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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.

MCB WELCOMES DR. MICHAEL WEINREICH, PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR THE GENETIC MECHANISMS CLUSTER

I headshot style photo of Michael, he is smiling into the camera. He is wearing a blue shirt and glasses and is siting in a library with shelves, a computer, and students strudying in the background.

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I was an associate professor in the Laboratory of Genome Integrity and Tumorigenesis at the Van Andel Research Institute in Michigan for 16 years, having joined the Institute at its founding in 2000. After moving to Boston for my wife’s Palliative Care Fellowship at Harvard Medical School, I closed down my lab and joined Phil Sharp’s lab at MIT as a visiting scientist.

What attracted you to work for the NSF?

I was funded by the NSF some years ago and saw the immense impact that it had on my ability to complete meaningful research. In my work as panelist, I came to know more about NSF and to appreciate its vital role for supporting basic science and education in the US. All my interactions with the staff and scientists here were very positive, so that led me to have an even higher opinion and appreciation for the mission of the NSF.

What was your first impression of the NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

While serving as a panelist, I saw NSF as an efficient and effective organization, and my first impressions after joining as a rotator confirmed these views. Although the steep learning curve of joining MCB in the middle of the grant review cycle was a bit overwhelming, my overall thoughts on NSF have not changed.

What personal goals would you like to accomplish while at the NSF?

I would like to support NSF’s mission, “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”¸ by making funding decisions that have a positive impact on science in the MCB community, and hopefully positive effects throughout the country. I also want to learn more about the history of the NSF and the breadth of its activities to promote science and the public good.

What has surprised you most about working at the NSF?

What surprised me is that I could walk down to the 3rd floor with my laptop and someone would help me fix the problem immediately! The IT staff is great.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

While BIO/MCB may seem relatively small, NSF is a mid-level federal agency with over a 1,000 employees, which means there are a wide range of projects in many different areas of science. One challenge has been learning about and keeping track of all the directorates, divisions, and wide range of opportunities at NSF.

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

Please consider it seriously. Serving as a Program Director allows researchers to gain more insight into the breadth of scientific research (even within your own field) and also how to write a better grant proposal.

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

They think my new role poses both unique challenges and opportunities and that it will be a great experience.

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?”

FAREWELL TO DR. MANJU HINGORANI

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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.

MCB welcomes Dr. Steven Clouse, Program Director for the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I was a professor for 28 years; 21 years at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and seven years at San Diego State University. I had an active research program on plant hormone signal transduction which involved postdoctoral scientists, graduate students, undergraduates and high school student interns and several collaborators in the U.S., Europe and China. I also taught graduate courses in plant biochemistry and plant molecular biology.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

My research was funded by NSF continuously for 30 years, starting with an NSF postdoctoral fellowship in plant biology and concluding last summer with a large grant on plant proteomics. I also reviewed many NSF proposals and served on several NSF panels during that period, so I was familiar with the NSF mission and operational procedures. I wanted to contribute something to NSF before retiring and also be exposed to the breadth of science that NSF funds.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

I was impressed by the collegiality of the program directors and the helpfulness and skill of the support staff. This impression has continued to grow during the two months I have been here.

What are the personal goals you most want to accomplish while at NSF?

To work with my colleagues to fund the best possible science in our discipline and broaden my scientific perspective from a focus on my own individual research to interdisciplinary approaches.

What has surprised you most about working at NSF?

The large amount of new software that needed to be learned to accomplish the different tasks a program director is required to do.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

Starting my rotation just weeks before panel season required learning a lot of different things quickly and reading a very large number of proposals in order to assign panelists and reviewers in a timely manner.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

A very worthwhile endeavor, particularly if your research program is well established and can continue to function with periodic visits to the home institution. If timing is flexible, begin the rotation several months before the first panel duties.

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

They are impressed and think it is a good move.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Since I really have only just started, I’m looking forward to the rest of the year and learning the fine points of becoming a good program director.

MCB welcomes Dr. Charles Cunningham, Program Director for the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

 I am an Associate Professor in the Biology Department of the University of New Mexico where I have been a faculty member since 2005. Before that I spent 20 years working at research institutes in South Carolina, Norway, and Scotland. 

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I always enjoyed doing panel work for MCB and IOS and thought the time well spent even if it was a little stressful. The diversity of science I will be exposed to and the daily interaction with knowledgeable and interesting colleagues were a big part of the pull. Friends who have been rotators also encouraged me to apply.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

A well-oiled machine that worked hard for its community and so far nothing has happened in MCB to suggest otherwise.

What were the personal goals you most wanted to accomplish while at NSF?

Use some of the independent research and development (IRD) time to write three manuscripts and think about my next proposal. I also think I might have a book in me but then everyone does! I also need to shed a few pounds.

What surprised you most about working at NSF?

The size of the workforce. As a scientist who applies for a grant you only ever think about your program director but once you get here you realize that there are so many other program directors even within MCB and a whole pyramid of support staff. I was also surprised that NSF was so generous with IRD – that really helps with the transition.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotating program director?

