Broader Impacts

BROADER IMPACTS — IF IT WORKS, KEEP DOING IT

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.

“YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE A HOBBY”

 

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…)

DR. SUSAN GERBI WINS THE 2017 GEORGE W. BEADLE AWARD

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!

SHARING MCB SCIENCE: REGULATING NITROGENASE FORMATION IN CYANOBACTERIA

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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.

SHARING MCB SCIENCE: Cellular Polarization in Yeast

Many cellular processes are regulated by the ability of a cell to transmit and receive signaling molecules such as hormones, cytokines, and neurotransmitters. The binding of a signaling molecule to the extracellular portion of a receptor protein embedded in a cell’s membrane starts a signaling cascade inside the cell, which activates intracellular proteins and changes cellular responses. G proteins constitute a large family of intracellular proteins that act as molecular switches inside the cell upon coupling with G protein receptors in the membrane.

The mating process in Saccharomyces cerevisiae (budding yeast) requires the activation of a heterotrimeric G protein switch in response to the yeast cell’s G protein receptors binding pheromone signaling molecules released by a potential mate. This activation results in the growth of a mating projection–or shmoo–extending in the direction of the pheromone source. Cellular growth in response to a chemical stimulus is called chemotropism. The location and accumulation of G protein receptors across the cell membrane plays a critical role in the cell’s ability to detect the pheromone source and directional growth towards a mating partner. However, some of the molecular mechanisms underlying shmoo growth and G protein receptor accumulation have not been well understood until recently. A discovery by Dr. David Stone, a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his research team has led to advancements in this area.

As mentioned previously, G protein receptors that bind pheromones are not uniformly distributed in the cell’s membrane. Instead, they cluster wherever the pheromone concentration is the highest and a shmoo grows in the direction of the cell’s suitor. The interaction between the pheromone and G protein receptor causes intracellular signaling, resulting in the delivery of secretory vesicles and cytoskeletal rearrangement. The delivery of the secretory vesicles is actin cable-directed. These processes ultimately lead to yeast cell fusion and reproduction. The mechanism that Dr. Stone and his team wanted to understand was how G protein receptors polarize towards the source of the pheromone gradient and determine the position of the shmoo growth site prior to the delivery of secretory vesicles and cytoskeletal rearrangement.

In an article published in Science Signaling, the Stone lab showed that the interaction of an enzyme called yeast casein kinase 1 (Yck1) with a G protein (Gβ) at the cell membrane plays an important role in the establishment of polarity by inhibiting phosphorylation (addition of a phosphoryl group) and internalization of the G protein receptor. The authors further showed differential phosphorylation of the receptor is essential to pheromone gradient sensing and generates receptor polarity independently of actin-cable nucleation and vesicle delivery. Dr. Stone and his team also proposed that differences in G protein receptor occupancy modulate the chemotropic growth site in budding yeast through signal amplification produced by two positive feedback loops that the authors describe in the publication.

When asked about the broader impacts of his research, Dr. Stone responded:

“My lab has contributed to an emerging paradigm in G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) signaling which is of broad interest to the cell signaling community: GPCRs and their associated heterotrimeric G proteins are spatiotemporally regulated, and in turn, regulate spatiotemporal processes. We were among the first groups to show that heterotrimeric G proteins serve to recruit effector molecules to specific regions of the plasma membrane at specific times.

My NSF-sponsored research program has involved scientists in training at all levels — from middle school and high school students to undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Most notably, I worked closely with a group of 6th graders from a local middle school to formulate a proposed experiment to be carried out on the International Space Station. NASA picked our experiment from a national pool of applicants, and the experiment was performed by astronauts on the International Space Station. The students set up the experiment and analyzed the results in my lab. The launch of their experiment was covered by local media. Over the years, my research groups have included a significant number of women and underrepresented minorities (>50%). The training of my graduate students has been highly enriched by their visits to the labs of our numerous collaborators, who have provided them with experience in a range of approaches—e.g., proteomics, advanced imaging, microfluidics, and mathematical modeling.”

This work is partially funded by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Award #MCB-1415589.

