Getting to Know MCB

MCB WELCOMES ISMAEL ‘IZZY’ GONZALEZ  

Ismael joined MCB in December 2022 as a Program Specialist

What is your educational background?
Prior to working at NSF, I graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in film theory/studies. Before that, I moved around a lot and attended various high schools. I went to Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland for a year, then I went to Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, and I graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD.

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

I started working for MCB about a month ago. My first week was not extremely busy on the workload front as I was more focused on onboarding, training, and meeting my new team. Within the first week I felt like I was able to connect with several different professionals who thrive in their fields from admin staff to program directors and science specialists.  

What has surprised you most about working at NSF? 

What has surprised me most about working at NSF is the culture and how happy many people are to work here. Prior to MCB, I was in the NSF Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure and even though these are different divisions I hear the same thing everywhere I go. “This is the best place I have ever worked” and “I love NSF.” It is great to be in a place where people are hardworking but also enjoy the work that they do and the mission that they serve. 

When friends or colleagues find out that you work at NSF, what do they say or ask? 

Given the fact that I was not a STEM major in college, whenever I tell my buddies from undergrad where I work, they are in shock. Everyone wants to know if I am overseeing NASA projects or working on supporting breakthroughs in military technology. To that I usually respond “not quite” but I find it amusing that they imagine me in a mad scientist role.   

MCB WELCOMES LORETTA JACKSON-HAYES AND ISHITA MUKERJI 

Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes

What were you doing before you came to NSF?

I am a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. My research focuses on identifying and defining the roles of key proteins involved in fungal growth and cytokinesis using the model filamentous fungus, Aspergillus nidulans. Currently, the project centers on one of these proteins, the A. nidulans ortholog of the serine/threonine kinase Protein Kinase C (PkcA). The ongoing objectives of this project are to identify growth- and cytokinesis-related proteins, which are bound by PkcA in vivo and how the protein complexes work. We like to describe the work as defining a PkcA module that contributes to growth and cell division. My home institution is a primarily undergraduate college, so the bulk of the work is done by undergraduate students who perform experiments, help plan the next steps in the project, and even contribute to writing up the results.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I’ve served as a panelist several times, and each time I’ve served, I found extreme satisfaction in reading grant proposals and writing reviews. I enjoyed the panel experience even more. Being involved in discussing proposals during panels allowed me to see how other scientists viewed the work, which gave me great insight into how projects are viewed from different perspectives. This has helped me critique my own work and research approaches, which I think has helped me develop as a scientist. My interactions with panelists and MCB staff were engaging, and MCB staff always made me feel welcomed. I’ve always found the MCB staff to be a supportive and fun group.

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

I would recommend to anyone who might be considering serving as a Program Director to reach out to Program Directors to express interest in serving as a panelist, especially if they haven’t previously served. Panel service allowed me to get to know NSF well, become comfortable with MCB staff, and build relationships with many of the staff with whom I now work. This has made my transition to the job much smoother than I think it would have been had I not formed these relationships beforehand. Serving as a panelist also gave me valuable insights on the role of the Program Director that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and this knowledge has given me a head start in adjusting to the job, now that I’m here.

When friends or colleagues find out that you work at NSF, what do they say or ask?

When I tell friends and family members that I work at NSF, they understandably imagine that I’m working in a state-of-the-art research lab, on the government’s most important and confidential projects. They seem to get extremely excited about that prospect. I, of course, let them know that the job doesn’t entail working in a research lab at all, and they typically respond with a slight tone of disappointment. However, their enthusiasm recovers when I say something like, “I’m helping to determine the science research agenda for the nation by identifying the most promising research that will advance society.” Family and friends agree with me that it’s really cool to have this amazing opportunity to do that work. Science colleagues are familiar with NSF’s mission, and they too are excited that I’ve been afforded this amazing opportunity to be an NSF Program Director.

Dr. Ishita Mukerji

What were you doing before you came to NSF?

