Broader Impacts

Proposal submissions, Step One: Call a Program Officer and … say What?

Many researchers report that they are intimidated by the thought of calling a program officer (PO) to discuss their project proposal because they don’t how to initiate the conversation or what questions to ask. Program officers in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) recommend that principal investigators start by conducting background research on their project idea and send a one-page summary (see pp 10-13) before scheduling a call with a PO. An early conversation can help a researcher identify the most appropriate program and PO for a proposal. Below are some considerations for each step.

Some items you may wish to research before a phone call:

  • The current research portfolio of the program
  • Abstracts of funded projects related to yours
  • Award size, duration, and limitations of the solicitation
  • Any program specific requirements of the solicitation

A one-page summary should include: (be prepared to discuss these topics in depth during a phone call)

  • Your questions and specific aims
  • The big picture of your research area and knowledge gaps you are addressing
  • Key preliminary data and rationale
  • Overall intellectual merits and broader impacts
  • Any visuals that may be helpful

Possible topics and questions to bring up in a phone call:
Program fit:

  • Does my project fit this program?
  • What other programs or solicitations may be appropriate for my project?

Broader impacts:

  • Do my broader impacts fit NSF expectations?
  • What is the difference between broader impacts and broadening participation?
  • Do broader impacts and intellectual merits need to be integrated? Are mine sufficiently integrated?
  • Should I structure broader impacts and intellectual merit plans in the same way?

Specifics of proposal preparation:

  • Are my preliminary data in line with what the program expects?
  • To what extent should I describe results from prior support?
  • What kinds of equipment costs can be requested?
  • How much salary can I ask for myself, postdoc, or graduate student?
  • Do I have to include undergraduates in participant support costs?
  • What is the best way to fund a collaboration?
  • Can I submit the same proposal to another funding agency?
  • How long does the review process take?
  • Can I be funded by the same NSF program for two different projects?
  • What kinds of direct costs are allowable in budget line G6 Other?

NSF’s review process:

  • When is a good time to submit a proposal, given that there is no deadline?
  • Will the reviewers be experts in my field?
  • When should I expect a decision?
  • What are my options if my proposal is declined?
  • Will my declined proposal be evaluated by the same reviewers in the next round?

Did you know?

MCB holds virtual office hours on topics specific to the MCB research community once each month. Visit this page to register for upcoming events and to access past presentations. For more information on working with Program Officers, read this NSF 101 post on NSF’s Science Matters blog.



Hacking is a Broader Impact Activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.”

TOP FIVE OF 2019: MOST POPULAR POSTS OF THE YEAR

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.

1. TEACHING CRISPR IN THE CLASSROOM: A NEW TOOL FOR TEACHERS

Students using BioBits kits.

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

2. OPPORTUNITY AND INTENTION: NEVER SAY NEVER

Dr. Adrienne Cooper from Florida Memorial University.

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

3. HBCU-UP EIR: WEBINAR ON WRITING COMPETITIVE PROPOSALS

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)

4. BROADER IMPACTS — IF IT WORKS, KEEP DOING IT

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)

5. TIPS FOR WRITING EFFECTIVE REVIEWS

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 — 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.