex Biological Systems hosted a webinar with Q & A on Thursday, June 15, 2017, and the slides presented can be viewed at: https://nsf.gov/attachments/242105/public/MathBioSys_Webinar_Presentation.pdf

Please read solicitation NSF 17-560 for more information.

 

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 AT YOUR MEETING: GENETIC CODE EXPANSION WORKSHOP

Blog Post

A unique workshop for researchers interested in using emerging technologies in synthetic and chemical biology to create proteins with non-canonical amino acids (unnatural proteins) will be offered July 31 – August 5, 2017 by Dr. Ryan Mehl, Director of the Unnatural Protein Facility at Oregon State University. As part of the broader impacts of research supported by the Molecular Biophysics cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (#MCB – 1518265), Dr. Mehl created a week-long Genetic Code Expansion (GCE) workshop. Combining lectures, such as “GCE: When things don’t work, ‘the good, the bad, the ugly,’” with hands-on training in GCE techniques in the lab, workshop attendees will receive the best of what the Unnatural Protein Facility resource provides researchers year-round. Dr. Mehl is experienced in using the technology in his own research to design unnatural proteins and in training collaborators for more than ten years.

The workshop is the ideal opportunity for those who want to learn GCE techniques, are having trouble succeeding with GCE, want up-to-date theoretical and practical knowledge about GCE, or are curious about GCE and want to start out on the right foot when using unnatural proteins in their own research. The interactive format of the workshop not only provides technical know-how, but also allows researchers to learn from each other’s successes and failures, spark ideas, and foster relationships that can develop into collaborations.

To get the most out of the experience, a background in biochemistry and a working knowledge of protein expression techniques are necessary. The workshop is designed for professors, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate students, although advanced undergraduate students have previously attended. Participation is limited and spaces are going fast, so if you are interested, apply today. Registration fees increase after July 1. For more details, including how to apply, visit the website here.

Broadening the Impact of Science

Broader Impacts (BIs) are the contributions to society and advancement of scientific knowledge that result from research. As we previously noted on the MCB blog in this infographic, there are many different ways science can have broader impacts. The BI activities and outcomes spotlighted in this post were submitted by MCB-funded researchers as examples of what they have accomplished with MCB support, not prescriptions for success during the merit review process. If you are: 1) an MCB-funded researcher and 2) would like to share your broader impacts activities with our readers, please fill out this form to be considered in a future post.

The top image shows the Slideboard website homepage which contains pictures of cells tagged with fluorescent markers in green and orange and text that says “Welcome to Slideboards – Explore Slideboards – Learn More.”The bottom image shows an example slideboard. On the bottom left of the slideboard example is a white screen shot of the title “Localization and abundance analysis of human IncRNAs at single cell and single molecule resolution,” authors “Cabili MN*#, Dunagin MC*, McClanahan PD, Biaesch A, Padovan-Merhar O, Regev A*, Rinn JL*#, Raj A*#; *equal contributions, #corresponding authors,” and the reference “Genome Biology 2015, doi:10.1186/s13059-015-0586-4,” followed by the acknowledgement “Great work led by Moran Cabili and Margaret Dunagin. A wonderful collaboration between the Rinn, Regev, and Raj labs!” On the bottom right of the slideboard example is a repeat of the title and author list, a dropdown arrow, twitter symbol, Facebook symbol, and a list of questions with hyperlinks to answers created by the students who made the Slideboard. The questions ask “1. Where can I learn more about IncRNA? 2. How did we choose the IncRNA to screen? 3. Did you test whether any types of stress change localization or abundance? 4. Should I do a two-color validation of my IncRNA FISH? 5. Was there any correlation between whether a probe “failed” and any other factor from RNA-seq? 6. What are these off targets that create the non-specific background? 7. What sorts of inconsistencies did the two color assay reveal? 8. Were these patterns the same across cell types?”

Slideboard website homepage (top) and an example slideboard with title page and Q & A (bottom), which are available at http://slideboard.herokuapp.com/.

