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.



(Left to right); Dr. Charles Cunningham, Dr. Wilson Francisco, MCB Deputy Division Director Dr. Theresa Good, Dr. Steven Clouse, Dr. Richard Cyr, Dr. Susanne von Bodman, Dr. Engin Serpersu, Dr. Greg Warr, Former CBET Program Director Dr. Friedrich Srienc, and Dr. Bill Eggleston

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) gave a warm send off to Dr. Susanne von Bodman, former Program Director and cluster leader in the Systems and Synthetic Biology (SSB) program. Among the many reasons she enjoyed her time at NSF are “interacting with amazingly bright and forward thinking colleagues across the agency who share a commitment to advancing molecular and cellular biosciences through cross-disciplinary collaborations; getting to know a community of remarkable investigators in the fields of Systems and Synthetic Biology; the camaraderie between colleagues at the NSF and a fun, but dedicated staff creating many opportunities for memorable social events and recreational experiences outside of work; and living in the greater DC area with its art, food, music, sports, museums, and recreation.”

As cluster leader, Dr. von Bodman provided a clear vision and direction for how best to support investigator-driven scientific proposals. She noted, “I believe that Systems and Synthetic Biology will change the field of molecular and cellular biology as we know it. Recognizing that biology is non-linear; the responses to perturbations uncertain; and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts necessitates the integration of mathematical and computational biological research.” Dr. von Bodman offered a few words of advice to young investigators; “Have a conversation with mathematicians, computation biologists, physicists, and/or chemical and bio-engineers about your projects because it may be eye-opening.”


Back row (left to right): Dr. Stacy Kelley, Dr. Reyda Gonzalez -Nieves, Kelly Parshall, Dr. Karen Cone, Ann Larrow, Philip Helig, and Alexis Patullo. Front row (left to right): Valerie Maizel, Megan Lewis, Dr. Susanne von Bodman, and David Barley

After her years of service to the NSF, Dr. von Bodman is most looking forward to golfing, biking, hiking, and traveling; spending time with her four wonderful grandchildren; reading books she has never finished; and continuing the renovations on her cabin in West Virginia. Dr. von Bodman also plans on “following the science we funded, and learning about the next exciting scientific frontiers.” Lastly, in her words, “I wish to take this opportunity to thank all of you within and outside the National Science Foundation who made my experiences in academia and as a Program Director at the NSF most enjoyable and rewarding. It was a privilege to serve and get to know this community of talented researchers and educators. I particularly valued your service as reviewers and panelists; it is ultimately you who drive the science forward! The very best wishes – Susanne (Susi)”

All of us at MCB thank Dr. Susanne von Bodman for her many years of dedicated service as a Program Director and cluster leader. We will miss Susi’s outspoken advocacy and passion for the science and investigators she supported. We wish her lots of enjoyment in this new chapter.

A few words by Dr. Parag Chitnis, Former MCB Division Director:

“At NSF, Program Directors can make major impacts on the directions of science. In the 1980s, DeLill Nasser’s bold and substantive support of Arabidopsis as a model system revolutionized plant biology. In the 1990s, Kamal Shukla catalyzed the field of computational molecular biophysics. Around 2007, Dr. Greg Warr proposed realignment of programs within MCB, leading to the creation of a Networks and Regulation cluster, when it became clear that projects using network analysis were increasing in signal transduction, cell biology, metabolism and genetic regulation. Dr. Susanne von Bodman, an ardent proponent of systems approaches and synthetic biology, served as a Program Director in this cluster. The cluster was ultimately renamed Systems and Synthetic Biology (SSB) due to Dr. von Bodman’s leadership fostering these fields in the MCB portfolio. Her leadership in ERA-SynBio was also responsible for many rewarding partnerships with EU funding agencies. MCB had strongly favored interdisciplinary research including areas at the interface with engineering (e.g. metabolic engineering and quantitative systems biotechnology). However, Dr. von Bodman, in collaboration with Dr. Theresa Good, strengthened interactions with engineering far beyond what was historically done. Joint panels and co-funding led to many productive discussions and exciting opportunities for supporting truly interdisciplinary research.

Around 2010, Susanne von Bodman fostered synthetic biology as a major tool to decipher the molecular rules of life. Like DeLill and Kamal, Susanne von Bodman has been an unapologetic proponent of excellence in science and an ardent supporter of young investigators. Like them, she emphasized projects with bold approaches and transformative impacts, often ignoring ‘other factors’ and overly bureaucratic policies. She catalyzed science frontiers in systems and synthetic biology and built strong connections to leverage science investments. She recruited top notch panelists and depended on their advice to understand the frontiers in systems and synthetic biology. She identified CAREER awardees with great potential to be leaders in systems and synthetic biology, many of whom have now made prominent contributions to the progress in these fields. Her impacts on the science supported by MCB has been phenomenal and will last long after her retirement.”


manju farewell 2

First Row (Left to Right): Dr. Karen Cone, Dr. Theresa Good, Dr. Manju Hingorani, Dr. Charlie Cunningham; Second Row (Left to Right): Keshanti Tidwell, Dr. Stacy Kelley, Dr. Linda Hyman, Dr. Susanne von Bodman, and Dr. Wilson Francisco

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) gave a warm send off to Dr. Manju Hingorani, former Program Director in the MCB Genetic Mechanisms program.

During her two year tenure at the NSF, Dr. Hingorani worked with investigator-driven proposals submitted to both the Genetic Mechanisms and the Cellular Dynamics and Function programs. As a rotating Program Director, Dr. Hingorani managed proposal reviews and awards and responded to inquiries from principal investigators conducting fundamental research related to the central dogma of biology. Dr. Hingorani noted she particularly enjoyed managing CAREER proposal reviews because it gave her glimpses of potential future leaders in science and education. Dr. Hingorani also aided in the review of NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program proposals, appreciating the chance to serve in a program that has benefitted students from her home institution.

As Dr. Hingorani returns to her position as Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Wesleyan University, she looks forward to reconnecting with her students “in 3D,” in her laboratory, and in classes. Unfortunately for us, she will take most of her Swiss chocolate stash back with her!

MCB would like to thank Dr. Manju Hingorani for her service, and we wish her all the best in the future. If you are interested in serving like Dr. Hingorani as a rotating MCB Program Director, please contact us at 703-292-8440 and read the rotator Dear Colleague Letter.