Life after Proposal Decline: Call Your Program Director

Headshot of Dr. Karl Thompson, Howard University

Of course there is a lot of emotion involved with a decline,” says Karl Thompson, Associate Professor of Microbiology at Howard University. He admits that when his proposal to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research (HBCU – EiR) solicitation was declined two years ago, he hesitated to contact Pamela Clarke, his university’s Director of Research Development. “I knew she would tell me to reach out to the program director,” he says. She did.

A week later, Thompson called Anthony Garza, program director in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB), about the declined proposal. The conversation with Garza helped Thompson recognize the need to improve an aim and to recruit a collaborator to supplement the specific expertise needed on the proposed project. The conversation also affirmed for Thompson that the division was interested in the research area covered by the proposal, he says. Encouraged, Thompson submitted the revised proposal to MCB’s core solicitation (NSF 21-509). This time, the proposal was funded.

Thompson first applied to the EiR solicitation after attending MCB’s first webinar-based workshop for potential applicants. Participating in the mock panel review was a valuable experience, he says, and the webinar overall helped him understand and work with NSF structures.

To develop as an outstanding scientist, you’re going to have a lot of failures—and all of that is learning. – Karl Thompson

“If you make it, you have a track record of declines. To develop as an outstanding scientist, you’re going to have a lot of failures—and all of that is learning,” says Thompson. A review of proposal submissions by 10 of MCB’s most widely recognized awardees indicates that of nearly 300 proposals submitted, nearly half were not funded.  

“I am resilient,” says Thompson, “but it’s not that simple, because I had people along the way who guided me.” He offers this advice to fellow researchers: “Do the mourning. Do the denial. Then snap out of it.” And, call your program director!

Sewage Sampling Offers Promising Method for Early Detection of COVID Outbreaks

One of the challenges facing researchers responding to the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic is the ability to identify and track infection early. Predicting the spread of illness can help communities and governments know where to concentrate resources, focus outreach efforts, and how to alter policy.

One way that researchers have been able to detect early increases in cases is by sampling sewer systems. Because everyone flushes their toilet, sewer samples represent the health of the entire neighborhood on any given day. Researchers can detect a SARS-CoV-2 signal in the sewer before hospitals see an uptick in patients. The samples collected would track the rise and fall of infections in the community.

Dr. Julius Lucks (MCB-2028651) and his lab at Northwestern University in Chicago have made this kind of wide-scale sewer sampling possible by utilizing CRISPR Isothermal Amplification (CIA).  This approach allows samples to be processed in a single reaction at room temperature, making it a faster, cheaper, and a more scalable assay. The ability to have a point-of-contact test that takes less than an hour, costs less than a dollar, and is more accurate than a PCR-based method could change the way researchers approach SARS-CoV-2 tracking. Read more in the Chicago Tribune.

Join BIO Program Officers for a Webinar on the Biology Integration Institutes Solicitation

A webinar providing information on NSF 20-601 (Biology Integration Institutes (BII)) will be held Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 1 pm EST. A question and answer session will follow the webinar.

Join the webinar at https://nsf.zoomgov.com/j/1603208549?pwd=S0lDSlpkd2hpZVVJdnVGYVFNdUhYUT09

The event will be hosted by the Directorate for Biological Sciences.

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.  

New Solicitation: Designing Synthetic Cells Beyond the Bounds of Evolution (Designer Cells)

A new solicitation (NSF 21-531) invites proposals that use cell design technology to address questions regarding the fundamental processes of life, the evolution of life, and biological diversity beyond extant processes and organisms. Proposals which use this technology for novel biotechnology applications are also welcomed. The goal of this solicitation is to support innovative research that develops and uses synthetic cell-like systems or cells to address at least one of the following themes:

  1. identify the minimal requirements or minimal functional units for the processes of life;
  2. address fundamental questions in the evolution of life on Earth or to explore biological diversity beyond that which currently exists in nature;
  3. provide new functionalities for innovative biotechnology applications.