I was working at Wesleyan University in Middletown CT.  At Wesleyan, I am in the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department, and I run our Molecular Biophysics program.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

NSF was very helpful to me early on in my career and I could see firsthand the impact that agency can have both on an individual and a field.  I am excited to learn more about the science that NSF funds and, of course, the new types of science NSF is hoping to catalyze through the various initiatives.  

What is your position and what are you most looking forward to?

I am a rotating program director (IPA) in the Molecular Biophysics cluster.  I am looking forward to giving back both to NSF and the Molecular Biophysics community.

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

The NSF as an organization has been very welcoming, and everyone I’ve met and worked with has been helpful and friendly.  This impression has only been re-affirmed over the past couple of weeks that I’ve worked here. It’s been a little challenging to be completely remote and starting a new position.  I’m looking forward to relocating to the area and being in person a couple days a week.  My husband and I are just generally excited about moving to the area, as we’ve heard that DC is a really fun place to live.

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO DAVID BARLEY AND WELCOMES MARIELLE ROBINSON  

David Barley joined NSF and MCB in 2008 as a student participant in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program. He advanced through the administrative ranks, serving in multiple capacities for MCB and other divisions in BIO. David is now a Program Support Manager in MPS/PHY.

What was the highlight of your time at BIO?

During my time in BIO, solving problems in panels was something I did on a regular basis.  I’d say a “highlight” of my time in BIO would be for a panel I supported in IOS.  On day one, the panel goes on as normal, the day concludes, we all go home.  Day two, I walked into the panel room to find that all the rental laptops we ordered had disappeared.  While Program Directors, panelists, and other staff were in shock, I immediately contacted the laptop rental company to determine what had happened.  Thankfully, the laptop company hadn’t wiped the computers yet, so all of the notes and panel summary templates were saved.  The company returned the laptops to NSF not too long after and set everything up again.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about working at NSF?

I’d tell newly incoming staff to be ready to learn and be ready to take advantage of opportunities as they arrive.  For PDs, this means reaching out across Clusters, Divisions (or Directorates) to find unique funding opportunities that may be relevant to their program’s needs.  For Administrative staff, I’d recommend joining a working group (especially NSF-wide working groups) as they give you a chance to meet staff outside of your direct team.  I learned a lot from working group discussions, especially when staff from other directorates explained how they accomplished the same goals as I did but used different tools and practices.

Marielle Robinson joined MCB as Program Assistant in August of 2022.

What were you doing before you came to NSF?

I was working as a federal contractor for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) located in Arlington, VA.  I previously worked for AFOSR as a budget analyst technician and program analyst over my five-year span as a federal civilian.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

The work-life balance, new learning opportunities, and the endless possibilities of career advancements within the organization. 

What have you learned so far from your position?

I was able to attend the MCB Admin Staff Meeting, which was a wonderful introduction to the projects that are currently being worked on inside the MCB division. Even though I have been doing a lot of the required training on LearnNSF for my onboarding, I was able to gain valuable insight into what was to come, which made me eager to contribute some of my strengths to the team.

What has surprised you most about working at NSF?

The amenities offered within the building for employees.  This building is very different from my last job!  I also love how everyone is willing to assist with my onboarding process to make the transition go smoothly.  I’m very excited to meet more of the team within the BIO directorate and to work on my assigned duties.

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO STEVE CLOUSE

Steve Clouse has been a program director in MCB for six and a half years. He was hired as a full-time rotating program director (VSEE) in MCB in January of 2016, working on site at the previous NSF headquarters in Arlington, VA. Steve switched to part-time program director in August of 2017, working remotely from Oregon and traveling to Alexandria, VA for panels and retreats.

What was the highlight of your time at NSF?

