Broader Impacts

Virtual Reality, Real Science

A student wearing virtual reality goggles sits inside the exhibit titled "Unbecoming Carbon."

When Dr. Iris Meier develops the lab component of a research-focused biology class that she co-teaches each year, titled Art and Science, she knows what the students are expected to learn
. . . during the first half of the semester. The second half depends upon the students: How will they combine their diverse interests and talents to create an artistic experience capable of changing the way participants view biological processes?

Meier approaches each semester by structuring course content around her current NSF-funded proposal. The first few weeks of class introduce biology students and students from the Art and Technology track within the Department of Art at Ohio State University to biology by having them conduct simple experiments. Next, students design and conduct their own experiments. Then, equipped with a deeper appreciation for the topic, the class develops its final project.

In 2019, that project, “Unbecoming Carbon,” used virtual reality to allow participants to enter a leaf pore as a carbon dioxide molecule and then travel through the plant’s biochemical processes to observe how the plant eventually emits molecules of oxygen. The exhibit was funded as a broader impact activity included with her award, “Function and Mechanism of Action of Plant-specific LINC Complexes in Pollen Tube and Guard Cell Biology” (MCB- 1613501).

Meier’s lab studies the structure and function of the plant nuclear envelope, with a focus on understanding the function of the LINC complex. Meier maintains an ongoing collaboration with Amy Youngs, associate professor in the Department of Art, to support the broader impacts activities.

Each year, the exhibits take about five weeks to develop and are open to the public for about three weeks. Assessments are conducted via a survey once participants leave the exhibit. But do they really learn anything? Meier thinks so: “My favorite interview is the visitor who said, ‘This is so cool! I’ll remember [this experience] my whole life, but if you had told me about this, I would have forgotten it in two minutes!’”

*Photo/Video by Amy M. Youngs
*Artwork by Ellie Bartlett, Jacklyn Brickman, Ashley Browne, Amanda Buckeye, Diva Colter, Mona Gazala, Youji Han, Saba Hashemi Shahraki, Brice Jordan, Liam Manning, Iris Meier, Brooke Stanley, Lily Thompson, Zachary Upperman, Stephen White, Taylor Woodie, and Amy Youngs

Resources for Broader Impacts: The Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society

The Center for Advancing the Societal Impacts of Research (ARIS) provides resources to support broader impact (BI) activities. The center sponsors trainings, provides fellowships, hosts online resources, and disperses information for scientists who are interested in strengthening their BI activities. ARIS also hosts an annual planning summit; the 2020 summit is April 28-30 in Durham, North Carolina. Learn more and register on their website.

ARIS, headquartered at the University of Missouri-Columbia, works closely with national and international researchers to “build capacity, advance scholarship, grow partnerships and provide resources to help [scientists] engage with and demonstrate the impact of research in their communities and society”. To learn more about the Center and how to put ARIS resources to use for your broader impacts activities, check out the ARIS resources page.

ARIS builds from and leverages the success of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI), a project previously supported by the Biological Sciences and Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorates at NSF (MCB-1408736). Now funded as a Center out of the Office of Integrative Activities (OIA-1810732), ARIS has expanded its size and scope to examine how “all research — including social science, art and humanities research — impacts society, and how society impacts the research enterprise.”


From broadening participation to increasing diversity and inclusion, MCB’s five most-viewed posts published in 2019 showcase our most read topics. Looking for ideas on how to improve your broader impacts? Read about Dr. Jewett’s BioBits kits. Interested in transitioning to a non-academic STEM career field? Dr. Cooper discusses how she ended up in university administration after a career as a researcher. New to NSF or interested in brushing up your reviewing skills? Read tips from MCB program directors on writing effective reviews.

In 2020, the MCB blog team looks forward to sharing information about exciting outreach efforts, funding opportunities, and more! Subscribe to notifications (on the right side of this page) to be the first to know what’s on MCB’s mind.


Students using BioBits kits.

Dr. Jewett developed a new method of teaching CRISPR – a gene editing tool – using BioBits kits. (Published June 7)


Dr. Adrienne Cooper from Florida Memorial University.

Dr. Adrienne Cooper’s transition from STEM student to researcher to university administrator. (Published April 19)


HBCU EiR Program graphic describing the solicitation.

MCB hosted a webinar on writing competitive proposals for faculty at HBCU institutions in March. (Published March 8)


High school and undergraduate student working together in O'Donnell Laboratory.

Dr. Allyson O’Donnell’s broader impact activity – “near peer mentoring” – pairs high school students from under-represented minorities with undergraduates in her lab. (Published June 27)


Tips for writing effective reviews infographic.