SHARING MCB SCIENCE: EVIDENCE FOR AUTOPHAGY-DEPENDENT PATHWAYS OF RIBOSOMAL RNA TURNOVER IN ARABIDOPSIS

Ribosomes play an essential role in protein manufacturing in the cell, and are made up of ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and proteins. While scientists understand a great deal about how ribosomes are created, surprisingly little is known about how they are broken down at the end of their useful life. Understanding ribosome turnover is important, because each cell invests a lot of energy and resources to maintain a sufficient number of ribosomes to keep up with its protein production demands.

As described in a recent publication in the journal Autophagy, a collaboration between Iowa State University’s Loomis Professor of Plant Physiology Dr. Diane Bassham, Associate Professor of Biochemistry Dr. Gustavo MacIntosh, and their research groups resulted in the discovery that eukaryotic cells may be using a process called autophagy to break down ribosomes. In autophagy, a compartment (called an autophagosome) is created by autophagy-related proteins (ATGs) around the cargo slated for destruction, and the autophagosome with its cargo is trafficked from the cytoplasm of the cell to an organelle called a vacuole (in plant cells) or a lysosome (in animal cells). Fusion with the vacuole or lysosome results in the cargo being deposited inside the organelle with the enzymes required for its destruction. One such enzyme, called RNS2, is from the RNase T2 family of ribonucleases (enzymes that break down RNA into smaller components).

Hypothesizing that the process of autophagy may play a role in breakdown of ribosomes, the research team developed a method to measure ribosomal RNA accumulation in the vacuole of mutant plant (Arabidopsis thaliana) cells lacking the RNS2 ribonuclease. The mutant is called rns2-2. The researchers used confocal microscopy to look for evidence of autophagy activation and the accumulation of autophagosomes. Fluorescent labeling of an ATG protein on the surface of autophagosomes provided evidence of an increased number of autophagosomes (indicated by small, fluorescent blue dots in the image) in the rns2-2 mutant when compared to normal, wild type (WT) Arabidopsis thaliana plant cells. Bassham DataThis result allowed the research team to further hypothesize that autophagy activation in the rns2-2 mutant was compensation for the plant cells’ inability to degrade rRNA with the vacuolar ribonuclease RNS2.

The research team also found evidence of the involvement of more than one autophagy pathway in the breakdown of ribosomes. As described in their publication, mutations in an autophagy gene (ATG5) blocked the activity of the autophagy pathway and prevented accumulation of rRNA in the vacuole. But, mutations in a different autophagy gene (ATG9), did not prevent accumulation of the rRNA in the vacuole, suggesting the pathway used by ATG5 and ATG9 to deliver rRNA to the vacuole may be different. As Dr. Bassham notes, “Our results shed light on the mechanisms by which ribosomal components are recycled and in turn, on the way in which ribosome number and quality are controlled.”  Dr. Bassham credits NSF MCB support to “allow Dr. Gustavo MacIntosh and I to reinforce and expand our collaboration by establishing a group consisting of a post-doctoral researcher, several graduate students, and undergraduate students to work together in the analysis of the relationship between autophagy and RNA degradation, allowing progress that would have not been possible had our research groups continued to work independently.”

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

“A major impact of our project has been training students in research. In addition to training several graduate students and a post-doc who worked full time on the research project, ten undergraduate students participated in laboratory research in our summer internship program, including several from the primarily undergraduate institution Grand View University in Des Moines, IA, who would otherwise not have the opportunity to gain research experience. A second outcome is the continued development, headed by Iowa State University Professor Eve Wurtele, of an educational video game called Meta!Blast that is used to teach cell biology to undergraduate and high school students. In the game, the player navigates a three-dimensional cellular environment within a plant and completes tasks based on cell functions and biochemical reactions. Interactivity aids retention and understanding of concepts and the use of multimedia allows us to reach diverse populations of students. The process of autophagy was incorporated into the game as a result of this project.”

This work is funded by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Award #MCB-1051818.

The National Alliance for Broader Impacts

The Broader Impacts Merit Review criterion (BI) plays a crucial role in NSF’s mission. BI activities advance scientific knowledge and contribute to socially relevant outcomes. The basics of Broader Impacts were addressed in an infographic we previously shared on the blog.