There have been many highlights. To work with my MCB and other NSF colleagues to fund the best possible science in cell and molecular biology and broaden my scientific perspective from a focus on my own individual research to interdisciplinary approaches, was definitely a high point. I also enjoyed working with a broad spectrum of principal investigators from the pre-submission stage of determining whether their work was appropriate for Cellular Dynamics and Function, through the review process, and finally the award or decline decision. Managing awards and following their progress was rewarding as were discussions with PIs about how to address reviewer comments for those proposals that were declined. The several large, interdisciplinary projects and research networks I was involved with, were particularly interesting.

What are you most looking forward to next?

After a career spanning more than 40 years in various aspects of scientific research, I am looking forward to more free time and more time spent outdoors. Living in Oregon definitely facilitates outdoor activities. I also look forward to more uninterrupted time to spend with family and traveling.

What personal goals did you accomplish while at NSF?

My research was funded by NSF continuously for 30 years, starting with an NSF postdoctoral fellowship in plant biology in the 1980s and concluding in 2016 with a final grant on plant proteomics before retiring as professor from North Carolina State University. I wanted to contribute something to NSF before fully retiring and also be exposed to the breadth of science that NSF funds. My six and a half years at NSF helped me achieve that goal and was a nice transition from retiring as an active faculty member, while still being involved in science and research from a different perspective.

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

Being a Program Director is a very worthwhile endeavor, particularly if your research program is well established and can continue to function efficiently with periodic visits back to the home institution. MCB is a great place to work. I was impressed by the collegiality of the program directors and senior management and the helpfulness and skill of the outstanding administrative staff.

Division Director, Theresa Good, said about Dr. Clouse, “Steve has been a pleasure to work with for these past six years.  As a AAAS Fellow, Steve is a highly accomplished scientist who is deeply connected to the plant science community.  As such he has not only been a great program director but also a great mentor to scientists seeking funding from MCB.  While I am glad that Steve and his wife will now have more time to hike in Oregon and travel in retirement, I will miss his quiet humor, sound advice, and steadfast commitment to NSF and its mission.”

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO MARCIA NEWCOMER

Marcia Newcomer joined the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) in July 2018 as a program director. She became a cluster leader in July 2020.

What was working at MCB like?

Working in MCB was a great experience, especially for someone who has spent so many years in academia. Seeing the funding process from this perspective provides a much fuller understanding of the government’s efforts and role in supporting basic research. The environment in MCB is highly cooperative, and there are many opportunities to coordinate with other divisions and directorates. 

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

I would highly recommend serving as a Program Director. It is a great opportunity to be introduced to research areas well outside of one’s sphere of expertise. In some sense, it is almost like being a graduate student again, when you are excited about the research possibilities before you. It is also inspiring, because you work with so many colleagues and reviewers and are constantly reminded that there are dedicated people in this line of work who have a sense of fairness and an appreciation for how basic research can have a tremendous impact on our quality of life. You also come to appreciate government investments in research facilities, and the role of these facilities in expanding our scientific reach and providing a highly skilled workforce. 

Theresa Good, MCB Division Director said of Dr. Newcomer, “It has been a delight to work with Marcia these past four years.  She jumped in head-first, pushed us to continue to push the boundaries of the research we fund, and hasn’t stopped making a difference.  She’s been involved in developing programs for postbaccalaureate scientists, expanding the role of AI in molecular biophysics, and leveraging convergent science to prevent future pandemics.  Just as importantly, she has shared her warmth, humor, and sense of excitement for science with all of us.  We wish her the best back at LSU.”

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO SONAM AHLUWALIA AND LOURDES HOLLOWAY

Sonam Ahluwalia joined the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) as a program assistant in August 2020.

What was working at MCB like?

MCB is a unique division, where people are always looking to improve procedures, share creative ideas, and empower PIs. MCB is a place where any individual can uncover their talents, rise above challenges, and experience a true team environment. I was able to learn incredible skills during my time here and explore other career interests.

What was your first impression of NSF? How did that change over time?