MCB Program Directors provide their top five tips for writing useful and informative reviews. (Published February 20)

Supplemental Funding Pays

Did you know that supplemental funding awards are available to help cover unexpected costs that arise during the course of NSF-funded research? Supplements allow a Principal Investigator to accomplish the original scope of the parent award when unforeseen circumstances occur.  Read on to find out how a supplemental equipment award enabled Dr. Mechthild Pohlschröder to continue her research.

Dr Pohlschroder's graduate student in front of a microscope next to a computer with biofilm samples displayed on the screen
Dr. Pohlschröder’s graduate student Zuha Mutan using the new camera to examine biofilm samples.

As a professor and the undergraduate chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pohlschröder’s lab investigates how archaea, specifically Haloferax volcanii, forms biofilms, a common phenomenon where microorganisms aggregate, allowing them to survive in harsh environments.

Earlier this year, when a neighboring lab moved to a new location on campus, the Pohlschröder lab lost access to shared resources, including a microscope camera used to capture high-quality images of cells and structures, an essential component of the research funded by NSF (NSF 1817518).  A supplemental award enabled the lab to purchase a Leica DFC9000 digital camera, enabling the Dr. Pohlschröder’s group to continue with their pioneering work on archaea.

The new camera will also benefit the lab’s outreach and educational activities, which have broader impacts in the surrounding community. Dr. Pohlschröder’s science education programs reach middle and high school students across the Philadelphia metro area, including in underserved schools in West Philadelphia. The lab develops microbiology experiments designed for schools with limited resources. Further strengthening its reach, the Pohlschröder lab hosts training workshops for science teachers from Philadelphia and other cities, so that good science can reach even more students. The new, state-of-the-art imaging technology will play a role in advancing all of these outreach activities.

If you currently have an award from MCB and are interested in learning more about supplemental funding, please contact a Program Director in MCB to discuss.


Broader Impacts are activities which advance societal goals through either the research itself or through complimentary efforts that advance the larger enterprise of science. Broader Impact activities don’t have to be original, one-of-a-kind ideas. However, they should clearly address a need, be well-planned and documented, and include both a thoughtful budget and a thorough assessment plan. Principle Investigator Allyson O’Donnell uses near-peer mentoring to pair high school students from under-represented minorities with undergraduates in the O’Donnell lab at the University of Pittsburgh, and assesses the outcomes to identify impact.

High school student Hanna Barsouk (Taylor Allderdice High School) and undergraduate student Ceara McAtee (University of Pittsburgh) work on a project in the O’Donnell Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.

Goals of the Broader Impact activity: “The near-peer program focuses on bringing underrepresented minority high school students into the lab and providing an opportunity for them to develop their passion for science. Undergraduates who serve as mentors have measurably stronger engagement with their work in the lab.”

Recruitment: “The high school students volunteer in the lab during the school year and then can apply to participate in more research-intensive activities during the summer. The summer internships are paid, and this is currently funded through an REU supplement as part of my CAREER award.” (NSF award 1902859)

How it works: “I pair the high school students with an undergraduate mentor so that there is a near-peer mentor connection with someone closer in age than a grad student or post doc. We have found that this gives the undergraduate a stronger sense of engagement and ownership in their research project. Plus, based on our assessments, this mentoring experience makes it more likely that the undergraduates will participate in outreach activities in the future. From the high school students’ perspectives, they have someone they are more comfortable asking questions of and who can help give them advice on navigating the application process for universities. Of course, this is in addition to having myself and other team members as mentors.”

How do you measure impact? “We have used the Grinnell College SURE survey [Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences] and other reflective assessments of this approach and find that both the undergraduate and high school students report significantly enhanced learning experiences. Specifically, the high school students show higher learning gains in understanding the research process and how to think like a scientist, while the undergraduate students gain more knowledge about science literacy and confidence in their ability to engage the community in science.”

High school students Sara Liang (left) and Hannah Barsouk proudly display a box of plasmids they created to support their research project at the O’Donnell lab. The two attend Taylor Allderdice High School.

Future plans? “We first used this system of pairing high school students with undergraduate mentors while the O’Donnell lab was located at Duquesne University. We worked with eight students in 2017 and six students in 2018 and we expanded to other labs in the Department of Biological Sciences. We hope to expand the program here at the University of Pittsburgh as well, where it will also be supported by our fantastic outreach team.”