The initial challenge is just to absorb the information overload of the first week. It can seem overwhelming. I am also just working out what my relationship will be with the folks in my lab back home. How often do we need to talk on the phone and when is it appropriate for them to call me? They are a good bunch so I am sure we will have things on an even keel soon. As the work moves forward I think it is going to be a challenge to keep all the plates spinning but help is plentiful and I am mindful I am not the first program director NSF has hired so it can be done.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

If you have the experience, it is the right time in your career, and if your partner/family is happy – go for it. I would also tell them about the hiring package and how that probably gives you a better home-work schedule than you currently have. DC is a pretty cool town, too.

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

Usually they are amazed that I appear to be ‘giving up research’ but when I explain that that is not the case they usually tell me what a great opportunity this is. A number of colleagues are interested in my experiences and want me to report back on the pros and cons as they consider whether to apply. They also like to throw in a comment about looking after their tax dollars.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

I have been here over a month now and everyone has been super friendly – thanks. So far, ‘je ne regrette rien’. I am a big soccer fan (Liverpool), baseball fan (Yankees) and cricket fan (England) and, after 10 years, I am beginning to warm to (American) football and still looking for a team.

MCB welcomes Dr. William Eggleston, Program Director for the Genetic Mechanisms Cluster

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and Director of the Integrative Life Sciences PhD Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I had been a faculty member since 1993.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

A desire to serve the community, to give back to NSF, to expand my knowledge, to recharge my research, to challenge myself, and based on visits as a panelist, to work with a group of great people who enjoyed working with one another.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

A large organization with lots of very competent, very organized, very busy folks enjoying what they do, and doing their best to serve the scientists and citizens of the US. Nope, my impression has not changed other than to be even more impressed with how well NSF is organized, coordinated, and team-based.

What were the personal goals you most wanted to accomplish while at NSF?

Recharge my research and get at least two manuscripts written and submitted for publication, decide on where and how to move my research forward, get my weight down and health under control, and decide on the direction for the next phase of my professional career, between research/ academia, or continued public service in science policy.

What surprised you most about working at NSF?

The high amount of turnover due to large number of rotating program staff and how this impacts the teams, and how much of the job involves being offsite for teleworking, outreach, conferences and independent research and development (IR/D). I also was delighted that my past experience as a leader and with helping others learn about leadership skills has been recognized, appreciated and leveraged. I also am thrilled that the MCB leadership is working to continue to improve all aspects of the division.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotating program director?

As a rotator, the biggest challenge is being away from home most of the week. Communication with my current student actually is better because we are more organized and efficient during our scheduled chats and meeting each week. The other major challenge was balancing the on-boarding, training, and getting ready for the first panel during the first three weeks of being here. Getting guidance and information was easy, prioritizing what needed to be done first and what could wait was more challenging, but I received lots of guidance once I asked.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

That NSF has a great work environment, is hugely intellectually stimulating, and that the work being done is meaningful, valuable, and valued. To rotators, I would add that NSF makes every possible effort to ensure (and encourage) continuation and enhancement of scholarship while here through IR/D and makes it possible to be home more than I expected through teleworking. I also would add that people here care and look out for one another. Since arriving, pretty much every night that I am here late, I am reminded of finding a better work-life balance, in a caring way. I did not expect that, and VERY much appreciate the genuine sentiment.

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

All of them have been thrilled, knowing that being chosen to work here, even for a short time, is a great honor. Those who know me best have commented that this very much fits with my current outlook on career and life, which has become focused on service and giving back. My wife has commented that I look no less tired, but instead of the worry lines, I now have far more smile lines than even just a month ago, and that yes, I have lost some weight since being here.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Being here has been all that I had hoped it would be and more, and I thank everyone for their help, smiles, patience, guidance and more patience as I get up to speed. I am really, really, really pleased to be here after deciding to take a chance to do something very different from what I was doing six weeks ago.  I am greatly looking forward to the rest of my time in MCB.

MCB welcomes Dr. Ranajeet Ghose, Program Director for the Molecular Biophysics Cluster.

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the City College of New York.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

The reason was two-fold: (1) Being a program director allows one to learn about science at the cutting edge beyond ones area of expertise. (2) The NSF has provided me with uninterrupted funding since 2004 starting with a CAREER award. This is an opportunity for me to give back.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator/program director?

My first impression was very positive and it continues to be so. There are some incredibly bright people working here who are quick to realize (and fund) the next big innovation.

What were the personal goals you most wanted to accomplish while at NSF?

Get a broader view of science, in general and molecular biophysics, in particular. This is an opportunity one rarely has in one’s research lab.

What surprised you most about working at NSF?

Nothing really. I have served on multiple panels in the PHY, CHEM and BIO directorates and have been a Committee of Visitors member in the past.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator/program director?

It takes a little while to realize that one is not a panelist when running panels. One has to take great care not to editorialize and let the panelists do their job.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

They should absolutely do it. It would give them an unprecedented opportunity to get a broad view of science than they normally would.

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

They worry that my own research may be affected. I tell them that with the Independent Research/Development (IR/D) program and flexible work hours (for an IPA assignee), it allows me to continue my research uninterrupted and supervise my students and postdocs. It actually forces me to organize my time better and perhaps makes me more productive.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

I would say that this is a great place to work for rotators. The staff and other program directors are fabulous. I expect to leave the NSF a better scientist and a better manager.