Dr. EJ Crane

MCB Welcomes Rita Miller and Marcia Newcomer and Bids Farewell to EJ Crane

Welcome Rita Miller

Rita Miller is a Program Director in the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster and comes to us as a VSEE rotator from Oklahoma State University where she studies the cytoskeleton and positioning of the mitotic spindle.

Rita is smiling to camera

What is your educational background?

I have been a biology nerd since my youngest days.  As a kid, I used to sit for hours and watch my older brother dissect his high school frog, dogfish shark, and pig.  I wanted to see how those organ systems worked, so I majored in physiology in college at Michigan State University.  I loved working in the lab as an undergraduate, so I went to Northwestern University for graduate school.  I studied cell biology there with Robert Goldman, using some of the early confocal microscopes to study keratin intermediate filaments. Those studies taught me a lot about protein purification and microscopy, but I wanted to know more about genetics and molecular biology.  So, I went to Princeton University and worked with Mark Rose as a Postdoctoral Fellow.  He taught me a massive amount about yeast genetics and cell biology.  I had my first daughter there in New Jersey and Mark always had great advice on raising daughters too!

When did you start working in MCB and what was your first week like?

I started at NSF the Tuesday after Labor Day, so early September 2018.  The first week was two days of training.  After a couple days of getting oriented to the computer system and then it was straight into helping manage a CAREER panel, followed by writing the acceptances and declination letters.  It was the fastest week ever!

What have you learned so far from your position? 

That NSF invests in people not just projects.

What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?

I think that it can be a challenge to Skype often enough with my graduate students back in Oklahoma.  Some students are more comfortable with Skype than others. But I have given them the “golden ticket” to call me whenever even evenings or weekends, so after some adjusting we have worked out a schedule that works for everyone.

Welcome Marcia Newcomer

Marcia Newcomer is a Program Director in the Molecular Biophysics Cluster and comes to us as an IPA rotator from Louisiana State University where she studies cell responses to environmental conditions and metabolic pathways.

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Louisiana State University, where I have a research program that focuses on the enzymatic production of lipid mediators of the inflammatory response. We are a group of structural biologists trying to define the molecular mechanisms these enzymes use to acquire their membrane-embedded substrates.  As a professor, I teach Introductory Biology for biology majors. This is a very surprising fate for someone who did all she could to avoid biology as an undergraduate chemistry major.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I see my position at NSF as a chance to be involved with an agency I consider essential to our ability to discover ways to improve the world in which we live. 

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began?

Although I knew that the National Science Foundation funds more than the biological and physical sciences, I did not appreciate just how expansive its profile is until I started working here.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at NSF?

One of the joys of life in academia is that you are constantly challenged to learn more. Serving as a program director exposes you to even more new fields and helps you enjoy the “big “picture” of scientific advances from a different perspective. It is a great experience.

Farewell to EJ Crane

EJ Crane served as a VSEE rotator for two years as a Program Director in the Systems and Synthetic Biology Cluster and returns to Pomona College where he studies microbiology and biochemistry of sulfur-based respiration.

EJ is smiling into the camera with sunglasses, he is holding a large metal stick with a sampling bottle attached and a hot spring is steaming in the background

How did your time at NSF influence how you will go forward with your research?

I had been doing interdisciplinary science before my time at NSF; however, my experiences there made appreciate interdisciplinary approaches even more.

What is next for you after your time at NSF?

I’ll be back at Pomona College, refocusing on my lab and courses. Based on what I learned during my time at NSF, the emphasis of my lab will change somewhat, and I will spend much more time focusing on trying to find connections in the many datasets that have been generated for microbial communities in a wide range of environments. My lab will continue to be experimental, but we’ll be taking better advantage of all the data on microbial communities that has already been obtained by others.

What personal goals did you accomplish while at NSF?

One personal goal was just being able to manage the workload as a program manager. I have been in academics for my entire career, so it was reassuring to know that I’m able to work effectively outside of the relatively isolated environment of my own laboratory and my experience at NSF showed me that I can translate these skills to other contexts.

What did you learn from your position?

I learned about several new areas of the molecular and cellular biosciences from the proposal review process, meetings, and my colleagues at NSF. I have a much better understanding of what the important and exciting questions are across the broad field, as well as in biology as a whole.

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?”