If you have submitted a proposal to the NSF, you are aware that the BI activities of a project are part of the Foundation’s Merit Review process. But… what are Broader Impacts activities? The term “broader impacts” has wide-ranging implications, thus there are many questions about this subject in our scientific community.

MCB is excited about the first, of what we hope to be many, posts featuring the BI activities of MCB-funded investigators. We hope to share a sampling of projects that represents the diversity of activities and their outcomes. If you are: 1) an MCB-funded researcher and 2) would like to share your research and broader impacts activities, please fill out this form to be considered for a future post.

The National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) is a national network of individuals from universities, professional societies, and science organizations that focuses on promoting Broader Impacts activities locally, nationally, and internationally (NSF award #MCB-1313197). NABI is committed to creating a community of practice by achieving the following four objectives:

  • identify and curate promising models, practices, and evaluation methods for the BI community;
  • expand engagement in and support the development of high-quality BI activities by educating current and future faculty and researchers on effective BI practices;
  • develop the human resources necessary for sustained growth and increased diversity of the BI community; and
  • promote cross-institutional collaboration on and dissemination of BI programs, practices, models, materials, and resources.

An important aspect of NABI’s mission is to provide professional development and support for researchers. To do so, offices have been created at many institutions to help researchers design, implement, and evaluate their BI activities. A great example of this effort is the Broader Impacts Network at the University of Missouri (NSF award #MCB-1408736).

NABI also coordinates the annual Broader Impacts Summit (award #IIA-1437105). The summit is a great platform to discuss issues related to BI, to cultivate new ideas, and move the field of BI forward. The summit also presents a unique professional-development opportunity for BI support staff.

When asked about the future of NABI, Dr. Susan D. Renoe, adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri and director of the Broader Impacts Network, responded:

We will continue to provide high-quality professional development for individuals and broader impacts support for researchers through our programming. In addition, the future of NABI represents the future of broader impacts. As our network grows, so, too, will the scope and scale of the broader impacts of research.”

Award #MCB-1408736 is co-funded by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences and Emerging Frontiers in the Directorate for Biological Sciences and by the Division of Chemistry in the Directorate for Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

MCB Bids Farewell to the Summer 2015 Interns

This summer, the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences had the pleasure of hosting three summer interns. These outstanding undergraduate students culled through proposals, awards and annual reports to identify trends related to informal science education, minority involvement in broader impacts, and the impact of statistical and quantitative analyses on MCB-funded projects. The preliminary data produced by the interns generated several follow-up questions to be explored in the future.

Anita AlbanFullSizeRenderese, a rising senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, investigated informal science education in  active awards in the division. With the help of her mentors, she created a working definition of informal science education as any educational activity the PI participates in outside of the required curricula. These activities included training graduate and undergraduate students, K-12 outreach, lectures or blog posts targeted toward the public, and creating workshops and conferences. In addition to investigating the types of informal education, Anita also considered the length of time that principal investigators were funded, as well as their institutional resources. The division will use these data to continue to investigate what environments influence successful informal science education activities.

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Melissa Sam, a rising junior at Northeastern State University used her love of math and statistics to learn more about the use of Big Data analyses in MCB-funded projects. Melissa included the use of both statistical methods, such as the Markov Model, network analysis, bioinformatics, and principal component analysis, and quantitative methods, such as mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy, ChIP-sequencing, and next generation sequencing, to define “Big Data Analyses” for her research this summer. She investigated the number of different statistical or quantitative methods per proposal, the costs associated with employing these methods, as well as the impact on the scientific community ( ie. papers, presentations, and book chapters).  Her research findings will be useful to the division whose priorities for research support include quantitative and predictive cell and molecular biology.

mikah

Mikah Barrueta,a rising senior at Otternbein University, spent her summer investigating minority involvement in the broader impacts of MCB-funded research by comparing promises to include underrepresented groups in proposals to reported outcomes in annual reports for a representative sample of awards. In addition, Mikah surveyed program directors and principal investigators to learn more about how the involvement of underrepresented groups is reported to NSF. She evaluated several topics including ways to improve reporting to better capture the demographics of participants in broader impact activities. Mikah’s data and analysis will be considered by the division, as it conducts follow-up research to address questions which emerged as a result of her research.