Once a scientist makes a discovery, it is off to the presses to publish. The resulting journal article can be lengthy and filled with jargon, because it serves as a how-to guide for other scientists in the field to repeat experiments. Though very informative to experts, scientific publications can be challenging for students and the general public to read quickly and understand. Dr. Arjun Raj, MCB CAREER recipient and Associate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and his research team came up with a new way to communicate science called “Slideboards.” As shown at the bottom of the image, slideboards contain the title, citation, and authors of journal articles, followed by lists of frequently-asked questions with in-line answers. Teams of graduate and high-school students generate each slideboard by asking and answering their own questions about the paper. Online readers can use a form at the bottom of the slideboard to submit their own questions, which are answered by the students. Creating a slideboard allows the team to practice using web-based technology, and translating complex scientific literature into a summarized question-based format. This outreach project also helped graduate students develop skills necessary to present their own research, while encouraging high-school students to learn about scientific projects at the leading edge of the field. To view the Slideboard website, go to http://slideboard.herokuapp.com/.

This work is partially funded by the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Awards #MCB – 1350601.

A group of students and graduate student Laura Bankers stand on a bridge over water in front of trees and grass on a nature hike at the Science Booster Club’s 2016 evolution summer camp (top left). Graduate student Kyle McElroy talks with a group of students in front of trees and grass by water during the 2016 evolution summer camp. He is gesturing with his hand, and wearing a green shirt and orange and black ball cap. One of the students, a young girl is smiling wearing a checkered blouse and green lanyard (middle left). A group of young men who are seated in a classroom at a table smile at the camera and hold up vials of DNA that they learned how to extract during the 2016 evolution summer camp while wearing a blue and orange tee-shirt, grey tee-shirt, blue tee-shirt and blue and white ball cap, or a black tee-shirt. Two are wearing orange lanyards around their neck and one is wearing purple lab gloves. In the background other youth participants are standing in front of a monitor glowing on the wall. (bottom left). Dr. Emily Schoerning is dressed up as Captain Planet in a green wig, red shirt and shorts, and blue nylons. She is standing with her arms up in a superhero pose in front of a window near potted plants (top right). Undergraduate student Jorge Moreno, wearing a black polo shirt and jeans with a yellow badge, and graduate student Laura Bankers in a grey dress. Both are standing in front of a yellow and black wall with a display monitor, and are standing behind a table with candy, flyers, and other materials, talking to off-screen participants (bottom right).

Attendees at the Science Booster Club’s 2016 evolution summer camp enjoyed nature hikes with graduate student Laura Bankers (top left), discussions of the evolution of parasites with graduate student Kyle McElroy (middle left), and gained hands-on experience extracting DNA with Integrated DNA Technologies (bottom left). The Science Booster Club hosted visits with Dr. Emily Schoerning as Captain Planet (top right), and discussions with undergraduate Jorge Moreno and graduate student Laura Bankers at the Iowa State Fair (bottom right).

As you look around the sidelines at a sporting event, you may notice a group of parents enthusiastically raising funds for new team uniforms or sporting equipment (booster club). Taking that concept out of the world of sports and into the world of science, Dr. Maurine Neiman (Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Iowa) and Dr. Emily Schoerning (Director of Research and Community Organizing at the National Center for Science Education) teamed up with students at the University of Iowa to create a Science Booster Club. The Science Booster Club held a summer camp (images on the left) and participated in community-organized events such as the Iowa State Fair (images on the right). At each event, club members facilitated fun, interactive science activities and discussions with the public. The group also raised funds to purchase and donate equipment to local science teachers. Young people attending these events, often from underserved areas that lacked scientific resources, have the chance to see themselves as scientists by learning through a hands-on approach. Graduate and undergraduate booster club members also gained valuable grant writing and proposal review, outreach, communication, education, and event planning experience – skills that are useful in future professional scientific careers. As such, for his work in the science booster club, graduate student Kyle McElroy received a 2017 summer stipend from MCB’s NSF 16-067 supplement to improve graduate student preparedness for entering the workforce. Dr. Schoerning noted, “We worked with over 54,000 Iowans last year during this pilot project at the University of Iowa, and have expanded into a national program in 11 states.” Click here to learn more about the Science Booster Club at the University of Iowa.