My first impression of NSF was that it was just a government organization that funds science. However, over the years I have learned that NSF is beyond just a federal agency, but embodies forward-thinking, progression, efficiency, and love for all science.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about working at NSF?

Do it! There is much to learn and more to gain.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said about Ms. Ahluwalia, “Sonam was the first person to start in MCB during the pandemic.  There was so much uncertainty, but she just took it in stride.  She learned quickly, volunteered for just about everything, and was unafraid of any challenge.  I can’t wait to see what she does next in her career. “

Lourdes Holloway joined MCB as a Pathways summer student in 2015 and began working as a program assistant in 2018. She became a program specialist in 2019.

What is next for you after your time at MCB?

My next step in my career remains at NSF, moving from BIO/MCB to the Division of Graduate Education in the Education and Human Resources Directorate as a program analyst. In this new position, I will be primarily supporting the Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

What was working at MCB like?

Starting out as a summer student working on records retirement to a program specialist working closely with the operations manager on division finances/operations, it’s been an amazing experience! I am so glad to have started my professional career with MCB, largely due to my colleagues and leadership. MCB is full of dedicated, supportive, and talented staff, which made this experience more rewarding. I appreciate that MCB supports cross-training and development in areas outside of your normal duties. It has allowed me to grow tremendously and develop new skills across various subjects. 

Where can undergraduate or graduate students learn about training opportunities at the NSF?

I would highly recommend current students and recent graduates interested in working at the NSF to consider the Pathways Program. It’s a great way to get your foot into the federal workforce and NSF offers a variety of experiences and positions. I had a great experience and it put me on the path I am still on today. Broadly, there are an incredible amount of training opportunities supported by the NSF. That includes programs run by the Division of Undergraduate Education and by the Division of Graduate Education as well as NSF funding opportunities for undergraduate students and graduate students.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said of Ms. Holloway, “It was my privilege to work closely with Lourdes on a number of projects.  I got to see firsthand how talented she is.  It has been a pleasure to watch her grow in her skills and accomplishments.  I hope her new Division knows what a jewel they have in Lourdes.   We all wish her the best in her new position.“

MCB BIDS FAREWELL TO DR. PHOEBE LOSTROH

Phoebe Lostroh joined MCB in July 2019 as a rotating program director and served in the Genetic Mechanisms (GM) cluster and the Systems and Synthetic Biology (SSB) cluster.

Photo of Dr. Phoebe Lostroh

What was the highlight of your time at NSF?
The highlight of my time at NSF was working on the CARES Act COVID-19 RAPID queries on behalf of MCB. Because of that work, I met so many other NSF people across the whole Foundation and I got to contribute to an urgent national need. Even when it was sometimes exhausting, it always felt great because we were all pulling together to lead the national basic science response to the crisis.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a Program Director at the NSF? Working as a program director at NSF is a great opportunity for anyone who is looking to expand their administrative skills and scientific breadth. There are new things to learn literally every day, and the Foundation is very thoughtful about how to bring rotators on board and train us. MCB, in particular, is strongly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as to great science. It has been an honor to serve with everyone in MCB.

MCB Division Director, Theresa Good, said about Dr. Lostroh, “Phoebe contributed to MCB in so many ways beyond Program Management.  I would routinely get emails from people from the community telling me how grateful they were that she talked to them at their senior citizen center or helped their community set up their COVID testing.  One of her greatest talents is being able to communicate science to anyone, and even make some of us laugh about it.  You’ll have to ask Phoebe directly where to see her perform science comedy in Colorado Springs.  We’ll miss her passion, her dedication, and her humor.  But I am sure that Colorado College is happy to have her back.”

This is MCB! Hear from Dr. Engin Serpersu

Serpersu head shot

The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) supports fundamental research and related activities designed to promote understanding of complex living systems at the molecular, sub-cellular, and cellular levels. Behind our mission stands a group of individuals whose efforts and great work make this Division outstanding; we are proud to showcase their hard work via this blog.

