Dr. Karen Cone joined the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) in January 2009 as a program director in what was known then as the Genes and Genome Systems Cluster, now known as Genetic Mechanisms. She now serves as science advisor for the Directorate for Biological Sciences.

“Karen has been an extraordinary colleague and mentor to new PIs in the community and to new Program Directors in MCB and across NSF,” says her former division director in MCB, Theresa Good. “We in MCB will all miss her scientific vision, her willingness to take risks to support new activities in both science and broader impacts, and her ability to clearly communicate to PIs, her peers, and NSF leadership about all aspects of NSF operations. We, however, know she will have an opportunity to contribute to a larger organization in her new role.” 

What was the highlight of your time in MCB?
Working in a friendly, supportive team environment has been a delight. Having the opportunity to interact with talented staff and fellow program directors to review and fund exciting science has been a rewarding experience. Another highlight has been the opportunity to engage with countless members of the scientific community.
One of the things I loved about my job as a faculty member was mentoring and advising, and I have loved having the opportunity to continue that work by talking with investigators about their research ideas and coaching them on how to get funded by NSF.

What has surprised you most about working at NSF?
When I first came to NSF, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about the agency. I thought my many years of NSF experience—as a PI and a panelist—had provided me with unique insights. However, when I arrived, I discovered I knew very little about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into reviewing and making funding decisions on grant proposals. I was immensely grateful for the formal and informal training that helped me learn the ropes. I learned (again and again) that there is an answer for every question and a process for every eventuality. I also learned what an amazingly nimble agency NSF is; we have a huge array of mechanisms to fund good science. I tell prospective investigators all the time that if you can imagine an innovative scientific advance, we can probably figure out how to fund it!

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?
I would say do it! For me, this has been an amazing growth experience. I arrived as a well-trained geneticist with a background in microbiology, biochemistry, plant genetics, and genomics. Thanks to the many opportunities I have been given to engage with colleagues in programs at division, directorate and foundation levels, I am leaving MCB with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the breadth of science funded across NSF. The experience has definitely made me a better scientist.


Bridget Johnson joined MCB in March 2018 as a program assistant. She became a program specialist in July 2019.

Former NSF employee, Bridget Johnson, standing in front of a National Science Foundation banner.

What is next for you after your time at NSF?

I have accepted a position as a life scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in northern California. I will also continue to work part-time on my Master of Natural Resources degree from Virginia Tech. Although it’s sad to be leaving NSF, I’m grateful for the experience and look forward to this next step in my career.

What was working at MCB like?

MCB has been a great place to work. It’s a very collaborative, congenial environment with a dedicated staff. During these difficult times, the team has been particularly supportive of each other while adeptly continuing the agency’s mission. Another benefit of working in MCB is the snacks! When we were working physically in the office, there were always goodies shared at staff meetings and potlucks. I can only hope my future workplaces are as welcoming of sweet tooths.

What did you learn from your position?

I’m thankful that MCB gave me the chance to work at NSF, which has provided me a great transition into federal service. I gained experience in administration, event coordination, finance, and data analysis. I had the chance to work on a number of interesting projects, including the Synthetic Cell Ideas Lab, the webinar series for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research (HBCU – EiR) program, and NSF’s research collaboration with the United Kingdom Research Institute (NSF/BIO – UKRI/BBSRC). This year in particular has driven home the vital importance of funding science, and it was an honor to play a small role in support of that goal. I’m especially grateful for the professional relationships and friendships that I developed with NSF colleagues over the years.