Proposals submitted to this solicitation should address social, ethical, and safety issues associated with designing and building synthetically modified cells as an integrated component of the project.

Full proposals are due February 16, 2021 and on February 1 annually thereafter via Research.gov. Full solicitation requirements, program priorities, and contact information for program officers can be found in the solicitation NSF 21-531.

Adding Impact to your Broader Impacts: Office Hours with ARIS

Join program officers from the Directorate for Biological Sciences in a discussion of Broader Impacts with guest speaker Susan Renoe from the NSF-supported Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS).

ARIS works with scientists to help them engage in activities that have meaningful and long-term impact in their communities and society. The center offers strategies for building capacity, growing partnerships, and leveraging existing resources to enhance the impact of individual and institutional efforts to benefit society.

Topic: How to Ensure That Your Broader Impact and Broadening Participation Plans Have IMPACT

Guest Speaker: Dr. Susan Renoe, Executive Director, ARIS (NSF award 1810732).

Time: Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2 pm – 3pm EST.

Registration is required: Click here and select the November 18, 2020 option from the drop-down selection for “Time.”

Visit the Office Hours page of this blog for access to presentations from previous office hours.

Webinar Announced for Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure-1 Program

On Wednesday, November 4, 2020 and Thursday, November 5, 2020, NSF will host outreach webinars with information about the Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure (Mid-scale RI)-1 funding opportunity (NSF 21-505). 

The Mid-scale RI Big Idea is intended to provides an agile, Foundation-wide process to fund experimental research capabilities in the mid-scale range ($6 million to $100 million), between the Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) and Major Facilities thresholds.  Recently, the solicitation (NSF 21-505) for the Mid-scale RI-1 program (for infrastructure with total project cost of $6 million up until, but not including, $20 million) was published with a deadline of January 7, 2021 for preliminary proposals.

Each session will begin at 1:00 p.m. (EST) and have two parts: a general Mid-scale RI-1 information session (1:00 p.m. -1:40 p.m. EST) with Q&A followed by Directorate-specific breakouts (1:45 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. EST) where more technical questions will be addressed. The information presented on Day 1 will be the same as the information presented on Day 2.

To participate in the main session and the BIO breakout on either Day 1 (November 4) or Day 2 (November 5), please use the links below:

Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure (Mid-scale RI-1): NSF 21-505 Q&A – Main meeting
1:00 p.m. – 1:40 p.m. EST
Join ZoomGov Meeting: https://nsf.zoomgov.com/j/1614702269?pwd=djl0Z2hnU3I3QXNiRHYraitMclhjZz09
Meeting ID: 161 470 2269
Passcode: 5i8ELv

BIO Directorate Breakout
1:45 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. EST
Join ZoomGov Meeting: https://nsf.zoomgov.com/j/1605815851?pwd=THJGL3JIYjRYdGVoQ3VzT08rQitOZz09
Meeting ID: 160 581 5851
Passcode: g&2Xz!

Reposted from DBIInfo

DCL 21-017: Conferences to Prepare for the Transformation of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Research through Information Synthesis and Integration

The field of molecular and cellular biosciences has generated vast amounts of knowledge about cellular parts and processes through advances in biophysical, -omics, and imaging technologies, among others. The work of synthesizing this information, such as harmonizing and collectively interpreting divergent datasets, developing new analytical approaches and tools, building models and theories, and integrating knowledge from within and across various disciplines, can have a transformative impact on all of biology.

NSF has a history of supporting information synthesis through large scale centers, such as the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), that have engaged thousands of investigators over 10-year investment periods and have led to striking advances in their fields.

To begin planning for a synthesis center, the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences has released a Dear Colleague Letter (NSF 21-017) announcing the availability of conference funding to build networks of scientists with diverse perspectives to formulate ideas for a synthesis center in molecular and cellular sciences. To be considered for FY 2021 funding, proposals responsive to this DCL should be received before April 21, 2021. Proposals will be awarded on a rolling basis. Important details about preparing and submitting a competitive conference proposal are included in the announcement.