Dr. Serpersu completed his doctoral degree in biochemistry Hacettepe University Medical School, Ankara, Turkey. He was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at Justus Liebig University, Giessen, West Germany, before completing postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. He began a teaching career in 1988 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he rose through the ranks to professor and served a term as chair of the Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology department. His areas of expertise include biophysical chemistry; protein structure, function, and dynamics; and thermodynamics.

Dr. Serpersu joined MCB in June of 2014 as a rotator (a two-year, temporary program director position) and is now a permanent program director, serving as cluster leader in the Molecular Biophysics cluster. As a program director, he manages proposal reviews and makes funding decisions. As cluster leader, he coordinates activities within the cluster and collaborates with other program directors as well as the broader scientific community to help ensure that awards funded by Molecular Biophysics contribute to NSF’s mission of transforming the frontiers of science and innovating for society. He is also on the CAREER (Faculty Early Career Development) Coordinating Committee and a member of the Oversight Group for National Facilities with the National Institutes of Health.

In his spare time Dr. Serpersu enjoys playing volleyball, attending antique auctions, and walking on the beach.

A Word from Dr. Gregory Warr, Acting Division Director

We all in MCB want to express our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Dr. Warr for his great service as Acting Division Director. During his time, Dr. Warr worked diligently in support of the Foundation’s mission. His excellent judgment, pragmatism, and collaborative approach led the division to new heights of excellence. Thank you, Dr. Warr, for your hard work and outstanding contributions to MCB.

It’s been an interesting, challenging and rewarding year that I’ve spent as the acting Division Director of MCB, and I’d like to take this opportunity to give you some idea of what the job has been like. Although the NSF is in many respects an academically-oriented agency whose mission is (in brief) to promote the progress of science, nothing in my near three-decade career as a professor in academia prepared me adequately for this position. While we work for the President of the United States, we are actively engaged with the broad academic community we support (who also serve, as sterling proposal reviewers), to whom we owe transparency and accountability. We are responsive to Congress in their oversight functions; and we bear in mind that we are investing the taxpayers’ money for the future benefit of society. It’s fair to say that a Division Director’s responsibility is to manage all of this in as seamless and efficient a manner as possible, which of course couldn’t happen without the strong professional skills of the Division staff, both administrative and scientific.

The Federal Government is a complex organization, but someone somewhere has seen every challenge that can crop up, and knows how to solve it. Knowing who that person might be is an essential aspect of the job! In addition to responsibilities as an administrator and manager, the Division Director is also involved in strategic planning, which involves not just the Biological Sciences Directorate and other units at the Foundation, but also other federal agencies and our international partners. Strategic initiatives may gestate slowly in the Federal Government, so it is important to take the long view. While I’ve enjoyed my year as acting Division Director, I’m very much looking forward to returning to my position as a Program Director, where I will be engaged very directly with evaluating and supporting the best and most exciting science that our community can propose to us.

I wish Linda Hyman, our incoming Division Director, the best of success in the position and hope that she will find it as enjoyable and rewarding as I have done.

Gregory Warr
Acting Division Director

Farewell to Dr. Suzanne Barbour

MCB gives a warm send off to Dr. Suzanne Barbour, Former Program Director and Cluster Leader for the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster.

Dr. Barbour completed her doctoral degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She started working in MCB in November of 2013. As a cluster leader, Dr. Barbour provided advice to investigators, coordinated the funding process, managed proposals in the area of cell biology, maintained cluster budgets, developed post-panel reports, and served as a liaison to Education and Human Resources committees on undergraduate biology and graduate education.

Dr. Barbour has accepted a position as the Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Georgia. As a Dean, Dr. Barbour will be committed to enhancing the Graduate School Experience for students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Her vision, passion for Graduate Education, academic background, and leadership skills will unquestionably be a great asset to the University of Georgia’s Graduate School.

MCB staff wishes Dr. Barbour many successes in this new chapter of her career.