This work is partially funded by the Genetic Mechanisms Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Awards #MCB – 1122176.

Spotlight on MCB-funded Science

 

A spotlight illuminates the words 'Spotlight on MCB-funded Science.'

Photo Credit: Matusciac Alexandru/Shutterstock.com

Sharing MCB Science is one of our six blog themes where you can learn about exciting MCB-funded research submitted by our investigators (via this webform). We greatly appreciate the overwhelmingly positive response of the MCB scientific community and have received many more submissions than can be featured in long form on the blog. Enjoy this shorter spotlight of submissions we have received!

Ever wonder how a cell makes a tough decision? When food is scarce, Bacillus subtilis (a common soil bacteria) faces a difficult choice of when to shut down cellular processes and become dormant via sporulation (spore formation). Timing is key: wait too long and die from starvation; sporulate too early and die from crowding by rapidly dividing neighboring bacteria. What serves as the trigger – a specific biochemical signal or a more general physiological response – to enable starvation sensing and sporulation was unknown. As part of a collaborative project, Dr. Oleg Igoshin, an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice University, Dr. Masaya Fujita, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston, and their research teams applied computational and mathematical tools to this biological question. As described in this publication, they discovered the rate at which the cell grows may serve as a signal of starvation, triggering spore formation. This work could lessen food spoilage and control food-borne pathogens by offering new ways to inhibit sporulation in close relatives of B. subtilis that live on food.

This work is partially funded by the Systems and Synthetic Biology Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Awards #MCB – 1244135 and #MCB – 1244423.

Diatoms (a unicellular photosynthetic microalgae) are an important part of food webs, especially in areas of the ocean with an abundance of fish frequented by the fishing industry. Because conditions and availability of environmental resources change, diatoms regulate physiological functions (such as the carbon-concentrating mechanisms (CCMs) and photorespiration previously described) at the level of gene expression. Instead of focusing on one environmental condition or type of diatom, Dr. Justin Ashworth (Post-doctoral Fellow),  Dr. Monica Orellana (Principal Scientist) and Dr. Nitin Baliga (Senior Vice President and Director) of the Institute for Systems Biology integrated all publicly available microarray data (displaying gene expression levels) from multiple conditions for the model diatoms Thalassiosira pseudonana and Phaeodactylum tricornutum to look for trends. As described in this publication and in the resulting integrative analysis available online at the Diatom Portal, the research team uncovered common patterns of gene expression and function. They also identified potential cis-regulatory DNA sequence motifs and distinct regions induced in response to changes in ocean pH levels and the availability of nitrate, silicic acid, and carbon. A greater understanding of this fundamental level of regulation enables scientists to better support diatoms in their role as biogeochemical nutrient recyclers.

This work is partially funded by the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Award #MCB – 1316206.

As we previously described on the MCB Blog, the laboratory of Dr. Alexander Mankin and Dr. Nora Vázquez-Laslop at the Center for Biomolecular Sciences, University of Illinois – Chicago, studies fundamental mechanisms in protein synthesis. Ribosomes inside the cell read three mRNA nucleotides at a time (a reading frame) during protein synthesis (translation). Sometimes, the ribosome slips one or two nucleotides on the mRNA to a different reading frame (frameshift). Recent work on the E. coli bacterial copper transporter gene (copA) by Drs. Mankin, Vázquez-Laslop, and their research team uncovered a slippery sequence in the mRNA that led to “programmed frameshifts.” Depending on whether or not the ribosome slipped, two different proteins were made – a previously unidentified copper chaperon protein or a copper transporter protein. Together, the copper chaperon and transporter proteins help protect the bacterial cell from internalizing too much copper. This work provides new insight into how bacteria change gene expression in different environmental conditions and offers training for student researchers such as lead author Sezen Meydan, who was highlighted in the ‘Meet the Author’ section of Molecular Cell.

This work is partially funded by the Genetic Mechanisms Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Awards #MCB – 1244455 and #MCB – 1615851.

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?”