Teaching CRISPR in the classroom: a new tool for teachers

Photo Credit: Megan Beltran

While CRISPR has become one of the most talked about gene editing tools in the research community, easy-to-use educational activities that teach CRISPR and related molecular and synthetic biology concepts are limited. Michael Jewett and his team at Northwestern University have created a set of user-friendly educational kits to address just this issue, called BioBits kits. This tool was developed as a broader impacts activity in Dr. Jewett’s currently-funded research (NSF 1716766) , investigating and expanding the genetic code for synthetic applications such as producing non-natural polymers in biological systems, and with collaboration and funding from several other institutions.

BioBits kits contain materials to run hands-on lab activities designed to teach high school-aged students the basic concepts of synthetic and molecular biology through simple biological experiments. Students add the included DNA and water to pre-assembled individual freeze-dried cell-free (FD-CF) reactions. The results are noticeable when the individual FD-CF reactions fluoresce, release an odor, or form a hydrogel (depending on the experiment). For example, the BioBits Bright kit includes six different DNA templates, each of which encode for a protein which fluoresces a unique color under blue light, directly demonstrating how proteins differ based on initial DNA sequence. So far, three kits have been developed: BioBits Bright, Explorer, and Health, with activities covering topics from the central dogma of biology, to genetic circuits, antibiotic resistance, and CRISPR.

The visible (or smellable) outputs make the results interactive and intuitive, engaging students in a relatable experience. In addition to the FD-CF reactions and instructions, the kits contain example curriculum, such as one independent research-based activity that asks students to address ethical questions surrounding CRISPR, further engaging students in the topic and providing a deeper understanding of the technology.

Over 330 schools from around the world have requested kits so far. Find out more on the BioBits website or in recent open-access articles in Science Advances and ACS Synthetic Biology.



Broader Impacts* are just as important as Intellectual Merit in the NSF Merit Review process. Dr. Ahna Skop has found a recipe for broader impacts that’s given the public a taste for science. Learn the story of her not-so-secret ingredients.

Dr. Ahna SkopFor Dr. Ahna Skop, the key ingredients in the recipe for good broader impacts are found in a researcher’s personal passions. (more…)


This is a headshot style photo of Dr. Susan Gerbi who is sitting in her laboratory in front of culture test tubes and a white board, wearing a red sweater, pink turtleneck shirt, and smiling.

MCB congratulates Dr. Susan Gerbi on her 2017 George W. Beadle Award. Each year, the Genetics Society of America honors one investigator for “outstanding contributions to the community of genetics research” such as “creating and disseminating an invaluable technique or tool, assisting the community with the adoption of a model system, working to provide a voice for the community in public or political forums, and/or maintaining active leadership roles.” This distinguished honor was presented to Dr. Gerbi during the 58th Annual Drosophila Research Conference in California.

Dr. Gerbi is the George D. Eggleston Professor of Biochemistry and Professor of Biology at Brown University. In part with NSF support, she has made many notable scientific contributions in all of the areas described above. For example, together with Dr. Joseph Gall, Dr. Gerbi created in situ hybridization, an invaluable technique to locate genes on chromosomes. Additionally, she developed a novel Replication Initiation Point Mapping (RIP) technique that enabled researchers to pinpoint the start site for DNA replication in eukaryotes. Dr. Gerbi and her group also solved the first sequence of eukaryotic 28S ribosomal RNA (28S rRNA). By comparing it to its bacterial homologue (23S rRNA), Dr. Gerbi and her team identified both regions of variability (expansion segments), which aid researchers during phylogenetic analysis, and key regions of conservation (core secondary structure and domain specific conserved sequences) that are held constant among organisms to maintain rRNA function. Further, Dr. Gerbi was the first to identify an in vivo role for U3 small nucleolar RNA, which promotes ribosomal RNA folding and processing, and she was the first to develop a fluorescence-based method to track localization of small RNAs in vivo, which allowed for the identification of specific sequences that target the RNAs to the sites of ribosome assembly in the nucleolus.

Dr. Gerbi and her research team also developed Sciara coprophilia as a model organism, mapping the fly’s genome using a new, handheld DNA sequencing technology called the Oxford Nanopore MinION. (The MinION made a recent appearance in space when it was used by NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins to sequence DNA on the International Space Station.) With the genome, transcriptome, and methodology for genome editing now available, Dr. Gerbi is actively promoting the use of Sciara as a model organism to mine its unique biological features, including a monopolar spindle in meiosis, non-disjunction, chromosome imprinting, and elimination. Studies on Sciara offer new insights into the mechanisms of locus-specific DNA re-replication, which may serve as a paradigm for gene amplification in cancer. This work was partially funded by the Genetic Mechanisms cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Award #MCB-1607411.

Dr. Gerbi has also served the scientific community in numerous leadership positions and science advocacy roles. For example, Dr. Gerbi was Founding Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University, serving in that role for 10 years. Just a few of the many broader impacts of her work that have focused on training the next generation of scientists include 33 years of service as principal investigator (PI) or co-PI on Brown University’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) predoctoral training grant. Dr. Gerbi has also served as President of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), chair of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Consensus Conference on Graduate Education, founding member and Chair of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Graduate Research Education and Training (GREAT) group, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee’s Study on the National Needs for Biomedical Research Personnel. She was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee on Bridges to Independence, which led to NIH’s Pathway to Independence K99 award that provides research funding opportunities to postdoctoral researchers who are transitioning to faculty positions.

For these and other efforts, Dr. Gerbi has contributed greatly to the genetics community through her dedication to scientific research, leadership, and advocacy. Please join us in congratulating Dr. Susan Gerbi!



Cyanobacteria are blue-green colored microbes with a simple cellular structure (like bacteria) and the ability to convert sunlight into chemical energy through photosynthesis (like plants). They also perform nitrogen fixation, a process by which nitrogen is extracted from the air and converted into ammonia, using an enzyme (a specialized protein) called nitrogenase. Since ammonia is a potent plant fertilizer, cyanobacteria can live symbiotically with plants in a variety of soil, water, and marsh habitats – enabling some farmers to use cyanobacteria in place of traditional fertilizers to improve the yields of rice and other staple food crops. Because of its function in nitrogen fixation, research on nitrogenase has the ability to create a firm foundation for future advances in agriculture and food security in support of the NSF’s mission to “…advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare…”

Associate Dean Dr. Teresa Thiel and her lab in the Department of Biology at the University of Missouri – St. Louis study a type of cyanobacteria called Anabaena variabilis. Uniquely, this cyanobacterium has three different nitrogenase enzymes, each capable of performing nitrogen fixation in different environmental conditions. The Thiel team previously studied each of the three nitrogenases and characterized a group of fifteen genes (called the nif1 gene cluster) whose expression through transcription (DNA to RNA) and translation (RNA to protein) is necessary to make the primary nitrogenase in Anabaena variabilis. They also identified potential sites of regulation; cells often regulate discrete steps in the protein production process as a way to conserve cellular resources by limiting the amount of protein produced when it is not needed. For years, scientists knew the important role nitrogenase played in nitrogen fixation, but had yet to uncover how cyanobacterial regulation of production of this important enzyme.

In a recent publication, Dr. Thiel and her team describe their research on one regulatory site called an RNA stem-loop. The investigators predicted this secondary structure would occur before an important gene in the nif1 cluster (called nifH1). The nifH1 gene encodes a protein largely responsible for nitrogenase enzyme assembly and function. Using a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to mutate the RNA stem-loop, they studied how changes in the stem-loop altered nifH1 transcript stability and processing. The Thiel team found that mutations impacting the structure or sequence of the RNA stem-loop also severely inhibited the levels of nifH1 transcript, and most importantly, limited cyanobacteria’s ability to perform nitrogen fixation.

These findings have potential for modulating the efficiency of nitrogen fixation in cyanobacteria, leading to more fertilizer production, and a potential source of renewable energy by harnessing the hydrogen created during nitrogen fixation. This work also may impact an exciting area of bioengineering research. As described in a MCB awarded US and UK research BBSRC-collaboration Ideas Lab proposal, bioengineers are attempting to create a “nitroplast” cellular structure, patterned after the nitrogenase in cyanobacteria, to allow plants to make their own fertilizer.

When asked about the broader impacts of her research, Dr. Thiel responded:

The engagement of scientists with the larger scientific and non-scientific community is critical to promoting a public understanding of science and in attracting students to careers in science. To do so, the broader impacts of my research include integrating research within graduate, undergraduate, and high school education. Students from Jennings Senior High School, a predominantly African-American high school located in North St. Louis County, have participated in 6 weeks of summer research as part of the Jennings at UMSL Program, which is designed to help students succeed in college. Additionally, a student from the UMSL SUCCEED program, which supports vocational experiences for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities works as a laboratory aide in my lab. Furthermore, I participate in educational outreach activities in the St. Louis community, working with local high school teachers to incorporate hands-on microbiology activities in their classrooms.

This work is partially funded by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Award #MCB-1052241.